Insects From Hair and Fashion From Scratch: The Work of Adrienne Antonson
Adrienne Antonson is a Brooklyn based designer who is best known for turning human hair into sculptures of insects. Her pieces are so lifelike that Ripley’s Believe it or Not purchased the majority of them to put in their museum of oddities, an honor that most designers wouldn’t even consider possible. Recently she’s branched into designing clothing, purposefully using repossessed fabrics and patterns she developed through her sculptures. We sent writer Mike Abu into the depths of Brooklyn to find out more about Antonson’s work.
*It wasn’t until I’d boarded the second G train shuttle that I openly asked the question everyone else had been thinking.
“Are we dead?” I asked the lady knitting god-knows-what next to me. “Are we in Hell?”
“We might be,” she chuckled before reality set back in. She sighed a long sigh and shook her head dejectedly. “We very well might be.”
I hate the G train. It takes longer than driving from San Francisco to Philadelphia, and it’s much less scenic. The G train makes you wish for Nebraska. Two hours into the ride, I’d barely gone anywhere, and I was beginning to doubt myself. Where was I going, what was I doing?
At least I could answer that much. I was going to interview Adrienne Antonson, a girl who had meticulously sculpted a collection of insects out of human hair. Nothing weird about that. I’d heard about Adrienne while I was travelling through San Francisco a few months earlier, when my friend Shannon blushingly told me about her idol. She was so inspired by Adrienne’s sculptures that she’d started bringing home garbage bags full of discarded hair from her salon, storing the clippings in her closet. Shannon explained all of this to me in a very matter-of-fact manner. Apparently all of this was normal.
They say that when it rains, it pours.
I showed up drenched to Adrienne’s apartment two hours late. She greeted me with a homemade brownie and a sleepy orange cat, the only two things that could put me at ease. Adrienne walked me back to her workspace and showed off a few of her newest pieces—some scissors, a glue bottle, a magnifying glass and some sewing pins. I couldn’t comprehend that they were all made of hair. Not knowing what else to do, I nibbled at the brownie and started asking her questions.*
Mike Abu: So… why insects?
Adrienne Antonson: I’ve always been drawn to insects. I had a pretty decent collection growing up. I would… [hushed tone] kill them. Gas them! I’d use nail polish remover, which was horrible. I killed so many. Now as an adult, I go way out of my way to not kill them. I guess I feel a lot of guilt.
But there are a lot of reasons why I use insects. I think I secretly wanted to be an entomologist, and I guess I’ve taken a different route. Insects are so tiny, capable and essential—I’ve always been fascinated by them. I love studying them, learning as much as I can about them. I love being surrounded by specimens and I feel like I figured out a way to do that in a much more peaceful way.
There’s also an appeal about creating something natural, especially out here in New York. It makes me feel like I’m not trapped in an urbane environment. I love the idea of creating life.
MA: Are they all life-sized?
AA: Sometimes I play with scale. In real life, those leopard moths are about the size of my thumbnail, but I made them really big because I loved the spotting on the wings. Sometimes I make up my own insects, though I reference natural shapes and patters. Those are made up, but you would never know. But most are based on real life.
MA: Is it true that Ripley’s Believe it or Not has some of your bugs?
AA: Believe it or not. They have something like twenty of my pieces. They wrote me an email after my first show in Seattle and asked me what my prices were. I was like, if they buy one of these, I’m gonna freak out. I mean, whose inner child doesn’t like Ripley’s Believe it or Not? So I sent them all my stuff and they wrote back saying they’d take them all. I was like, are you fucking kidding me? It was a pretty exciting day. The next show I had, they bought half of the collection as well.
MA: Where do you get the hair?
AA: I use a lot of my own hair. The rest comes from close friends, family members—I’m very specific about it. It’s nice when people I don’t know give it to me, but that can get little weird.
