Gimme a Head With Hair

“Rachel Portesi: Hair Portraits” at Brattleboro Museum

I learned to relax and enjoy art more once I realized I didn’t necessarily have to understand its every nuance. And I’m always intrigued by artists who work in unexpected media. The new exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center features Vermont artist Rachel Portesi, who constructs works of art from human hair, even as it remains attached to the human head from which it grows.

Anthropologists have noted that hair may be treated and styled differently from culture to culture, but there is virtually no culture in which hair is ignored. BMAC speaks about this new exhibition as follows. “Curated by BMAC Chief Curator Mara Williams, “Hair Portraits” reflects on the fact that since the beginning of human history, hair has held symbolic, cultural, and emotional significance. . . Hair’s inextricable link to identity is rooted in the fact that it is one of the only aspects of an individual’s appearance over which they can have near-full control. It can be dyed, cut, braided, worn in the form of a wig or extensions, concealed, shaven off, or styled endlessly.”

Portesi’s tintype photos are the end product of her artistic process, and form the basis of BMAC’s exhibition. Here are the details of how she constructs each work:

Each tintype photograph in “Hair Portraits” is the culmination of hours Portesi spends making a collaborative “hair sculpture” with the model as the model stands against a wall. The subject’s hair is fastened to the wall with push pins, intricately intertwined with symbolic objects such as fresh flowers, twigs, large plant fronds, family heirlooms and mementos, and additional flora from Portesi’s garden and a nearby flower farm. Several of the “hair sculptures” also use ceiling-suspended fishing line for additional volume. 

Want to know more? Join Rachel Portesi for an online talk via Zoom and Facebook on November 18 at 7:00 p.m, link available through BMAC’s website. Rachel Portesi: Hair Portraits is on view at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in Brattleboro VT through February 14, 2021. Further information about the artist can be found on her website. And here’s an interesting review of “Hair Portraits” in Vogue.UK in which Portesi talks about the prevalence of grey ponytails in Vermont.

(Title of this post is taken from the song “Hair” from the musical of the same name. For a look at that iconic album cover and a listen to the recording from the original Broadway production, click here.)

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Susan B. Apel retired from a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.