When Jenine Shereos was hiking in California a few years ago, the Boston-based artist noticed something that stopped her in her tracks: a decomposing maple leaf with only its lace-like veins remaining.
She immediately started collecting these “skeleton leaves.” Around the same time, Shereos was experimenting with human hair as an artistic medium. She already had embroidered long strands from her brunette locks in a root-like pattern for a pillow and stitched them into books, like lines of text.
Fallen leaves. Fallen hair. For Shereos, the parallel of nature was obvious. So she set about re-creating the skeleton leaves using human hair.
The resulting sculpture, “Leaves,” consists of four maple leaves rendered in brown hair. It recently won first place in “Small Expressions 2012,” a juried show of small-scale works on view at the Long Beach Museum of Art through Aug. 12.
The leaves look remarkably real. The only clue of their origin is a wisp of hair that extends from the points of each leaf. The work conjures a sense of decay, and the effect is ghostly.
“I love the idea of working with an everyday material that you would think of as maybe even kind of gross and transforming that into something completely different than what it was before,” Shereos said.
To call this process laborious is an understatement. Shereos threads each strand of hair through a needle and then stitches it onto a water-soluble backing in an embroidery hoop. She ties a knot each time a hair intersects another piece of hair, so that the framework can hold its shape after the backing is dissolved. Each leaf takes months to complete.
Shereos, whose influences include the Victorian-era practice of weaving human hair into bracelets, necklaces and rings to mourn the deceased, admitted that human hair does have an "ick" factor.
“A lot of times, if it’s in the drain, in the shower or in your food, I do get grossed out by that,” she said.
But working with human hair has become so ordinary for Shereos that she has a drawer in her studio devoted to hair collected from friends and salons.
“Small Expressions” curator Carol Shaw-Sutton, an art professor at Cal State Long Beach, where Shereos earned her master’s in fine art, does not consider weaving with hair to be unusual at all.
“Hair is the basis of fiber,” she said, noting that people use animal hair when spinning wool. Shereos’ work is a reminder of “a history of a really basic connection with nature.”
“Clay is the earth, wood is the forest and fiber is hair,” Shaw-Sutton said. “It’s elemental.”
“Small Expressions 2012” runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Fridays through Sundays, through Aug. 12 at the Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors and students. Admission is free 5 to 8 p.m. Thursdays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Fridays. (562) 439-2119.