By Courtney Lane
When conversing with strangers, it is customary to engage in something we as a society call “small talk”. During small talk, the weather must first be properly described, and then it’s time to get personal (but hopefully not too personal), and thus the question “What do you do?” was born.
Over the years, I’ve come to learn that everybody who asks me this question easily gets more than they bargained for, and I’m sure you can well imagine the wide assortment of responses I get when I tell them that I make artwork out of human hair. If I’m feeling particularly nefarious that day, I might specify that I make art and jewellery out of dead people’s hair.
I’ve experienced the full spectrum of reactions. I’ve gotten horror, excitement, curiosity, some people have literally run away, and I’ve even gotten a good spit-take or two. The fair few who dare to venture further inevitably ask me how I got into this, admittedly unusual, profession. And how did I get into this? It’s easy enough to explain the Victorian tradition of sentimental hairwork and my lifelong fascination with it. It’s just as easy to chalk it up to a series of peculiar happenstances in my life that lead me here, but neither of these explanations tells the whole story.
I suppose it all began when I was only 5 or 6 years of age when my grandmother took me on a tour of the above ground cemeteries in New Orleans. At the time, she assumed that I was too young to understand what we were looking at and thus had no idea that the tombs would absolutely dazzle my young mind and walking those grounds would spark a perpetual fascination for the way humans have memorialised our dead throughout history.
My grandmother had no idea that she was beginning to mould a child with a healthy interest in death, but she did know that she was shaping me into an artist all the while. In fact, she was one of the three influential women from my early childhood who gave me the tools and the passion needed to create.
My great grandmother was a painter who instilled in me a love of the visual arts. She and my grandmother were both musicians, and my grandmother frequently took me to musicals, operas, symphonies, and marching band shows. One of my fondest artistic loves has always been for the performing arts, and my mother, who was a single parent, always made sure that I could attend my dance lessons no matter how tight money was.
For many children, animals are often their first direct encounters with death, and I was no exception. In fact, the first funeral I ever attended was for one of my pet birds. When we buried her in my grandmother’s backyard, I absolutely insisted on making her a tombstone. It came complete with her name “Dobber”, an epitaph, and even a picture of her. Although this grave was comprised of little more than a large rock and a Sharpie, it was my first experience combining mourning and art.
“My great grandmother was a painter who instilled in me a love of the visual arts.”
At 11 years old, I experienced my first human death in the family: My great grandmother. Fortunately, my family was not shy about allowing me to be involved in the process. From visiting her in the hospital as she was dying, to attending the funeral home to help pick out a casket, I was involved the whole time. Even still, I felt a deep-seated need to express my grief through art which eventually culminated in me playing the violin at her service.
Some time after the funeral, grandma took me to see a modern dance company that was performing an interpretation of “the five stages of grief”. There, I discovered that dealing with death through dance was everything I ever wanted. Well, almost.
The dancing itself was lovely, but I remained overly sceptical of the five stages theme. Grief seemed like such a complicated emotion that I refused to believe it could be explained in a “one size fits all” series of predictable steps (it would be a few years before I would begin researching the Kubler-Ross model only to learn that my reservations were completely warranted). My doubtfulness aside, I was nevertheless inspired to begin creating dances that would tackle difficult emotions. One could say that my morbid curiosity transformed into morbid choreography!
It was at this point in my life, and for many years to come, that I was utterly convinced that choreographing and performing about death and other taboo topics was going to be my career. Unfortunately, my body had other plans.
I have always lived with chronic pain. Even as a young child, I can’t remember a time that my body didn’t hurt. Dancing caused me a great deal of pain, but then again, so did everything, and I had no point of reference with which to understand that this wasn’t normal. In fact, when I was seventeen I got a tattoo of my black pointe with the phrase “Dance through the pain”, because this was the only way I knew how to live.
As an adult, I was finally diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome which is primarily identified by having dangerously hypermobile joints. My symptoms that had always been present such as pain, fatigue, dizziness, and chronic joint dislocations continued to get worse. It was becoming increasingly evident that my body would not be able to handle the intense lifestyle of a professional dancer.
Having my primary artistic outlet so cruelly ripped away from me, I leaned even more heavily into death and mourning culture. By this point, I had already been studying Victorian-era hairwork for several years. I fell in love with the sentiment of hair long before I ever knew how to work with it.
I was an insurance agent running my own agency when I got the wild desire to actually learn how to do the traditional techniques. I searched for as many resources about how to do hairwork as I possibly could, and unfortunately there were several gaps in the information available. I hungered for more information, so I went on a journey to fill those gaps through trial and error, studying antique pieces, consulting lifelong collectors on their theories, and a whole lot of patience.
