Why Angela Hennessy Crochets with Hair

Angela Hennessy, "Black Rainbow", 2017

We find Angela Hennessy standing at a table of shiny metal objects at her studio in industrial Oakland. Jozefien calls it cozy, but that’s just because she’s a real European. Nothing hygge about this bright warehouse space in which a lot of hair is transformed into a lot of art. Hennessy talks growing up in Humboldt County, riding horses in the summer, Blackness, being a hospice doula, and avoids telling us who gave her the genuine actual coffin standing in the middle of the room. 

Angela on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thehouseofhennessy/
Angela's website: http://www.angelahennessy.com/

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Transcription of Angela Hennessy's interview 



ah - Angela Hennessy

jb - Jozefien Buydens

sv - Svea Vikander 

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jb: Welcome ART CRUSH INTERNATIONAL. I’m Jozefien Buydens

sv: I’m Svea Vikander 

jb: and together we take you into the studios of artists and you can find all sorts of fantastical things in art studios like paintings and drawings and sculptures and sometimes even a coffin… And on that note, Svea, who do we have a crush on today?

sv: today we have a crush on Angela Hennessy. Angela, I don't even know how to put it into words to tell you this story of how we met a quite lovely young woman after one of Angela's talks at Southern Exposure for her show ‘When and Where I Enter’, and this woman was lovely, but she kept talking about how much she loves Angela, how amazing Angela was and how she really wanted Angela to be her mentor. 

She was a former student of Angela's and she went to all of Angela’s events and it started to feel like a little bit, maybe this is a little bit stalker-ish or something, just maybe, you know, but it turns out that's actually an entirely appropriate response to meeting Angela Hennessy. You just become totally smitten, because she's just so eminently crush-worthy. She's a wonderful, wonderful person, she's very warm, she's very welcoming and she's a great artist.

jb: yes! So, Angela Hennessy is a multi-media artist and her studio is in West Oakland. The topics Angela works around our mourning, grieving, blackness and the work she makes are mostly made out of human hair. So, the works at Southern Exposure that we saw were made out of synthetic and human hair and they get like this very fragile look, delicate in a way, but also very powerful 

sv: deep 

jb: very deep and dark 

sv: brilliant, it’s really incredible work


ah: my name is Angela Hennessy and I am an Oakland-based interdisciplinary artist


sv: Jozefien picked me up and we drove to West Oakland, this is industrial Oakland but like most of Oakland it’s residential too 

I’ll do my best not to take over this interview, okay?

jb: no! you should ask questions, you ask very insightful questions

sv: I know, but then it’s just me talking and that’s not the show, the show is not Svea interviewing people with the wonderful audience of Jozefien Buydens, that’s not the show

jb: well, I try to speak more. I tend to be…

sv: just kick me, kick me under the table… 

sv: it's beautiful old houses beside beautiful old warehouses and the sounds of real work happening, real things being made, real things being shipped, real saws, real soldering irons, …

jb: I had to text her

ah: hi

jb & sv: hello, how’s it going? 

ah: good to see you

jb: it’s good to see you too

ah: my space is upstairs

jb: Angela Hennessy’s studio is on the second floor of a small warehouse. It has a wall of south facing windows, brick walls, small bathroom, a sink and two large tables in the center, a rate with locks of hair.

are they always on the table, your objects?

ah: yeah, i tend, this is kind of how i work. I have to say I did clean up for you guys, like it was literally just one heap.

sv: I was going to ask, are you always this organised? 

ah: this does not look organised to me at all. i tend to make lots of parts and pieces of stuff and then, depending on a particular show or some particular theme, then I sort of gather everything, but I start with like a sort of library of objects and then piece it all together. 

I'm on the edge of outgrowing this space so, you know, I tend to, if I don't have things out in front of me where I can see them, then I can't keep track of them, so often what that means is that I have a lot of things out all over, but then what happens is, that gives me the opportunity when I have a specific object that I'm trying to make I have a lot of resources to turn to and to figure things out and I can always just imagine things in my head and so, I need to be able to see them side-by-side or push particular materials up against each other and actually have like a live in person experience. 

