ASHLAND – Cynthia Petry keeps her art supplies in tubs.
But inside those tubs you won’t find brushes or paint tubes. Instead, the Ashland University professional art instructor and Coburn Gallery director stashes away found objects – 19th century photographs, buttons, pieces of string, words on paper, human hair.
Yes, human hair.
Some of that hair is her own, some of it purchased at auction.
And though it may sound strange, Petry said there’s a method and a purpose to the collecting.
“Hair, it’s super personal,” she said. “I don’t think you can get much more personal than hair.”
She points to the fact that human hair often was included in the mourning jewelry of the Victorians or used to create designs that were framed or hung on walls during that same era. It was at least often saved as a memento of a loved one who had passed away.
Petry will have six pieces of assembled found objects in the upcoming AU faculty exhibition, an annual event that highlights the works of the current faculty members as professional artists exhibiting in their prospective areas. This year’s exhibition opens Thursday, Jan. 23 and continues through Feb 23, featuring the work of Petry, Keith Dull, Priscilla Roggenkamp, Dan McDonald and Michael Bird.
Petry, a Virginia native who has been at the university since 1996, said she knew from the time she was in second grade that she would pursue a career in art. Years later, she continues to have a passion to create, something she said she wants to see in her students.
“(Getting) a job is great. A job is necessary,” she said. “But you have to have a need to create something, to say something through your work.”
Lately, Petry is using her passion to create to say something about the female experience, whether in today’s world or in yesterday’s. She’s been reading about the women’s suffrage movement – which marks its centennial this year – and said “this is heavy on my mind, the liberties afforded us and the ones on the precipice of being taken away.”
Her work often will feature a 19th century photo of a woman, and collecting those photos has led her into a whole other avocation as a researcher. If she finds a photo with a name attached, Petry will research that woman in attempt to locate her descendants and return the photo to the family. On one trip to Maine, she said, she bought a lot of 150 photos, “all of them were identified.”
So Petry went to work, working through online sites like Ancestry to match photo to family.
“Most of the time,” she said, descendants “are thrilled. It’s a delight to talk to them,” as some might have known the person or at least heard family stories about him or her.
“There are lots of people who do this,” Petry said. “I’m not a unicorn in any way.”
The photos she keeps are stored with the other objects, awaiting a time when Petry embarks on creating art.
“I push and pull things. I get a lot of things out” of the tubs, she said.
One of the pieces featured in the exhibition is enclosed in an old clock case, photo, hair pins and a single word, “wicked,” dangling from a string.
There are lots of words that have been used through history to describe women. Petry wants to acknowledge that many of those words have been critical, derogatory even.
Still, she said, “I like the text to be read by the viewer. In a way, I think my work takes back the word (being used) to be maligning.”
After all the collecting and researching, Petry said, the composition comes today – hopefully in a way that will capture the viewer’s attention. In the end, she hopes if the viewer doesn’t agree, he or she will at least be challenged.
“There are so many things that are beautiful that we don’t see,” she said. “Art changes that.”