When you woke up this morning, you probably pressed, fluffed, tucked or splashed water on a work of art—one you wear every day, whether you know it or not.
“I became a hairstylist in 1991 because I wanted to be an artist, but not a starving artist. Color became my painting, and cutting became my sculpting,” says Willow Lynch, owner of Evolve Salon. “I create art, and hair is my medium.”
Most of us don’t think to elevate our buzz cut, big waves or flat-ironed locks to the realm of art. But those who craft these looks daily have a more accurate perspective.
“Art is in the imagination of an individual,” says Pronta Anderson, a stylist who operates out of her apartment in Friendship Court. “With hair, it’s just like looking at a painting or a sculpture.” Her palette includes color or texture, curly or straight, natural or extensions. “You can paint something in your mind and bring that to life on someone’s head,” she says.
For Matthew Slaats, executive director at The Bridge PAI, stylists such as Anderson and Lynch represent an undersung cross- section of working artists in Charlottesville.
“I’m interested in making this argument about how art has socio-cultural and economic value,” he says. “I met Pronta, who was really serious about what she’s doing, and I realized she was using hair just like I would use drawing or painting or anything else. She’s an artist.”
Along with program director Serena Gruia, Slaats developed the idea to showcase the work of community hairstylists. They connected with Keith Alan Sprouse, a local photographer best known for the portrait- and-stories series “Cville People Project.”
“In addition to portraits, I wanted to do the documentary work of being in their shop and showing their process, their hands and hair and the techniques they’re using,” Sprouse says. “I set up wherever someone was working, from a tiny galley kitchen to a big airy studio across from Paradox Pastry.”
He limited his focus to hairstylists in the Strategic Investment Area, a 330-acre section of central Charlottesville tapped by City Council for potential redevelopment opportunities.
The area includes a surprising number of salons, including Bella Luna, Hazel Beauty Bar, Look, Evolve and Abrakadabra, all clustered between Belmont and Downtown. “On four blocks of Charlottesville there are a multitude of different salons and barbershops all of whom are serving different clients,” Slaats says. “Pronta Anderson’s salon is for African-American women, Elite Cuts is primarily African-American men, and Evolve is serving a more of a white Farmington/Keswick group.”
Slaats and Gruia developed “The Art of Hair,” a two-month show at The Bridge PAI, to celebrate local diversity. In addition to Sprouse’s ongoing exhibition, the nonprofit will host HairSTYLE on November 14, a runway show to allow hair professionals from throughout the community to showcase their work. It’ll be a party—complete with food trucks, drinks and audience members encouraged to show off their precision cuts, natural hair, wigs and high-art styles.
“Salons and barbershops are a moment to reflect on and value all the different strata of class and race and gender in Charlottesville,” Slaats says.
They also represent meeting spaces, the bedrock for building community. “You’re stuck in a seat for half an hour, so you engage with one another and see friends,” Slaats says. “There were massive amounts of barbershops on Vinegar Hill because men didn’t shave at home. This is the last of a really creative mode of art and business that we all connect with.”
Local hair artists often know one another, and many share work histories. They quickly become the keepers of personal stories, too; Slaats marvels at one artist’s description of a 90-year-old client who was part of the French Resistance.
Sprouse saw these deep connections in real time. “I could have made a whole exhibit about getting your hair washed,” he says. “I was struck by how intimate and lovely and almost spiritual that moment is.”
There’s magic in the process for the artists, too. “After you paint their hair and it’s been processing for 45 minutes, you go back to the shampoo bowl and pull off the foils, and it’s like opening a present,” Lynch says. “I love when the color looks natural and fresh and real, like it grew out of their head.”
Anderson seeks a similar feeling. “I love to get the creativity going. Hair weaving or extensions is very versatile. You can do different cuts, make it look as natural as possible. Someone might look and say, ‘Is that or is that not your hair?’ That puts a big smile on my face.”
“At the end of the day it’s that combination of technical skill and creative vision that makes art,” Sprouse says. “What a hair artist can do is use their technique and creative vision to help you express yourself, whether that’s dyed hair or razored hair or weave.”
That magic, everyone seems to agree, is best understood through experience. “The creativity,” Anderson says. “I can explain it to you, but to see it is totally different. It’s something that’s gonna take your breath away.”