My space is pretty full and it feels, sometimes I come in here and it's totally overwhelming, it's just so, you know, even though they're all of my own things I’m like: “Oh my god, somebody clean up in here!”, but then when I start working, you know, you get busy and you just, you get in a groove. As I get closer to a show or some kind of deadline I move things around, you know, so, I like actually just moved these tables back but I had pushed them out of the way so that I could lay the rainbow down on the floor in here, you know, and then the rainbow was done…

sv: the actual rainbow piece is big: 15 feet wide, 8 ft tall, which is a sizable amount of crochet. 

ah: no

sv: and, she doesn't have any studio assistance

ah: I crocheted every stitch of that thing myself


ah: so, this is the main table that I work at, you know, if I'm crocheting or doing hair wrapping or making flowers, I'm at this table and then I tend to lay things out, sort of as a display or, you know, that I can see what I'm doing

jb: it looks very cozy. It looks so welcoming and comfortable to see all these pieces laying on the table 

ah: I mean, I like that idea of it, maybe an aesthetic of coziness makes the work seem approachable in a particular way or perhaps accessible in a particular way but then I think too that it's important that the layers of maybe discomfort or, you know, sort of some of the tensions around the work in terms of racial identities in objects that are grieving becomes another layer to the cozy, right? 

That it's all, it can all be there simultaneously and maybe sometimes as a collision, almost. And then I have, yeah, I don't know, lots of pins and sewing supplies, hair supplies, combs and brushes, things like that. I usually keep a bunch of hair to sort of hanging on the wall, so, I have the Ross Stock sort of experience what it looks like when you buy it at the store and then, I just put these two black panels up against the white wall so that I could have, you know, start thinking about my work against a black wall, which was a new aspect of the work at Southern Exposure, was having black painted walls as the background. And then over here, I guess this is like all my hardware…

jb: she also has a table that's all shiny metal: golden chains, sheets of copper and a very special crochet hook. Is this the one for crocheting the rainbow, this one?

ah: yeah, this is my magic crochet hook, this is my favourite one. I have like 100 crochet hooks, but this is my favourite one

jb: and, it’s sparkly!

ah: yes, right, yeah I know. I think I'm really interested in the way that light interacts with materials and, you know, that was really like what brought me to this work, maybe in the very beginning in grad school, I was thinking about the interaction of light and so the working with the gold and working with this like glossy black enamel is very much for me, like, about, sort of calling in that visual experience that there's like a little flash of light or something that catches your eye. 

My formal training is in metal work, metal is my first material making jewellery. These are mostly all just store-bought faux gold golden chains but I, you know, in school I learned how to make chain and I used to, I thought I was going to be a jewellery designer, actually, that was kind of the path I was going in my twenties. But, I think some of that sensibility, certainly for my relationship to materials, how I work with materials now, and the kind of scale that I work at, and sometimes the little details for the fuzzy things that I do, that totally comes out of my background as a jeweller. 

sv: And, that coffin?

ah: That, someone gave that to me.

sv: someone saw that and thought: “Angela, Angela needs this in her studio”.

ah: yes, that’s kind of exactly what happened. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with it, but it's just too amazing to not have. And, my son keeps on saying he wants to lay inside of it. It’s, it's actually intended to be horizontal, you know, like a coffin, so you could lay inside of the cage part

sv: You haven't let him yet?

ah: He hasn’t, we haven't done it yet, but maybe we will. 

jb: Angela structures her thoughts with mind maps …

ah: I don’t know, maybe it's time for a new one

jb: There's an oversized piece of paper on the wall with visually arranged words and phrases of her thoughts and ideas 

ah: … just becomes this place, a gathering site, you know, where it's like, I can just have random thoughts and text and language and I get ideas for titles from my maps quite a bit and things that I read. I keep note cards in my purse, I'm always writing things down so it's just another kind of form of that.


