The Power of Hair

altheaWe’ve all had one. A day where you feel like your fate is sealed before you even step out the door. A day where you feel less than confident and not like yourself. A day where you think everyone’s looking at you and judging you.

You know, a bad hair day.

Althea Murphy-Price, associate professor in the printmaking program—ranked second in the nation—remembers a bad hair day when she was a teenager. While getting ready for work, she used a new hair product that left her curls in a tangled mess. She and her mom tried furiously to untangle the knots but failed, and she felt she had no choice but to call off that day.

Murphy-Price didn’t go to work not because her physical appearance wasn’t at its optimum but because her hair represented who she was—her heritage and culture. Her hair was her identity. “This was a really defining moment in understanding my relationship to the world because it signified a restriction, or even more challenging, a limitation. Although I made the decision to stay at home that day, it felt like society made the decision for me,” she explained.

Murphy-Price spent much of her childhood in Louisiana where hair was a central anchoring point to their day-to-day lives.

“What you did, where you went, what activities you were willing to do had to do with that simple element—hair,” she said.

Indeed, throughout history, hair has been used as a powerful symbol of pride, shame, faith, even politics. For example, women after the Battle of France in 1940 were punished for having relations with German soldiers by having their heads shaved. During the Civil Rights era, the “afro” became a political symbol for black pride. Hair was even the subject of a successful Broadway musical during the Vietnam War era.

This power of hair has long fascinated Murphy-Price—particularly the role it plays in defining beauty—something that dates back to Biblical times where a woman’s hair was referred to as her “crowning glory.” Thus, hair has become a focal point for her art.

“I love all the different connotations it has—as a symbol of assimilation, gender, beauty, and identity,” she said.

Using manufactured and human hair in prints and soft sculptures, Murphy-Price explores hair’s role in the interpretation of beauty. She aims for her work to invoke questions such as, what does it mean to be beautiful? What defines our sense of beauty? What role does hair play in perceiving ourselves and others? Of these perceptions, what’s real and what’s fake?

Like many artists, the professor draws a lot of inspiration from her own experiences. For example, she got an idea for a piece from her two daughters who asked why they had to have their hair fixed when others could wear it as is.

“I started to think about how early we learn about ourselves, gender roles, and associations with what’s acceptable and what it means to be pretty,” she explained.

These thoughts were translated into a collage of forms, sculptures, and screen-printed colorful, shiny, and glassy images that look like colorful bows, berets, and play things.

Another of her series features hair wigs made of felted wool and hair meant to look like church hats. The work ties back to her childhood memories of Sundays where women wore regal yet outrageous hats to church.

“These hats were a spectacle yet functional and I wanted my work to exist in a similar way,” she said. “I wanted to explore this sense of obligation and ritual we have in how we dress and present ourselves.”

Her work has been exhibited around the world from Chicago to China. To create much of it, Murphy-Price uses an unconventional approach to the process of lithography—in which ink prints are made from a flat surface—where she manipulates the hair itself and uses a photolithographic method to expose its image onto a printable surface for reproduction. The method allows Murphy-Price to create prints that capture the likeness of hair in extreme detail and complexity. It also continues her exploration of the role hair plays in defining our identities.

“Because the exposure captures an almost photographic resemblance onto a printable surface, I can create prints that trick the eye into believing that the printed image looks more real than the hair itself,” she said.

“This deceptive quality allows me another way of communicating an idea of hair as a false identity.”

Early on Murphy-Price used mostly traditional materials in her art, but in graduate school she was introduced to the idea to use hair. Instantly, her world of expression burst open. Today, she tries to enable the same eye-opening experience for her students by encouraging them to experiment with new ways of expressing themselves.

“I try to facilitate projects that allow for lots of trial and error and opportunities for work to achieve multiple different outcomes,” she said.

Clearly, Murphy-Price is inspired by her materials, her medium, and her content. Moreover, her works remind us of the value of all works of art to offer the engaged viewer new ways of thinking about the world.