Writer Maya Clark presents illuminating interviews with the hair stylists featured in Sonya Clark’s Hair Craft Project on view at 1708 Gallery February 14 through March 8, 2014.
Led by artist Sonya Clark, Hair Craft Project was based on the premise that hairdressing is the primordial textile art form—hairdressing is the earliest manipulation of fiber toward an aesthetic and functional purpose.
For Hair Craft Project, artists from VCU’s Craft and Material Studies program prepared canvases—each hand stitched with threads to simulate hair growth. Local hairstylists were given a stitched canvas and the opportunity to braid them as skillfully and creatively as possible.
Photographs that depict the stylists’ signature styles created for the project were shown in conjunction with the canvases. The featured stylists were 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.
Hair Craft Project aimed to break down barriers by crossing boundaries between hair salons and art galleries as sites of aesthetics, craft, skill, improvisation, and commerce.
The stories featured here were compiled by Maya Smart.
“I didn’t know I could braid like I could. I was just doing my friend’s hair and discovered that I had a gift. I could draw in somebody’s hair.”
Jamilah Williams has a rare ability to render complex geometric designs in hair. Her artistry, already acknowledged among hair braiders, is now attracting notice with a wider audience. One that is less concerned with hair, per se, than with artistic expression, design sensibility and fine craft.
Her first brush with [social media] fame came through YouTube videos depicting her braiding the hair of R&B crooner Trey Songz several years ago. More recently, shots of her work [on Sonya’s head] went viral on Pinterest and Instagram and were the subject of the Mobile Gallery exhibit in Venice, Italy.
Williams says her work has been personally transformative. “It’s changed my life and how I think,” she explains.
Naturals Salon and Spa
“Think about all of the different styles that we unleash on clients’ hair. None of us have been to Africa, but some of our styles speak volumes, maybe, of our ancestors.”
Chaunda King is on a mission to help her clients improve their health and self-esteem. She’s worked exclusively with natural hair since 2007 and urges women to abandon chemical styling techniques that are harmful to their hair and health.
King hails from Brooklyn, a natural hair care mecca, and says Richmond has been slow to embrace the movement. Far too many women still think that long, luxurious (often over-treated) hair will equal social acceptance, she says.
“I tell my clients that your hair, whether it be straight or curly or kinky, that doesn’t make you who you are,” King says. “Number one, you have to love yourself. Then, you have to like the way you look.”
Dionne James Eggleston
Essence of Braiding and Weaving Hair Studio
“Our hair is our glory. When a women comes in with no hair because of medication or chemo and I’m able to make her look really, really beautiful, that’s rewarding.”
Queens native Dionne James Eggleston learned the art and trade of hair braiding from her mother and grandmother.
By 6, she was braiding her own hair and by 14 she was a budding entrepreneur with a sizable clientele. At 20, she left New York for Richmond, determined to open the area’s first natural hair care center. “I didn’t know anyone,” she recalls. “I guess God led me here.”
The move proved fruitful. After a brief stretch working in a traditional salon, she quickly set up her own operation. Soon, she was selling instructional DVDs, teaching braiding seminars and advertising in national hair magazines. Today, she runs a state-accredited academy that offers courses in cosmetology, natural hair care, nail technology, barbering and waxing. Still the entrepreneur, Eggleston also imports human hair from India, Brazil, Malaysia and China.
“I enjoy working with natural hair. It’s the kink and the twist and the natural curl that I love because they’re so unique to everyone.”
Ife Robinson has been honing her skills since her mother taught her to braid blades of grass as a little girl. She became a licensed professional stylist while still a teenager.
Chemically based styles predominated, but Ife moved her salon in a different direction, led by a growing personal commitment to conscious living and better health. She began to wear her hair in a short natural style, unaltered by dyes or other chemicals.
Many of her clients followed her lead and today long, natural locs flow down her back and many of theirs. “Everybody’s natural hair is special,” Ife says. “It’s special to them. Just the curve and the snap is what excites me.”
Silk Hair Studios
“I love being able to create something with my hands. I love the transformation of it.”
At six years old, Natasha Superville reached for her dad’s giant afro and began interweaving sections, one after the other. It was her first act as a natural hair stylist. She remembers marveling at his hair’s soft texture and her own creativity. She even considered adding bows, but thought they might not be his style.
As a professional, she brings that same zeal to her clients, and adds a touch of continuing hair education.
“Natural hair takes time,” she says—and not only styling time. Many clients have to travel a long road to accept their own hair without the relaxing influence of chemicals. She’s thrilled to lead them on that journey.
Ancient Techniques Natural Haircare Center
“I love working with the texture of nappy hair, because it can be molded and you can actually get it to do just about anything that you can imagine. It’s versatile.”
Nasirah Muhammed grew up before hair relaxers became widespread, so she recalls a childhood filled with cornrows, natural hair, and press and curls for special occasions.
Today’s natural hair community is quite different, though. “I have to keep up with all the bloggers and YouTubers,” she says. “It’s a whole other game.”