sv: Instead of an artistic practice she has an aesthetic practice 

ah: aesthetic as in a full sensory experience, a full range of experience, how I know things through my body, not just necessarily a visual experience. I’m trying to expand what that might mean. So, the hospice work and the doula work keeps me really grounded. Basically it’s, I think, if I were just talking about death and grief in the studio or in an academic environment it would be pretty easy to sort of go off in a very abstract kind of theoretical space. That, for me, is a very different way of being in the conversation, then the way that I feel when I’m, you know, sitting at the bedside of someone who is dying. It also keeps me, I think, in a fairly vulnerable space as well, you know, just understanding the precarity of being a human being.  

Yeah, this idea of what textiles do for the body and with the body and the sensory experience of touch in the tactile, right, across all of that ties into death and dying and I'm really just, you know, even more broad than that, just being a human being, we basically begin our lives in textile structures or as textile structures. The umbilical cord and amniotic sac, we start that way and the first sensory experience that we have in the womb is touching, sound and it's also believed that touch and sound as well are the last senses to go when someone is dying. 

I started doing a lot of research, as you do in grad school and when you have to write about your work, that really brought me into some historical grounding, looking primarily at European, specifically Victorian mourning practices, I am thinking about the role of cloth in the 1800s, that was kind of my entry point. 

But I also recognised right away that this was a very white European Eurocentric practice, but looking at the hair jewellery specifically from that period and then thinking about hair as a material that in many cultures around the world is one of the materials that mediates the boundary between the living and the dead. I think you know some people maybe are more inclined to want to be present and engaged with difficult or complex topics and some people don’t, right, and so for me, I don't know how to not be, I mean, there is enough space for me to not be engaged in the politics of the black body, so. I find ways to bring, my own experience primarily, sometimes obviously thinking about the particular narrative about black female body is right now, so all of that kind of feeds into the work. 

For me there isn't a space where I get to be free of that and so, I choose as an artist to go right into it. But, I think it's a different experience for people who are viewing the work and coming to it, from whatever's going on in their own lives and we are so saturated with images and information on a daily, you know, kind of constant basis and so sometimes there just isn't space till I can take on those complexities of, of identity and sexuality and danger or being, you know, with that black hole piece, like, I wanted it to pull people in but simultaneously push them away and, you know, in a particular way that, you know, is sort of a logical really, but you have to be an art viewer that is open to being moved by the work and not everybody is and that's okay.


jb: Angela's connection to this works deep she's been crocheting since she was a child and hair and grieving are also deeply connected for her.

ah: My connection between hair and grieving came out of, like, early childhood trauma and cutting my hair as a way of like marking my body and wanting to externalise grief that I was feeling, although as a child I didn't have any language like that but that was the way that it manifested.


ah:  Now, it's in the seventies where everything was about the fro and so, my mom, I mean, I have specific, like, memories of my mom trying to brush my hair out, maybe somewhere near to how it is now, but at the time that was not, you know, that was not what I wanted my hair to do, you know, I wanted like the Farrah Fawcett or the Jamie Summers kind of.


sv: So, you grew up in Humboldt County? 

ah: Part of the time, yes. I went kind of back and forth a bit between Monterey and Humboldt County. Yeah, my godparents had land up in Northern California, way, like, out in the, you know, they were like 60s, back-to-the-land hippies, growing marijuana and, you know, we had solar showers and a solar oven and lived, like, in a little cabin, you know. 

I spent my summers sleeping outside, riding horses, and yeah, it was pretty amazing. Where we lived, up Salmon Creek Road, was, I mean, gosh it was like a good 45 minutes or an hour I think, I mean, cars were so old then, and dirt, you know, out on a dirt road. 

