The defining piece of jewelry, pinned to Karen Keenan’s colorful red scarf, is a brown pendant made with wing-like loops and dangling beads. It’s made from human hair. “That’s kind of creepy” is a common response, she said during a recent visit to the Nordic Center, where she has curated “Woven: Traditional Swedish Hair Jewelry,” an exhibition of the folk art that opened last week.
“It kind of is, and to be honest, the first time I heard about it, I thought it was kind of weird,” she said.
Now, after researching the nearly forgotten art and her Swedish ancestors who made it — not to mention creating pieces from her own light-colored hair — Keenan has become both a collector and a teacher of the craft.
“Woven” is open on weekends through Oct. 6, when she will give an artists' talk. The gallery is also one of the stops on the Downtown Duluth Arts Walk tour, and is open from 5-8 p.m. on Friday.
Hairwork has long been in the background of Karen Keenan’s world. She has family from Vamhus, a village of about 850 people in central Sweden on the shore of Lake Orsa. In the 19th century, crafts were a way to generate more income. Hairwork, which features strands braided, twisted, woven and covering beads, can be ornamental (earrings), decorative (wall hangings) or functional (a woven tablecloth). Hair was readily available as a resource, renewable even, and it is long-lasting, Keenan noted.
Consider: It’s among the last things remaining on a mummy.
This style of craft is big enough in her ancestral home that the hairwork-centric village features a statue of a woman holding a piece of braided jewelry. And it’s a place where children learn hairwork in elementary school.
Keenan had a great-grandmother who did it, she said, and when Keenan visited Vamhus in the 1990s, relatives offered to teach her the craft — and it’s not something the people of Vamhus will teach just anyone.
Ultimately, though, it would take a long-ignored book to pique her interest.
“A Journey to England” by Edith Unnerstad is the story of sisters who travel from Sweden to England in search of their mother, a hairworker, who has gone missing. The book, delivered to her family by her great-aunt Anna in the 1960s, was put away and not immediately read.
“It sat in our family bookshelf, probably in the same location, from 1963 to 2008, or somewhere in there,” Keenan said.
She claimed it from the shelf and read it about a decade ago. Incidentally, the book was gifted in hopes that someone in the family would continue “the hairwork journey” — according to a note she discovered years later.
It all clicked for her. The Victorian art of hairwork falls under one of Keenan’s areas of interest: handmade things. She is best known around town as a potter and recently curated a show of flasks at the same venue. Since discovering hairwork, Keenan has collected, including a piece she found at a thrift shop, and taken a class at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia, which was hosting “Woven Strands: The Art of Human Hair Work.”
Eventually Keenan received a fellowship from the American Scandinavian Foundation to go to Vamhus and learn hairwork, so that she could bring the tradition back to the Midwest. She is offering a class alongside the exhibition.
Among the pieces in “Woven” is one of mystery. The half-made piece of jewelry, made of blondish hair, is from the collection of Rosemary Guttormsson. She found it in a box that had been passed down from her grandmother to her aunt to her mother and to her. Guttormsson didn’t have much interest in the piece until Keenan, her friend, started getting into it.
She’s uncertain of the origin of the hair, whose head it came from and who started the crafting project. She knows that her grandmother was close to her sister and that the latter died young. Maybe it was made in remembrance, as some of the hair jewelry was. Or maybe not.
“It’s an untold story,” Guttormsson said. “An interesting mystery.”
Keenan has some of her own work, made from her own hair even, in the show and a hair table specifically made for the work. There is a hole in the center where strands hang and are wound around a knitting needle. Keenan has also borrowed pieces from the St. Louis County Historical Society and private lenders, including Guttormsson, Brian Medred, Marlene Wisuri and Adeline Wright.
There are pieces in progress, photos from her tutorials in Sweden, literature she has read and written on the topic — including a Margaret Atwood collection bookmarked to a story called “Hair Jewellery.”
Keenan said she hopes to revive an interest in hairmaking and to find out more: People must have hair jewelry among their things. And why, after the Swedish immigrants came to America, did interest in the art wane?
If you go
What: "Woven: Traditional Swedish Hair Jewelry" exhibition
When: 5-8 p.m. Friday during Downtown Duluth Art Walk; 1-4 p.m. weekends through Oct. 6
Where: Nordic Center, 23 N. Lake Ave.