She recently launched a Blog Talk Radio show to reach new audiences, but her focus on hair and simple, natural products hasn’t changed at all. “I like making people feel good when they know their hair is looking good, is taken care of properly and is healthy,” she says. “That’s what I love about it.”
“I like creating a different look that people don’t think they can obtain. It makes me feel good to help people feel good about themselves.”
As a child, Ingrid Riley’s beauty shop banter won her a spot as a shampoo girl at a local salon. That apprenticeship led her to study cosmetology at the Richmond Technical Center, and professional work in the field since 1989.
Riley says she always resisted using chemicals in children’s hair, and over time many of their mothers started to inquire about natural styles for themselves. Impressed by the strength and length of their daughter’s hair, they wondered if abandoning chemicals could help them too.
“I think that a lot of people look at being natural as a trend,” she says. “I feel like it’s a lifestyle.”
Naturals Salon and Spa
“I was intent on using my creative talents. Hair has always been a creative expression for me.”
Kamala Bhagat hails from an artistic family. Her mother makes African dolls and complex styles for her own hair.
Bhagat does hair and also designs clothes. In hair shows, she found the perfect fusion of her two crafts. She says that seeing her creations draping the heads and bodies of models motivates her to new efforts in both pursuits.
As a natural hair stylist, she specializes in intricate braids and two-strand twist styles. Her greatest enjoyment comes when clients let her freestyle and bring forth whatever her imagination conjures.
All Eyes on You
“I wanted to learn to take care of hair instead of just doing it. I wanted to learn how to keep it healthy and strong … bring it back to life.”
Marsha Johnson began honing her artistic eye long before she chose hair care as a profession. In elementary school, she sketched scenes from daily life. Later she studied commercial drawing and decorated cakes.
Whatever the medium, she says she’s moved by an impulse to foster dramatic transformation. If a client arrives with dry, brittle or breaking hair, she seeks to entirely remake it, strengthen it and foster its growth.
But that’s not all. She wants the hair’s newfound beauty to register in the eyes of those who behold it. She wants witnesses to nod in recognition of its artistry and say, “I see.” Her business name, All Eyes on You, captures the sentiment.
Braids and Dreds
“The thing that excites me the most about doing hair is how creative I can be, even if faced with a challenging client. Sometimes I go into it not knowing how it’s going to end, and the result amazes me.”
Anita Hill-Moses has been styling hair professionally since 1989. Today she says her passion is to show women that their hair can grow back after trauma.
She specializes in restoring hair lost due to scalp scarring from chemical styling and pulled-too-taut braids, weaves and ponytails. She also works to educate the next generation of stylists to prevent such damage in the first place.
“A style might look great, but hair is more than a look,” she says “Is it healthy? Is it too tight? As a stylist, you have to love people and want people to feel good and be well when they leave your chair.”
Jasmine & Jameika Pollard
Silk Hair Studio
Sisters Jasmine and Jameika Pollard collaborated for their contribution to the project. Jameika’s work is featured in the photograph and Jasmine completed the canvas.
“I’m inspired by looking at other people’s work and thinking of what I can add that people don’t usually see—braiding a flower or a word.”
Jasmine Pollard credits her older sister Jameika with introducing her to professional hairstyling as a career choice. Jasmine trained to be a dental assistant but now uses the steadiness, precision and interpersonal skills honed in that field to assist a different clientele with braids, twists and weaves.
Ever-creative, Pollard enjoyed the challenge of working on a canvas for The Hair Craft Project, instead of a head. Its distinctive tension helped her part the fibers in new ways. As a result, she was able to incorporate letters into her design—something she’d never done on a person’s head before. Since then, she’s braided the word
“love” on a client.
“It makes me feel good that people are liking my work. It shows me that I should keep doing what I’m doing and just try to keep bettering myself.”
Maya Smart is a globetrotting writer who has written for such publications as Black Enterprise, CNNMoney.com, ESSENCE, Fortune Small Business and more. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies from Harvard University, and a Master of Science in Journalism from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Through her website, she presents an eclectic mix of advice, trend spotting and social commentary inspired by her daily life. Her stylist bios for 1708 gallery reflect her interest in supporting local Richmond culture and admirable women. Previously, she was a business journalist for publications ranging from local weeklies to national mega-sites. She also taught freelancers how to run profitable writing businesses in workshops for the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism at Arizona State University, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.
Maya Smart’s interview with Sonya Clark can be found at her personal website.
Sonya Clark holds an MFA from the Cranbrook Academy of Art, a BFA from the Art Institute of Chicago, and a BA in psychology from Amherst College. Her work has been exhibited in over 250 museums and galleries in Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, Australia, and throughout the USA. She has been granted such honors and opportunities as a Pollock-Krasner Award, a Rockefeller Foundation Residency in Italy, a Red Gate Residency in China, a Wisconsin Arts Board Fellowship, a Virginia Commission for the Arts Fellowship, a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Award, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship in Italy, and most recently has been made a United States Artist Fellow. Currently, she chairs the Department of Craft/Material Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Formerly, she was a Baldwin-Bascom Professor of Creative Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Images courtesy of Naoko Wowsugi, Diego Valdez, and Taylor Dabney.