I found myself blacking out days in my calendar to practice hair art when I could have been having insurance meetings, and truth be told, the company whose insurance I offered in my agency wasn’t crazy about my black lipstick. So, I made the decision to walk away from my insurance agency and dive head first into making Victorian-style hair art and hair jewellery full time.
When I first sought to learn these techniques, it was purely to sate my own curiosity, and perhaps make a memento or two for myself, but as I began to practice, I learned that I was surprisingly good! It was a surprise, because I still to this day have no skill or patience for styling the hair on my own head, but I was delighted to find that hairwork is an entirely separate skill set.
“I went on a journey to fill those gaps through trial and error, studying antique pieces, consulting lifelong collectors on their theories, and a whole lot of patience.”
Closing my insurance agency to start a hairwork practice wasn’t what you might call a “conventional” decision. Everyone knows what insurance is, and everybody needs it, but when I first started Never Forgotten, it seemed that nobody knew what sentimental hairwork was (save for a handful of historians and collectors).
I didn’t just want to sell my products. I wanted to educate people about the history of hair art and demonstrate to them how the sentiment can still be of value in their modern lives. Never Forgotten became a business of two branches: art and education.
On the art side, I do exactly what the artistic, entrepreneurial, usually female hairworkers of the Victorian era would have done. I accept the hair of my clients by mail and use that hair to make them something truly special for them. I get commissioned for a variety of reasons, a child’s first haircut, a romantic token for a living spouse, or of course a deceased loved one. At the heart of all of my custom orders is love.
That is why mourning hairwork is so singularly important. Grief is the most raw and vulnerable form of love, and it’s complicated. It’s complicated, because we don’t always know how to express it, especially in a culture that is all too often uncomfortable around people who are bereaved. A lock of your loved one’s hair is a physical piece of them that you can keep. You are allowed to prominently display it in the form of art in your home, and you are allowed to wear it everyday in a locket close to your heart. Not only are you allowed, but you should be empowered to do so.
Continuing to make a space in your life for your lost loved ones is the best thing you can do for yourself when you are grieving. If you’re expecting to navigate through denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, you will get a rude awakening, because grief is not a linear path that can be predicted. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling in whatever order it comes, and don’t be afraid to let the world see that your loved one is still apart of your life, even when they are not physically here with you.
“Grief is the most raw and vulnerable form of love, and it’s complicated. It’s complicated, because we don’t always know how to express it, especially in a culture that is all too often uncomfortable around people who are bereaved.”
On the education side of my business, I lecture about the history of human hair art at museums and colleges, and I also make public videos on my YouTube channel, Hair and Now.
Understanding the history is the key to learning how to apply these customs to our modern lives.
I also think it’s important to keep these hair art and hair jewellery techniques alive, so I teach in person workshops as well as make video tutorials that are available on Patreon. For the more casually curious, I also sell hairwork starter kits that come with written instructions for the basic hair flower technique as well as all the tools you need and hair to practice with.
Last year, I experienced the most difficult human death in my life. I lost the very grandmother who took me to the cemeteries as a child where I started my story of life, death, and hair.
Although I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to make something yet, the very act of cutting her hair the day she died was a very healing thing, and the fact that I have that part of her for when I’m ready brings me a great comfort. I want people to know that, should they feel so compelled, they can do the same.
“Although I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to make something yet, the very act of cutting her hair the day she died was a very healing thing, and the fact that I have that part of her for when I’m ready brings me a great comfort.”
Some people, who are in truth just like me, want to channel their own art and creativity into their grief. For those people, I want nothing more than to help them get the tools they need to be able to work with the hair of their own loved ones without having to go through all of the trial and error that I did to learn how.
If the ritual of making your own hair memento would be a comforting and healing thing for you, then I think it’s important that you give it a try, and I hope I can help provide that opportunity to you. The desire to keep the hair of our loved ones is inherently human, and we should foster those impulses and allow ourselves to harness the sentiment of hair to better get in touch with our life, love, and grief.
Courtney Lane is a Victorian Hair Artist, historian, and professional weirdo committed to educating the public and preserving the art of Victorian sentimental hairwork. Courtney makes bespoke contemporary hair art through her company, Never Forgotten and can be found delving into the weird and wonderful world of Mourning Victoriana and other hair history at her YouTube channel Hair and Now. Ms. Lane was recently named Best Local Craft Artist at The Pitch’s 2018 Best of Kansas City.
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Never Forgotten: Victorian Hair Art
28th of March 2019 | 6pm
Alexander Majors Barn, 8201 State Line Road, Kansas City, MO 64114
“Hear from Courtney Lane, Victorian hair artist, historian and “professional weirdo” and see authentic Victorian hair art at this social and fun event.”
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