The Human Hair Jewelry by Melanie Bilenker Is Anything But Macabre

human hair jewelry by melanie bilenker

Artist Melanie Bilenker makes jewelry with human hair, but quite different from the jewelry made with human hair by Kerry Howley we shared with you years back. No, this is a contemporary take on the Victorian tradition of Memorial Hair Jewelry and it’s as far from macabre as you can imagine.

Human Hair Jewelry by Melanie Bilenker

human hair jewelry by melanie bilenker
Scrubbing the shower (detail), human hair, paper, silver and glass
melanie bilenker brooch
Melanie Bilenker, brooch, hair on paper, gold and glass

If you’ve ever watched Antique’s Roadshow you’ve probably heard of Victorian Mourning Jewelry. A category that may sound depressing but, given the short lifespan and the fatal illnesses during that era (cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and scarlet fever), death was a constant companion to most. Therefore it wasn’t uncommon to wear jewelry as a “memento mori.” Memorial Hair Jewelry falls under that genre. Jewelry that contained locks of a loved one’s hair – was particularly popular during that time. The Victorians believed that hair contained something of the essence of the person and because it was enduring, it also symbolized immortality.

Double-sided brooches by Melanie Belinker
Double-sided brooches by Melanie Belinker

Melanie Bilenker has transformed the tradition of hair jewelry into a contemporary art genre and shifted the paradigm. While the human hair in her pieces still represents the person left behind, the form it takes is far less macabre. She depicts everyday moments of her own life in her work, turning the mundane into an unexpectedly interesting and wearable narrative.

Cookies, brooch
hair jewelry
Eucalyptus, necklace
melanie bilenker brooch made with her own hair
Cutting Bangs, brooch
Dogwood necklace
Dogwood necklace

Miniature portraits, wearable brooches, necklaces and other pieces feature self-portraits of the artist drawn with her own hair, glued strand by strand upon paper, and set in gold, silver, bronze and/ or wood.

human hair brooch
Chocolate, brooch
hair art
Milk, brooch
hair art melanie bilenker
Hair Art, portrait

The process is a fairly simple one (assuming you have good eyesight, impeccable craftsmanship and adroit hands). Melanie takes a photograph to use as source material for a line art drawing which she then recreates with strands of hair.

Melanie Bilenker, pencil drawing of legs
Melanie Bilenker, pencil drawing of legs
Melanie Bilenker, drawing translated into hair art
Melanie Bilenker, above drawing translated into hair art

A first glance her pieces have the look of old etched ivory or an asian ink drawing, but upon closer inspection the unique textures and hair are visible.

melanie bilenker hair jewelry
Forget me not necklace and hair art (detail)
Melanie Bilenker scrubbing the tub hair jewelry
Scrubbing The Tub necklace and hair art (detail)

At present Melanie’s work is on exhibit through the end of February at the Sienna Patti Contemporary in a solo show titled HomeWork.

hair jewelry by melanie bilenker
The artist posted the image above accompanied by the following personal words regarding the exhibit on her Instagram feed:

“I have long made artwork about the aggregate of our daily lives

a shrine to the lowly

a long gentle look at the seconds in between.

It feels strange to put my voice out in the world today when everything feels tumultuous, larger than life.

What has kept me going these many months is maintaining my interior focus, caring for my family and engaging in small ways as often as possible in our fight for social justice.

Despite it all, I will still repot the plants when they need it and fry eggs for dinner.

All this to say I am honored to announce that today, Sienna Patti has opened an exhibition of my recent works called HomeWork.

Perhaps as we try to keep one another safe by staying home, you will recognize your days too.

Thank you as always to Sienna, a longtime friend and partner in navigating art making.”

About the artist:

melanie bilenker Photo by Graham MacIndoe
Artist Melanie Bilenker, photo: Graham MacIndoe

Melanie Bilenker is an American artist based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, who translates the historic art of Victorian memorial hair jewelry into work that reflects upon the contemporary era. Instead of implementing the traditional decorative motifs of curls, plaits, and flowers, she depicts ordinary moments of everyday life through self portrait scenes “drawn” in her own hair and set in gold and silver. Bilenker received a BFA in Crafts and Jewelry from the University of the Arts, Philadelphia, and maintains a studio at the JV Collective, a collaborative jewelry workspace. Bilenker’s work has been exhibited nationally and internationally in solo and group exhibitions and can be found in numerous public collections.

Using a drawing technique inspired by historic hairwork, I glue individual strands to paper in an attempt to preserve and show fleeting time so that it can be revisited. I aim for authenticity, to make an image look the way it feels. Hair represents a person, intimacy, a moment left behind, something shed.

Follow Melanie on Instagram @melaniebilenker

Melanie Bilenker

all images courtesy of the artist and her Instagram

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