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Wigging Out

With artist Loren Schwerd, it's hair today and gone tomorrow.

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The effects of Hurricane Katrina New Orleans were witnessed by the world. The aftermath and subsequent efforts to rebuild became celebrity causes and elicited numerous calls to action. But slowly, time moved past the initial tragedy and the sounds for remembrance have grown quiet. Artist Loren Schwerd, however, still mourns.

In her latest show, “Loren Schwerd: Mourning Portraits,” the associate professor of sculpture at Louisiana State University has taken the image of ruined remains and combined them with a antique mourning practice in an attempt to connect the people with their homes again.

Schwerd works with photographs taken from vacant houses and businesses in New Orleans' 9th Ward. She uses wire mesh to create a skewed frame of the original photograph, then applies hair gathered from beauty supply stores through braiding techniques until the two objects fuse as one. The final result is what she refers to as a “portrait of the vacant house.” Schwerd claims these sculptural scenes are a series of memorials. The hair extensions included in the works are found objects once discovered outside the St. Claude Beauty supply store in the 9th Ward.

The act of retaining and using hair as a community mourning technique predates the 16th century, and the art of hair work saw its greatest popularity in the early 1900s. At that time it became fashionable for women to learn the art of crafting hair into jewelry and other tokens of remembrance. The craft became a drawing room pastime akin to crocheting and needlepoint.

Prior to the fashionable trend, mourning jewelry made from human hair was a staple symbol of guaranteed immortality for those still living and those about to die.  In the United States hair jewelry caught on just as the Civil War began. Young soldiers would leave locks of hair with their families' as they left home to fight. Upon the soldiers' death, the hair would be made into pieces of mourning jewelry.

Schwerd's combination of the photograph and hairwork goes beyond the ornamental fabrication of hair. At times her braiding on the mesh simply mimics the shape of the original design, and merely fills it out. While the concept is interesting in its final placement the greatest effect comes when the hair is presented as an addition to the house and not blended so much into the object itself. It is this confrontation of the two objects -- house and hair -- that offers a more profound remembrance. It is better to wonder why the hair is placed the way it is and not just in the creation of shape. When the hair is used as a means of giving life to the sculptures, it retains the original power that has attracted humankind to its preservation for generations.

“Loren Schwerd: Mourning Portraits” will be on display until June 6 at the Visual Arts Center of Richmond, 1812 W. Main St. Visit visarts.org or call 353-0094 for details.

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