Jenine Shereos’ Leaf Project: Material Both Humble and Ephemeral
The Arte Povera (literally poor art) movement of the 1960s and 1970s was an iconic inspection of the societal implications of the meaning of art not as image, creation, or replication — but as material. There is no denying artist Jenine Shereos’ art as expressive of the intimate connectedness and meaning of matter. Artists of the “Poor Art” movement, who used humble substances to explore themes of the body and connections to nature, inspire her work. Haltingly beautiful and wanting of deep meditation, Shereos’ Leaf project draws viewers’ delicate hands to their own questioning lips. The project, which uses human hair to recreate sculptures of the intricate veining of leaves, divulges the intense difference of people’s responses to elements in context. As Shereos explains, “There is this idea that hair is attractive and even luxurious when it is on one’s head, and at the same time repulsive or disgusting when found as a single detached strand.” She admitted the “gross” factor as being very much a part of the meaning of the piece.
Shereos’ large interest in the abilities of components affecting art is the reason she moved away from painting in her undergraduate studies. Early on, she had a creative bent and took art classes in high school, which led to studying painting in secondary education. Shereos, however, found herself adding continual layers to her canvases, to the extent that her art became much more sculptural; she went on to graduate school in order to better explore her tactile desires. “I was living in Southern California at the time, and when I discovered the Fiber Department at California State University, Long Beach, it opened up the rich language of fiber and history of textiles,” she said. She is now primarily a sculptor and installation artist who works with fiber and textile materials and processes.
To the average observer, hair seems in no way related to the veins of a leaf; however, to an ephemeral artist such as Shereos, the use of hair is more than an attempt at uniqueness. Once she has structured it, the strands lock and knot, matted in charming bondage, with tiny interlays that are so fragile in their own state but seem tight when together. Pieces of the hair drift at the ends of the leaf, seeming to whisper in the wind, catching light and movement. Many often marvel at nature’s creation, but the leaf pieces’ webbing and fissured body lace leaves much at which to be astounded. Viewers can trace hundreds of individual branching networks within one tiny structure, seeing even more of the cell lines and roots in a leaf that often go undetected.
Hair in many ways is part of our everyday lives and goes unnoticed, much like the intricacies of leaves, but despite its commonplace standing, Shereos, through her Leaf series, wants to transform the way it is thought of and attribute meaning to it. “I often think of my work as dimensional drawing, and as a material, hair has the potential to produce such a fine, delicate line. I am also fascinated by the personal quality of hair. I love that it is an extension of the self that goes out into the world and is encoded with our unique DNA,” she said. Hair in this way can be seen as memory, and a leaf’s veins are in connection an organic trace of the former, whole being.
Shereos collects her own hair combings as well as those of friends and family members. “I now have a whole drawer full of hair, which is probably kind of creepy!” she said.
The Leaf series took a great deal of experimentation, and Shereos suffered from unsuccessful iterations before finding the best technique. She explained how much of her work involves the experimentation process with goods; it is fascinating to her to see materials’ ability to transform naturally, and also to be manipulated. Something ordinarily perceived as “gross” becomes strangely beautiful when altered into a different shape and form. Shereos even refers to this transformation as a “sort of transubstantiation in a way.” The leaf and hair become one, paralleling the oneness drawn between the veins of the body and that of a leaf. Additionally, leaves drift lightly in the wind from their main part, eventually decaying once unattached — much as we see our own hair fall lightly from our heads, becoming a dead entity once no longer attached at the root.
“I also consider ephemeral qualities such as light, shadow and breath, to be just as important as the more tangible substances that I work with,” she said. When looking at the Leaf series, the more ephemeral qualities are crucial. The pieces are propped up with a small pin when exhibited, so that the graceful shadow of the veins can be seen; they are pedestals of delicate physical objects’ shadows, and the fragility of a person’s shadow.
