Paper, Skin, & Hair: Maria Vonn in the StudioJune 20, 2014
In the papermaking studio, Maria Vonn pulls and couches a thin sheet of flax. From a small pile, she tugs loose a handful of strands from what used to be the dark, thick ponytail of a friend. In careful loops, she presses the hair into the wet pulp, repeating the process until she is satisfied with the swirling composition. Then she pulls another sheet and couches it on top of the first, creating what she affectionately calls a “hair sandwich.”
An MFA student at SUNY New Paltz with an illustration background, Maria uses hair as line, embedding abstract forms directly into sheets of handmade paper. “For someone who is so very uncomfortable with hair,” she says, “there’s something about pressing it into a shape that I find surprisingly cathartic.”
For the last several months, Maria has been working with a material she finds maddening: touching it, shaping it, trying to contain it between sheets of paper or in sculptural forms. The process is charged with autobiography; it’s born of Maria’s own experiences with the repetitive, compulsive body-focused disorders dermatillomania (the picking of skin) and trichotillomania (the pulling of hair).
“I realized that the best way to approach making work about something that makes me uncomfortable was to physically work with that material,” says Maria, who began by sculpting hair (using lots of Aqua Net) into nests and cocoons–one so big she could crawl inside. Since then, she’s experimented with ways to “draw” with hair.
With a Creative Research Grant from SUNY, Maria rented the WSW papermaking studio for a few days in March to get a crash course in the potential of paper. In less than a week, she pulled over twenty sheets and cast a couple dozen abaca pods, incorporating strands of hair into the forms. In the paper, Maria built up her lines by sandwiching together several layers of abaca and hair–then in a violent reductive process tweezed the hair out of the sheets, leaving the paper ripped and gouged. (The hair is placed in a vial presented next to the paper.)
“Working with paper has been great because I wanted to create my own ‘skin’ surface,” she says. “For me, paper has really become a substitute for skin.”
This time around, for her three-week Workspace Residency, Maria’s “skin” is made from flax, which forms sheets that look more leathery and hide-like than feathery abaca. When it comes to hair, Maria doesn’t discriminate: short or long, men’s or women’s, light or dark, she’ll work with whatever she can get her hands on. She brought about five pounds of hair to WSW: some is horsehair bought from a farm in Ohio, and some is human hair donated from a friend’s haircut and from her own recent trim.
Human hair is softer and felts more easily than coarse, wiry horsehair; in using it Maria gets a softer line and can play more with value and weight. Whereas before her residency she built up several layers of wispy, splayed strands to create loose, delicate movement, Maria is now focusing on intentional, looping compositions underpinned by geometric structures.
Like the work of many other contemporary artists using hair as their medium, Maria’s projects rely on a duality of attraction and repulsion; a desire to come closer coupled with what Maria calls “the creep factor” (the immediate backing up people do when they realize the piece they’re looking at is made of real, actual hair). That hair carries somatic associations and elicits strong reactions is exactly why Maria employs it. “I want to communicate a sensation that people relate that to their own bodily experience,” she says.
Maria works quickly and fearlessly. She isn’t precious and she isn’t bothered by pieces that don’t end up working. And with one year left of her program at SUNY New Paltz, she has big plans. “I feel like I have a much stronger direction now,” she says. “This is the most satisfying artmaking experience I’ve ever had and I’m really excited to see where this could go.”
As she wraps up her residency, only one tedious task remains: “I’m going to be spending my last day of clean up plucking stray hairs out of pelons.”
Maria Vonn is a Hudson Valley-based artist with a BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, where she studied illustration and book arts. She will complete her MFA at SUNY New Paltz in Spring 2015. She is inspired by Eva Hesse and the Wenda Gu, and her motto is “Fail forward”. For more about Maria’s work, find her on the web at www.mariavonn.com and follow her on Instagram (@mariavonn) and Twitter (@vonndraws). See more images of her residency here.