Spencer Merolla​

What was your relationship to hair before you started creating with it?

My parents had a book about strange collections, and I remember seeing a photo in it of a lock of hair that belonged to Henry VIII. That made a strong impression on me — hair as a personal token that survived that many years later.

When did you first decide to use hair? Was it inspired by your knowledge of its use during the Victorian era, or vice versa?

The Victorian history of it was always in the back of my mind. I’d wanted to use hair for years; I saved some from a haircut once and had some that I purchased as well. But I didn’t want to replicate the craft as the Victorians practiced it. I wanted to develop something new. it’s challenging to work with and took me some time to find a technique I liked.

Why use hair? What other parts of the human have you considered using?

​Hair has a long history, especially in the days before photography, as being a token of friendship and remembrance. It’s distinctive in the fact that it can be severed from the body without causing harm, and it’s more individually recognizable than, say, a fingernail. But mostly for the historical practice by which it became an abstraction, a synecdoche of a person. I’m not really interested in using other parts of people, and while I have a certain fascination with the use of human parts as reliquaries, it’s important to me that the hairwork doesn’t step into the realm of the macabre or the morbid. It was really just commonplace, like a wallet photo or an autograph.

How many different shapes and forms have you presented hair in?

It’s always flat, creating a sense of dimensionality from the changes in the direction of the “grain,” as in wood parquetry. I’m drawn, as with the funeral clothes project, to pattern and geometry. For one thing, pattern is a predictable, comforting arrangement of shapes, which is a good foil to the messy and chaotic nature of human emotion (particularly grief.) For another, it’s a contrast to the often fussy, florid Victorian style. I tried to imagine, aesthetically, what it would be like if we engaged in this sentimental craft today.

How do you select the hair you will use? How often do you end up not using the hair that you receive?

I’m fortunate enough to have more hair than I know what to do with! I select for color, length and texture. it really needs to be naturally straight or straightened to work with this technique.

What objects do you think we use, that might be comparable to the use of hair in grieving during the Victorian era?

First, hair was not just for grieving in the Victorian era. Hair  jewelry and hair crafts were used to depict relationships and as tokens of affection between living people. It just so happens that all those people are dead now.

I think we use social media in new and interesting ways to convey or sentimentality and grief. It’s not socially permissible to walk around telling everyone that you’re thinking of your lost loved one on a given day, but I see more and more examples of people sharing photos and tributes on Facebook and Instagram, sometimes even addressing the deceased directly. It’s as if we suppressed this aspect of our experience so thoroughly that it just bubbled up to the surface by way of technology.

What mediums are best or worst to use alongside hair?

Hair expands with moisture, like wood, so working it this way is a challenge. It’s an incredibly durable material, which is why so much antique hairwork survives.

​What was creating your first Hairworks piece like?

It was awesome. One of those moments when everything clicked. I had been looking at tiles for our bathroom and thinking a lot about the pattern and I had an idea for how to put it together. I had some hair lying around from a failed experiment, and I couldn’t even wait to get in the studio. I made it on the kitchen counter!

In Hairworks I and II, you use only natural hair colors. Have you thought about using dyed hair color, in bright hues as well?

The natural colors feel somewhat timeless to me; it’s continuity with the earlier practice, but mostly I just love the variation provided by nature. It’s interesting to me that hair is basically translucent, and the variation in shade is mostly a function of a single pigment. So I end up having to use more blonde hair to build up color than I do dark brown or black. Grey hair is so translucent it sometimes disappears entirely.

What is the most or least frustrating part about working with hair?

It frizzes, it gets all over everything, and for all that work, often times people still think it’s wood when they see they finished product!

Walk me through Developments, and why this piece is so significantly different in that it is so dark, in comparison to the rest of Hairworks I, which show the use of contrast.

I wanted to see how much dimensionality I could create without relaying on color, just by varying the angle of the grain. When you walk past it, the light plays over the surface of each of the fan shapes. It looks very sculptural, despite being a totally two-dimensional object.

I’m looking at your series, Funeral Clothes and I’m just thinking about how, in western society, black is worn at funerals as opposed to Eastern cultures, where you’re more likely to wear white. Have you considered using apparel that isn’t black?

I know that the tradition of wearing black is specific to my cultural background, and I don’t mean to imply that it is universal. There are a couple of reasons why I’ve mostly stuck with black — one is that on a formal level, I’m continually intrigued by the way (the color) black interacts with light; how using only black makes the work about texture and the qualities of the different surfaces. The other reason is that the work is personal in nature, and I can only speak authentically from my own experience. I can’t say what it feels like to grieve in a different cultural context, and I don’t want to presume to be an authority on something I’m not.

Funeral Clothes brings great attention to how we grieve. How important is the grieving process? 

I think the grieving process is a critical part of being a sentient, mortal being. I don’t know whether it lasts forever, it’s an iterative process and while it seems to mostly abate after a certain point, it pays surprise visits time and time thereafter. This is the source of the title of the series: grief wanes “after a fashion” in the sense that it never completely disappears (and of course the title is also a reference to the clothing which is no longer worn.)

In her memoir about the loss of her mother, Meghan O’Rourke describes it as a “tree growing around an obstruction” —- it becomes part of who you are forever. This is a stark contrast to the idea that time heals all wounds — we don’t heal them so much as to learn to integrate them.

It is my hope that this project brings attention to the fact that grief as a process and is a near universal experience that needn’t require so much isolation — that it’s possible to offer one another comfort in this shared part of being human. We live in a culture of relentless positivity, in which grief (and illness) appear threatening, as if acknowledging their continued impact on us is a kind of character failing. In other times and places, that’s been the case. ​

Do you accept commissions?

Yes, as long as time and materials permit. I would be glad to do a commissioned piece, however it depends on the kind of work; it might not always be possible due to limited supply of materials. Be sure to contact me to see.

Thanks for sharing with us Spencer!