I once did a piece in 1974 called “Hairbrush”.
I started with an old wooden brush that had been used in the lithography department at Pratt Institute for decades to brush the bubbles off plates that were etching in acid. All the hairs– or bristles had dissolved over time because of the acid and all that was left was this old brush with about a hundred now-empty holes it it where the bristles had been.
Even so, I thought it was a beautiful object, all weathered and worn almost like a piece of driftwood.
So I took it home– and in a day or two, I got the idea that I wanted to replace the hairs in the brush, so I wrote to everyone in my family who was still alive– and some of my really close friends (or people who had played an important role in my life up to that point). I told them what I was doing and asked them to send me a lock of their hair.
My plan was to implant the lock of their hair in the holes in the brush.
I was surprised that, without exception, every single person I wrote to replied–and with a nice little note.
Everytime an envelope came in the mail with a lock of hair in it, it went right into the brush. I also made a diagram of the brush so that I would know whose hair was whom’s.
As the brush started to come back to life in a new form, it was nice to see the lock of grey hair from the old lady next door who was so kind to me when I was a child next to a lock of brown hair from an old girlfriend.
When I had implanted all the locks from all the people who had been important to me up to that point I still had plenty of holes leftover. Those holes could then be occupied by people I was yet to meet who would play important roles in my life.
I was happy. I was pleased that so many people were willing to collaborate with me in the creative process.
Next, I built a tall slender box out of some scrap wood I found laying around. I cut grooves in the wood so that I could slide a pane of glass there. I made two doors and added them using tiny brass hinges, so that the box could be open for viewing, or closed at night.
Years passed, my life went on and my creativity evolved into other forms of personal expression.
The box was taken down from its place on the wall at some point because someone close to me said it was “creepy” and put away out of sight. That person was not asked for a contribution.
Life went on and so did the box with the Hairbrush inside.
It went with me, along with all my many other belongings, as I moved from place to place in New York and as my fortunes rose and fell –and rose again.
A few years ago when we were packing up and moving to Maine, I came across that old artwork in the basement of the house we lived in at the time. Unfortunately, insects, or maybe spiders–had gotten to the hairs and laid eggs on them or, worse– eaten some of them –and the whole thing was in rather sad shape.
It also hurt to unravel the piece of paper with all those names on it. So many of those people whose lives had crossed mine had themselves crossed on. All that remained of them was what was left in this box.
Although I never told anyone up until now, it had been my plan all along to instruct my next-of-kin (if I was lucky enough to have a next-of-kin) to use that brush to brush my ashes from the slab of marble covering the grave of my grandfather, whose grave I had visited so many times as a child and about whom, such kind words were spoken by those who had known him in life.
Even more years passed, and as an artist, I have discovered happier forms of personal expression.
But, still, I cannot bring myself to throw away what is left of that old brush.