Artist of the Year Sees Life as an Exploration

Article excerpt

If predictions by England's Oxford Hair Foundation come to pass, the number of natural redheads in the world will continue to dwindle until there are none left by the year 2100.

The reason, according to that institution, is that just 4 percent of the world's population carries the red-hair gene. The gene is recessive, usually becoming dominant every third generation, and so it is diluted when those red-hair gene carriers produce children with people who have the dominant brown-hair gene.

Delanie Jenkins is one such natural redhead. The proof dominates the first gallery at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts in Shadyside in what constitutes the "2007 Artist of the Year" exhibit, for which she was chosen in 2004.

That's about the time she decided to have her long locks cut off and donated to Locks of Love, which makes wigs for cancer patients. Her beautician at the time lopped off three ponytails' worth in an effort, at her insistence, to "change my body image," she says, even though "it was as if an organ was taken from my body."

It had been two years since the birth of her daughter, and with the day-to-day struggles of being an artist, mother and teacher, she felt as though she was losing her identity.

"It was time to take my image back," says Jenkins, 42.

But after holding on to the ponytails for a few weeks, she decided to do something entirely different with them. Although she says she might donate them someday, for now they have become the central focus of a unique art project.

For the piece, titled "11,280 strands and counting ...," she has been documenting her ponytails, counting each strand of hair and measuring it from end to end for the purpose of coming up with a total length.

In the gallery, each of the ponytails is represented larger than life, in photographs reproduced as digital inkjet prints on vinyl. A vitrine holds the real thing, plus counting books, a calculator and the tally of the total length the artist has come up with so far.

She is still counting. That's why arranged opposite the glass case is a desk and chair, where each Wednesday afternoon Jenkins plans to sit and continue counting -- and adding -- throughout the run of the exhibition.

Jenkins, a self-described "obsessive collector," is from Dallas. She came to Pittsburgh in 1996, by way of Colorado and Iowa. She is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Studio Arts in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, where she teaches sculpture.

She received a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Texas at Dallas in art and performance and a master of fine arts in sculpture from the University of Colorado, Boulder -- which is where her involvement in installation art has its origins. All this developed before an early career as an architectural designer, which obviously informs much of her installation pieces, such as "Radix," on display in the next gallery.

Jenkins uses a variety of ordinary materials to create site- specific installations, sculptural objects and images. In "Radix," the object of choice was radish roots. Arranged shotgun-style on a curved wall built specifically for the piece, the roots look like a swarm of bees moving across a field.

Jenkins originally showed a similar, and equally stunning, version of the piece a few years ago at Fe Gallery in Lawrenceville. But here, in this much larger version, the piece has a way of pulling the viewer further back into the remaining galleries on the first floor -- thanks in part to that curved wall -- where another of Jenkins' explorations, "Untitled (from the Clementine Series)," is on display. …