From the DS Archive: Loren Schwerd’s Mourning Portraits

Originally published on: December 20, 2008

Loren Schwerd‘s Mourning Portraits provide humanized descriptions of the blight that persists in the years after Hurricane Katrina. Working from her photographs taken in efforts to digest these remnants of life, she rebuilds crumbling artifacts as scrupulous and loving memorials to her community. Out of human hair extensions, discarded near St. Claude Beauty Supply in New Orleans, she depicts her encounter with absent victims. Inspired by the tradition of 18th and 19th century memento mori hair jewelry, she participates in a sentimental activity to honor the deceased. These expressive and elegant constructions allow the viewer an extended gaze into this dark topic, beyond its sheer mass that obscures individual identities.

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With found hair extensions, she addresses modern hair braiding in the African-American community, which has important functions beyond beauty and social status. It is a common activity, but requires skilled and quick handiwork learned through tradition. Often taking place within the family or between members of the same sex, it provides an opportunity for strengthening social ties and instilling values. By using hair of many colors, including deep reds, blacks, grays, and bleached-browns, she brings an array of persons into dialogue.

In 1317 Charbonnet St., the frayed ends of braids decorated with beads makes the use of hair apparent. Fading from the black roof to the color of rich clay seems to reference the line of the receded flood, but also resembles roots of stylized hair now grown out from the scalp. Windows allow for interior views that are vacant, with white gallery walls gleaming through Charbonnet Near Rocheblave St. depicts a floorless home cast onto a power pole, set in place by surrounding grass and asphalt. It allows for a complex interior view through a hole in the roof that reveals blackened broken beams, possibly referencing the mold that overtakes flood-ravaged areas.

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The home at 1812 Tuepelo St. occupies a sagging mesh grid. Like empty city streets, there’s infrastructure without human beings or community. Grass grows up walls and in cracks, suggesting a slow and difficult reclamation. In Arc, a ponytail tied with a bow is suspended upward and braided rows of hair dangle from the bottom of this home that’s been crushed to abstraction. The work appears like a duplex, a merging of two persons or time periods, held together by a jumble of small parts. Diverging from her more realistic renderings, the hairstyles are bold, accentuating the facelessness of this portrait.

These structures appear both strong and flimsy, a contrast that illuminates their potency. These are dilapidated buildings, supported by metal wire and mesh, but made of soft enduring hair, a material more resistant to decay than wood. Braiding and bundling together creates rigidity, sheltering each single strand in tight, intricate textures. She bloats a gendered reading of the work by depicting these architectural spaces. Using methods and traditions that have been historically considered feminine, she remakes objects commonly of masculine design and construction that have failed to serve their purpose, left in a state to be reclaimed by nature. The body of work includes depictions of homes, but also includes flowers, trees, limbs, strands of beads, and other organic forms.

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Loren Schwerd, Assistant Professor of Sculpture at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, achieved her BFA at Tulane University and MFA at Syracuse University. She was an instructor and visiting professor at College of Charleston, SC, from 1995 to 2005. Her sculpture, performance art, and videos have been shown at universities and galleries nationally. Mourning Portraits has been exhibited at Prospect.1 in New Orleans and was featured on the cover of the November/December issue of Fiberarts Magazine. It is currently on display at the Sumter Gallery of Art in Sumter, SC until Dec 31.

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