Man creates unique art from human hair

 Artist has shown his work in 12 galleries and lectures at high schools around state

By Chuck Carlson
Battle Creek Enquirer

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. (AP) — George Martinez has learned that inspiration really can come from the most ordinary places.

Say, for example, from the head of his niece Nicole, whose hair one day he had just cut as a favor.

“I had bought a barber’s chair and my niece wanted a haircut,” Martinez told the Battle Creek Enquirer. “After I was finished, I moved the chair to clean up and the hair on the floor was in a circle. It was negative space on the floor, so I started playing with the hair and I started making artwork with the hair. I really don’t know why, I just did.”

It was George Martinez’s moment.

It was around that same time that Martinez met Andrew Freemire, the artist in residence at the Battle Creek Central Fine Arts Academy.

“I took a picture of what I had done and showed it to Andrew,” Martinez said. “And he said. ‘What is this?’ He said. ‘If you can develop this, we’ll see what I can do about an art show.”

Martinez came back the next day with a completed piece of art, a portrait, made almost exclusively of human hair.

He called it “Hairy.”

He came back with another one the next day called “Hairietta.”

Freemire remembers only too well.

“It was literally a Polaroid photo of the circle of hair,” he said. “I mean, I had just met George five minutes before and he shows me this. I still have the photo. When he told me what the medium was (human hair), I said ‘this is very strange, but it’s also very creative.’”

Since that hair-raising incident 10 years ago, Martinez, 55, has evolved and grown as an artist and he has shown his work at 12 galleries and lectured at high schools and colleges around the state. The only thing that hasn’t changed is what he does: He continues to make art with human hair.

“I’d never seen anything like it before,” Freemire said. “If you Google it, you will find absolutely nothing.”

Indeed, Martinez’s technique and style are unique. There are sites for human art and jewelry, but not the way he does it.

“It just came out of nowhere,” said Martinez, who moved to Battle Creek in 1971 from Moorhead, Minn. “It was trial-and-error. I just kept trying different things with hair. Now I chop up the hair really fine, almost like powder. It’s like sand art and I shape it with my fingers. I really don’t use any tools. I spray it with clear acrylic and it hardens and that leaves the hair in place. Then I put it on felt and that is glued to a foam core board.”

And it produces some remarkable art that’s now on display at Brownstone Coffee House. The art will remain up through February. It’s Martinez’s second display at Brownstone and first in a decade.

Both Martinez and Freemire remember the first time.

“I told him to create 30 pieces of art with scale and quality and I’ll have them framed and exhibited and he did,” Freemire said. “The wonderful thing about George is you can be presented with whatever idea you have to take the action and do it. He has this inner light, strength and talent that not many people have. To develop a new medium, that’s pretty incredible.”

Aware that cutting people’s hair would not provide him with the amount of product he would need, he now buys women’s hair extensions from beauty shops, supplemented with human hair.

“With extensions, I can get different colors,” he said. “I love working with colors because black and brown are pretty boring. I still have my barber chair and on weekends, if my friends want their hair cut, I’ll do it. If their hair is clean, I’ll use it in my work.”

It hasn’t always been easy for Martinez. He said he was always attracted to art and as a kid with asthma, he spent a lot of time in his house drawing.

Once he and Freemire connected, it seemed Martinez might be on the cusp of something special. But two years ago, he suffered a setback, falling seriously ill with a pancreatic abscess that kept him bedridden for almost a year.

“I couldn’t do any art work but when I finally got back, people kept asking me if I was going to have an exhibit,” he said.

That’s when he teamed up with Freemire again and worked out the latest display at Brownstone.

Martinez said he owes a lot to Freemire.

“After I met him and got to know him at the high school, he really helped out with this,” he said. “He got the shows ready and he’s helped me out a lot. I give him a lot of credit.”

But Freemire deflects it.

“It really is fine art,” he said “Anybody can create something of beauty, but for him to do it with hair, that’s pretty innovative.”

Martinez has also shown his art around town at Kellogg Community College, Commerce Pointe, Bronson Battle Creek Hospital and elsewhere and he’s taken it on the road to South Haven and Grand Valley State University.

He has also spoken to a number of art students around town.

“I explain to them how I came about doing it,” he said. “I tell them, it can be a future. It doesn’t have to be hair, it can be commercial art, just to see if I can get one of them to do something with art. I explain there’s an artist in everybody.”