Just to be clear, Adrienne uses more than just human hair. To give the head of her leopard moth the right about of fuzziness, she used a bit of rabbit fur. For its antennae, she used alpaca guard hair. She collects a lot of random textured hairs, cataloged in ziplocked bags with the obsessiveness of an eccentric scientist. She even saves her cat’s whiskers.
“Feel those, aren’t they great?”
“Yeah, almost like porcupine quills.”
“I also have those.”
MA: Walk me through the process of making a fly.
AA: I make them in three different sections: the body, the wings and the legs. For the body, I make a ball out of the hair and add a few knots. Because he’s so tiny and I need him to stay tight, I might add a couple stiches. So I make a little ball and knot it up tight. The wings are different. I follow tiny little patterns that I draw and then make sure the wings stay flat. For the legs, I make a tiny little rod, cut them down, and again use patterns. They’re four segment legs, so I make each section, miter the edges and attach them. There are certain things I have to be super steady with but I’m usually really rough with them.
MA: What made you want to make the tools?
AA: Well, people are always so interested in what I make the sculptures with—they don’t understand how it goes from hair to a moth. I started thinking about survivalist notions and how I could be in solitary confinement and still making things. I think it really all boils down to not needing anything, being completely self-sustaining and resourceful. I couldn’t be a photographer because I hate gear. I like the immediacy of working with something that I grow out of my head. So I was thinking about this apocalyptic scenario where I’d be making my own reality, and if I still wanted to create, I’d need these specific tools. So I made this meta-studio out of hair. The tools are the most recent things that I’ve made, but no one’s seen them yet… well, you’ve seen them.
MA: Do you ever find yourself laughing out loud when you finish making a piece?
AA: I definitely geek out! It’s especially satisfying with the insects, when I hold them in my hands that are covered in paint. I remember when I finished that leopard moth, my hands had the black and the white paint on them, and it looked like the moth was sitting in camouflage. It was really satisfying to think, that was just hair! They look so real.
MA: Is there anybody out there you’re influenced by?
AA: My mom always saved our hair growing up. That’s probably where it began. I don’t pay much attention to contemporary art, but Victorian mourning pieces always struck a chord with me. I’m very sentimental and superstitious about belongings. I even have my grandfather’s teeth! But artists who work with reclaimed materials also influence me.
Adrienne does more than just create hair bugs–she’s also been working on her own clothing label State. If her insects are an indication of her approach to design, State is destined to stand out from the crowd.
MA: Tell me about State.
AA: I’m really trying to focus on selling [State} online. It’s expanding. I’m looking into different manufacturing options. It’s difficult because I’ve been focusing on deconstructed looks from men’s button downs. How do you take something that’s kind of one of a kind and turn it into a scalable manufacturing model? I want to get State to the point where that can be my work and I can do the sculptures for fun without having to worry about getting paid for it. I think things are going to get big this this year. It’s exciting…
MA: Is there any crossover between your clothing and the insects?
AA: For the last collection of insects I made, a lot of the spotting and color palettes inspired my collection of clothing. So I did a lot of hand painted moth spots on things. I was very much in a bug frame of mind.
MA: Is it hard to go from one thing to the other?
AA: What’s so neat about doing different things is how people respond differently to them. I went to speak on a fashion panel recently and I walked in and it was kind of awkward cause everyone was like, “Are you the bug girl?” Yes, I’m the bug girl. I’m always the bug girl! People either love it or hate it. It definitely gets something out of everybody which is so nice.”
MA: Do you have a favorite insect?
AA: That’s a really difficult question. Moths are probably my favorite to make because they have a furriness that translates perfectly with hair. Butterflies are anemic to me—their bodies feel so skinny. Moths are only a little less pretty than butterflies. I really love them in general.
MA: Last question: would you like some of my hair?
Adrienne laughed and said of course before pulling out a pair of scissors and snipping off a few locks. It was the first haircut I’d had in a year and a half.
“This would make great legs,” she said in a serious tone. “It’s just the right texture.”
I wonder if I’ll end up as a cockroach?
To View more of Adriene Antonson’s work, go to www.adrienneantonson.com