Artist Jarrett Key said his grandmother came to him in a dream after a night of painting, and said, “Your hair is your strength. Paint with your hair.”
Startled, he awoke and called out to her. The next day, he put paper on the wall, straightened his hair with a hot comb like his grandmother used to do, and began to paint.
Key’s innovative and expressive style in the series “Hair Painting and Other Stories” explores his family’s stories and how that informs his personal history. Using paint, sound, song and his body, he sets in motion a process that is both choreographed and improvised to create art in the moment.
The east Alabama native recently created a Hair Painting on site at the Columbus Museum during a Young Arts Patrons Acquisition Party. The work is on display, and will remain as part of the museum’s permanent collection.
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“It’s really exciting to me because it is sort of the way I wanted it,” the young, muli-disciplinary artist said. “I wanted to be able to come home, do this work, and have it permanently hang in my community. It’s very special.”
Key and his twin brother, Jonathan, who is also a New York-based artist, attended Mother Mary School in Phenix City and graduated high school from Brookstone School in 2009. Jarrett studied Public Policy and American Institutions, and Theatre Arts at Brown University, and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts at the Rhode Island School of Design. Jonathan graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Graphic Design from the Rhode Island School of Design. The brothers are alumni of the Springer Theatre Academy. They have worked together in theater, exhibited their work together and co-founded the multi-disciplinary art collective CODIFY ART in New York. Otherwise, the brothers explore their artist expression independently.
Since 2014, Key has created about 30 Hair Paintings.
“At the time, the work was a way to memorialize her life, the lessons and values that she shared with our family,” Key said of his late grandmother.
Ruth Mae Giles died in 2007. She was the matriarch of five generations of a rural Alabama family. Now the work has expanded to large scale performance installations.
‘How do you do that?’
His Columbus Museum creation was performed before an audience of family, friends and curious art lovers. Key held a gallon of black paint in each hand and slowly approached a large blank canvas, about 8-by-20 feet in size. His tenor voice called out “Heavenly Mother.” Then a soulful soundscape began to play in the background. He describes the track as a soundscape because he uses “a collage of various sounds.”
“When I first started, I actually recorded all of my grandmother’s children describing the way she moved her body,” he said. “Describing the lessons that she passed down. Things she would say, what she would do when she watched the baseball game, what she did when she was mad, what she did when she made a sweet potato pie. And I had all their various voices in conversation with each other to ground the piece.”
He and his brother Jonathan Key sang their grandmother’s favorite Christmas and gospel songs to fold into the recording, what Key describes as an “ethereal, melodic sound that has a rhythm, that has pace.” He recorded his mother singing a lullaby, another melody to integrate into a soundscape that becomes a prayer. It becomes textural, Key said, like a woven piece of fabric.
“I build an oral environment for myself, I build a physical environment for myself, than I have physical gestures that I’m going to do and that’s the piece,” Key said. “All the pieces are in place, I create my world, I close my eyes, I take a deep breath, I start the call ‘Heavenly Mother,’ and then I respond. And that’s the work.”
In considering that his grandmother couldn’t read, Key said that it was important to tell the story “in a way that did not require high levels of literacy.”
“I want it to be based on emotion, I want it to be based on a physical-ness, I want it to be a tangible experience,” he said. “And that’s what this work does.”
Key calls his exploration of family history an “excavation of family roots,” and the lessons that have been passed down for generations.
“Using my family story to ground how I see myself, ground my values, ground our history,” Key explains. “Memorializing that history, is what I mean by excavating. Really taking it out of the ground, shaking it, looking at it making it visible, making it clear, making it available so that my children understand where they’re coming from.”
A hair painting installation can take 15-30 minutes. Key has developed 10 basic gestures that he knows he is going to implement to put paint to canvas. The movements have to work against the wall, allow him to move across the space, and the hair must make contact.
“How do you make a movement that is intended to actually transcribe a mark?” was a question Key faced. “Like, how do you do that?”
It became play and exploration. Once he became familiar with the way it felt to make contact, it became easier to make clear decisions about each gesture. Then “it’s building the environment, understanding that I have these gestures in relationship to the soundscape, and then letting that experience in the moment, and the room, fill the rest,” he explained.
Audiences become immersed in the experience of creativity, as is Key’s intention. Sharing the with a live audience is part of the fulfillment for Key, knowing that people are moved by the moment.
“I think about them as bearing witness and participating in this performance, in this experience, in this ritual,” he said. “There’s a call, and we’re all here to respond.”
When people laugh, or gasp or call out “Heavenly Mother,” it influences the work as it unfolds.
“It’s really kind of great,” Key says of his live work. “It feels like a very clear, beautiful, full expression. And that’s kind of rare. Having found something, I would say, pretty young that feels natural and good and full is really powerful for me.”