The delicacy of Shereos’ own creative veins and personal layers was tested in the process of making the leaves. “After creating my first (unsuccessful) leaf, I felt very anxious and insecure,” she said. It is difficult not to look at the leaves and feel they were very personal in creation and idea; this frailty is what makes the project so beautiful. They float in the veins of our own existence and extensions into the world, leaving only the most elusive strands between our lives and the world around us.
Each leaf takes several months to create, and Shereos has to first wrap strands together against a water-soluble backing to make the primary vein structures, then sew in the details by threading each individual strand of hair, and lastly stitch tiny knots so that the leaf remains intact when the water-soluble backing dissolves. Due to this process, thicker, longer hair is much easier for her to work with. “I made the brunette leaf entirely from my own hair, and it was really difficult and finicky because my hair is so fine!” she exclaimed.
A former professor once described Shereos’s work as “fragile yet tenacious,” and the Leaf project is just that. “For me, this concept speaks to the fundamental experience of the human condition, both on a psychological level and on a biological level as well,” Shereos said. While so wonderfully intimate and fragile, there is something dark about our shadows, our veins, and our memory and decay. The pieces are overwhelming in their ability to quiet their audience, asking for them to halt and discover how and where splendor is made.
“Overall, I have been very pleased with the level of exposure and the responses I have gotten from the Leaf series. I think people respond to the level of time and care that has gone into creating the leaves, and also feel a connection to the conceptual ideas and themes within the work,” Shereos said.
Much of Shereos’ art meditates upon these same themes of memory, nature, and roots. Her wall installation, Emergence, in 2008 in New Bedford, Massachusetts had a solo exhibition and received great acclaim, as did her breakthrough piece, Breathe, in 2005. The latter installation piece featured a solo exhibition in the Merlino Gallery at California State University, Long Beach and was pivotal in the use of braches, functions of the body and lungs, memory, and breathing. She has received many distinctions, such as the Merit Award from the University Art Museum in Long Beach in 2005, the Fiber Travel Award from California State University in 2006, and The Drawing Prize from Mills Gallery, Boston Center for the Arts in 2007. Shereos also served as a visiting artist at the College of Visual and Performing Arts Artisanry Department, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, from September 2007 to May 2008. Her work has been exhibited in galleries in California, New York, Boston, and internationally in Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, and the Netherlands.
When she is not creating, Shereos has a love of the outdoors and spends time hiking, traveling, and walking. It was during her hiking in Northern California that she found her idea for the Leaf series. She in fact noted that much of her inspiration comes from observing nature, and while hiking, she collected various leaf skeletons to bring back to her studio. She finds leaves in particular fascinating because of their detailed and delicate nature. “The intricate line-work in the venation of the leaves reminded me so much of hair!” she exclaimed passionately.
For the past three years, she has also been working as the weaving instructor at Gateway Arts, an arts-based day program for adults with disabilities in Brookline, Massachusetts. She assists adults as they work to achieve various goals in weaving techniques such as embroidery, knitting, and fiber sculpture. “I have been enriched beyond words by my experiences at Gateway Arts, as I have had the opportunity to see weaving and fiber arts being used as a medium to empower and bring confidence to the individuals that I work with,” she said.
Helping others to realize their selves and work through their unknowns through artistic means is very important to her in the process of creating as well as in how art is received; Shereos’ art is made to share and divulge, not to confuse, and yet her work leaves out specificity so that viewers can understand multiple meanings and existences simultaneously. “Being an artist is the way that I explore and process the mystery that is life, and the way that I communicate this journey with others,” she said.
Even looking upon one of the leaves, it seems a mystery how imperfect lines can create an interconnectedness of nature and wonder. The hair strands make the leaf seem as natural as one found on the forest floor, made of organic substance and earthly colors for the eyes of only privileged travelers who seek roots outside their own skin.
Shereos hopes the leaves will continue to tour and be exhibited, and “that people will continue to feel a connection with them,” she said.
She noted, “I really enjoy the process of making the hair leaves, and I imagine that I will continue to develop this work on some level throughout my life.”