When a house made of human hair begins to run down, how do you touch it up?
The same way you would with living tresses: with hairspray, sparingly applied.
These are the sorts of questions artist Gráinne Bird confronts working on her project at 78th Street Studios, "Shelter," a toolshed-sized wooden house wrapped in over 300 pounds of human hair. Donated from 30 local salons and 100 private citizens, the clippings are pressed into bricks stacked along the outside walls and draped in a curtain over its steeped roof.
From ten paces away, "Shelter" looks like a pile of brown, square furs. Up closer, you notice the stray locks of blonde and red hair floating in the woven masses. The bricks feel like thick wool afghans, but looser and coarser.
Yes, you can touch it. No, you don't have to. Bird is frank in admitting the "repulsive" response her chosen material provokes.
"Even hairdressers were disgusted to be picking it up on the floor. It's dead human matter. It's taking human waste and making something out of it," Bird says.
However, she does not set out to shock viewers for the sake of shock. Close to her 2011 graduation from the Dublin Institute of Technology, Bird was initially drawn to human hair as a material for its aesthetic properties. She originally made pictures by applying it to 2D surfaces, but soon branched out to spinning, knitting and crocheting. The hairpieces in "Shelter" were made by subjecting layers of hair to heat and friction under soapy water. The end results are surprisingly compact; Bird says she hasn't had to give "Shelter" many hairspray touch-ups. "Shedding" hasn't been a big problem yet.
As she worked with it more, Bird came to appreciate hair beyond its visual virtues. When she started displaying, viewers would tell her various hair-related trivia ("It doesn't grow when you die, you lose moisture and your head shrinks, making hair look longer.") Bird realized how laden it was with personal and cultural values. Men and women crop, comb and sculpt it into prescribed shapes to fit in, or shave and dye for personal expression. Religions mandate or forbid cutting.
However, this part of our body, so important and admired while it is alive, becomes an object of disgust needing disposal once it leaves the head.
Bird hopes to nudge us away from this instinct of revulsion. She challenges viewers to take the things they value seriously, and try to make something beautiful or useful out of them after they have outlived their conventional purposes.
"It's about building something useful out of something people just discard," Bird says. "Everyone can connect with the material on some level."
A native of Kildare, Ireland, Bird came to Ohio in June 2012 on the invitation of Melissa Daubert of Interactive Works. Her residency will end the first of April, and "Shelter" is meant to both represent and pay tribute to the constructiveness of her interactions with Clevelanders.
"People were interested in improving. People here want to get things done and get on board with even an outlandish project," Bird says. The big hairpieces are made from countless individuals' clippings mixed together, representing a spirit of collaboration. Swathing a house in them is meant to reflect Midwestern hospitality.
"It's a reflection of being in Cleveland. People made me feel really at home," Bird says.
Bird's wish to force us to rethink the usefulness of what we throw away is timely in an era of climate crisis, and especially apt locally, where we're trying to figure out what to do with our obsolete industrial infrastructure. And her tribute to Cleveland's spirit of collaboration affirms a common ideal in the area's artistic community. We'd be best in accepting Bird's compliment like a big, itchy hug.
"Shelter" will be up through the weekend of March 9 at 1300 West 78th Street, Suite D. For more information, call 216-650-4201 or go to or gbird.net.