Life is better when you get a haircut, especially a good one. The moment you take a seat, you can give yourself over to the hairdresser or barber. I am fascinated by how the patron seems to gain strength with every snip. After all, the right haircut can mean the difference between landing a new job or a new girl or guy.
It’s a good cut if we get noticed with approval by people on the street. It’s a great cut if we leave feeling better about ourselves, having connected with the person who trimmed our locks. If we feel better about ourselves and how we look, it builds our confidence. We are temporarily renewed. And we will return if the barber makes us feel this way.
I’m an artist who has been sketching in barbershops for more than 20 years, quietly listening to the stories being shared and like a human recorder, capturing the moments with a pen or pencil. I have heard stories about people’s children and their mothers-in law. I have heard stories about affairs, engagements, and divorces. One man confided casually to his barber that he had been involved with his best friend’s wife for years. He even took out his phone to show pictures of the four of them. (I thought I was going to drop my pencil.) Nothing is taboo. It’s as if people sit down and go into a hypnotic trance, not realizing what is being said. The stories people tell in places of communal exchange have always fascinated me, especially the stories told in barbershops.
People talk about their lives in one breath and then jump to the latest movie or new restaurant. Observing this, I see people who are desperate to make sense of it all in an hour or two. The barber cuts and grooms, listens and responds. As they bond, I sketch and become part of the experience. People often come by to watch my quick sketches, and to tell me their personal stories.
Shortly after I began my “Barbershop” series, my aunt sent me two photos of the Times Star Barbershop that my grandfather Jacob Feldman owned in Cincinnati, Ohio in the 1930s and ’40s. According to my cousin, my grandfather escaped the Russian Czar’s army, learned to barber in London, and ended up in Cincinnati. He and my grandmother had 10 children, and it is said in my family that, with each birth, he added another barber chair. To this day, I create paintings based on my grandfather’s barbershop. This is my way of feeling connected both to my own past and to my work.
Over the last two decades of sketching in barbershops, I’ve witnessed changes. In the 1990s, barbershops excluded women. It was a place where men of similar social backgrounds went to be heard, to exchange stories, talk about and watch sports together, and commiserate about the hectic demands of their days. Women visited beauty salons for a similar respite, and to complain about their husbands, boyfriends, kids, and jobs while getting their hair coiffed and fingernails painted.
Today there are all sorts of barbershops. You can find women barbers working alongside their male counterparts in traditional shops. Many barbershops are for both men and women. Of course, people will still go where they feel most accepted to exchange ideas and be part of a group. Like worker bees or ants, we have our own paths, but are compelled to be part of the bigger picture. We value individuality–as long as we still get to be on the team. Look great, be yourself, but above all, “fit in.”
When we visit the barbershop or salon, we say, “I want a great cut. I want to be me.” And then we whisper (or think): “As long as everyone else likes it.” The barber is like a guru. I have seen barbers give advice, empathize, and sometimes help patrons with crucial decisions. It’s not surprising based on the history of barbers. After all, they were once seen as doctors and even priests.
Things are different now. In our multi-tasking universe, fast cut service has become the norm. Supercuts and other salon chains that offer walk-in service have opened up everywhere. Barber and patron still have exchanges, but they are quicker. Due to technology, human interaction is at a new low–in barbershops and everywhere else. Cellphones, texting, and answering e-mails on-the-go all have limited the opportunities for barber and patron to get close. When I am sketching, I have often noticed the patron or haircutter (or both) texting during the appointment.
Of course, some customers still want the full experience and turn off their cellphones. They sit down to be pampered and listened to and renewed. And when people question my presence in this private sanctuary, the barber says: “Oh she’s an artist who makes paintings about barbershops.” This defines me and takes away the discomfort of my individual self. In that moment, I too “fit in.”