Craft Hair Project Bridges the Gap Between Hair Salon and Art Gallery

by | Mar 5, 2014 | ART

Sonya Clark is the current chair of the Craft and Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Sonya Clark is the current chair of the Craft and Material Studies Department at Virginia Commonwealth University. She earned an MFA from Cranbrook Academy of Art, a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a BA in psychology from Amherst College. Together with an appreciation for the handmade and the value of a well-told story, Clark was inspired for her latest exhibition at 1708 Gallery, The Hair Craft Project.

The project is based around the idea of hairdressing as the earliest form of textile art. Hair is manipulated by stylists for aesthetics or functionality, much like any other material one might find today in the Craft and Material Studies Department.

Word of mouth led Clark to hair stylists from around the area with whom she worked: Kamala Bhagat, Dionne James Eggleston, Marsha Johnson, Chaunda King, Anita Hill Moses, Nasirah Muhammad, Jameika Pollard, Ingrid Riley, Ife Robinson, Natasha Superville, and Jamilah Williams. All deeply motivated by the healthy and natural beauty of hair, these stylists were given Clark’s own head of hair to manipulate into their unique masterpieces. Clark would then go about her daily life showcasing each work of art until the next hair masterpiece was completed.

Artists from the Craft and Material Studies Department also hand stitched canvases with threads similar to that of a head of hair so the stylists could replicate their familiar art form on a less familiar surface. The results were just as stunning.

Photographs documenting each stylist’s hairdo are shown at 1708 in conjunction with their canvases, bridging the gap between hair salon and art gallery. The show will be up until March 8. The stylists, initially unaware of themselves as artists, now see their salons as the place where art happens. They are the artists—they are the orchestrators of aesthetics, craft, skill, improvisation, and commerce.

Last Thursday, February 27, juror A’Lelia Bundles presented at the gallery. Memorably, Bundles introduced the story of her great-great-grandmother, America’s first self-made female millionaire and famous entrepreneur Madame C.J. Walker. She began a business in 1911 for correcting and preventing hair loss after trying a remedy for herself inspired from a dream. Walker’s “rags to riches” success story shows just how important hair has been as both an image of beauty and an art form. Clark’s featured stylists seek to continue Walker’s vision in The Hair Craft Project as well as their own daily salon practices.

Artist, professor, and art critic Bill Gaskins also spoke on the evening of February 27. He presented his work in photography and, most notably, the commotion caused by his photograph, Tamara and Tireka, Baltimore. Gaskins reported many uneasy and even offended responses to the image featuring two black women with big, stylized hair on their way to church on Easter Sunday. He was accused of photographing “whores,” and the image was deemed inappropriate to show. Gaskins wondered how these two women might have been treated face to face if this was the reaction incited from a simple photograph.

Hair has not only been an important part of history, but how we wear it also determines a lot about who we are and how we interact with each other. Not until very recently has natural, healthy, curly hair been embraced in the black community. And we still have a long way to go.

Thursday, March 6 at 5:30pm, another gallery talk with Henry Drewal, Ruti Talmor, and juror Lowery Stokes Sims will be held at 1708 Gallery. The stylists will be in attendance, along with Sonya Clark herself. You do not want to miss this event. If the speakers are anywhere near the caliber of the last, you will be glad you stopped by.

While you and yours are at 1708 for a perfect date night, remember to vote for your favorite canvas design and hairdo for the People’s Choice Award. The results will be in the last day of the show, March 8. Make sure your favorite stylist wins!

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner

Brad Kutner is the former editor of GayRVA and RVAMag from 2013 - 2017. He’s now the Richmond Bureau Chief for Radio IQ, a state-wide NPR outlet based in Roanoke. You can reach him at

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