I had a god brother, have a god brother. Yeah, there were lots of kids that lived up in Salmon Creek so, but you know we all lived maybe you know a mile to three miles apart but in the summer it was basically like whoever was the closest, they were your friends, because there was like no one else around, literally no one else around.

jb: about the manifesto, we were thinking it was autobiographical, was it, is the manifesto… 

ah: Is it true, was that what you mean? 

jb: yes, that’s what I mean.

ah: yes, yes, it is. I would say the bulk of it was written maybe within the first four, five months after the shooting. I think it maybe even started out as just seven sentences and then it quickly became 10, and it was a 1 through 10, and I was thinking about the Black Panther 10-point plan and so, it started out as a 10-point plan about death and grief and wanting to bring in this idea of death as the teacher and that we’re all students in the face of death. 

In terms of the show that I had last fall at Southern Exposure, you know, I think the first step maybe that that show might be taking or, you know, has taken is to sort of just make a mourning practice visible, to sort of make the connection between mourning practices and materials and bodies and spaces and light and, you know, even just taking the title of the exhibition, the ‘When and Where I Enter’ is, you know, very much about navigating different types of space and grief is certainly one of those spaces that I'm interested in. 

There was a piece at the very end that I was going to make. The idea was that it would hang on the wall that had the title. I did hang a piece there that was a strand of the white kind of blond hair pompoms, so there was a piece there, but what I had envisioned for that piece was actually a lighting going to hang all the way from the ceiling and come down and be sort of a hair Globe light. 

The piece that I just made for State Gallery is actually kind of that piece, so it kind of worked out perfectly that I had another show coming up to sort of immediately follow that idea. I had thought that for the closing panel discussion, I thought that I would make a standing lamp for that artist talk and that we would be having our conversation under a hair lamp and, I had been thinking about the lantern laws from the 1700s, the requirement for black people to carry lanterns if they were out at night, so this idea of lighting the black body. 

My fantasy is that I do readings, either my manifesto or have other African American, black people do readings under a lamp, sort of a lantern kind of lamp. Yeah, so, I think that’s, you know, maybe the next thing that's coming up.

sv: When and Where I Enter was an incredible solo show and getting ready for it wasn't easy.

ah: I got to know basically all of the hair stores in the East Bay and a few and San Francisco. But, what started happening, a couple of the colours that I was using changed so I got 2/3 of the way through the rainbow and then the third band of colours I couldn't get the colours that I needed and so, I had, I’ve had a few moments of total freak out. But, then, yeah, I just kept going back and looking for like, “Where's the old colour as opposed to this new colour?” and trying to explain to them that even though they have the same code they were different colours and trying to show these store owners these two different colours I used and they were looking at me kind of like I'm crazy. 

But, yeah, I'm very particular about the colours. And actually, the third row, one colour is different than the series and the other two bands but I think it's probably not noticeable. But, yeah, it was a lot of hair, and I kept, even in the whole last week before the show and when the installation started, I kept on having to go back and buy more hair and I was having this experience, it’s, like, okay, this will be the last batch of hair that I need, like, I really have plenty and then I would turn around and be like: “Where's all that hair I bought?”, and, you know, realise that it was already in the work. 

I did not sleep the night before the opening, it was crazy, I left exposure on Friday like in the early afternoon. I remember I was walking out and I was going back to Oakland to go home and take a shower and get my nails done. So, I leave the gallery and I remember turning around and I had this moment where I turned around and looked back at the show and was like: ‘Damn, that looks pretty good!’, like okay, you know, it's like that recognition of it's actually done and I left, I was getting my nails done in Oakland, literally falling asleep in the chair at the nail salon. The manicurist, she was getting all pissed off at me. She’s like: “Angela, you have to wake up!”. And, I was like: “Oh my god, you have no idea”. And then, you know, I turned around and went back.


sv: you can see Angela's work on her website angelahennessy.com, that’s: a n g e l a h e n n e s s y . com  

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