Melanie Bilenker: Victorian-inspired hair jewelry

"Chocolate" locket by Melanie Bilenker of gold, ebony, resin, pigment and hair (collection of Philadelphia Museum of Art)

I just discovered the jewelry of Melanie Bilenker at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (Wrought and Crafted: Jewelry and Metalwork, 1900-present, through February 7). Inspired by the Victorian tradition of jewelry made from the hair of loved ones, Melanie creates jewelry from drawings made with her own hair.

Woman Bathing, 1890–91, drypoint and aquatint by Mary Cassatt (collection of Metropolitan Museum of Art)

“The Victorians kept lockets of hair and miniature portraits painted with ground hair and pigment to secure the memory of a lost love,” Melanie writes on her website. “In much the same way, I secure my memories through photographic images rendered in lines of my own hair, the physical remnants. I do not reproduce events, but quiet minutes, the mundane, the domestic, the ordinary moments.”

The scenes she captures are the private moments of a woman. In this sense – and in the simple quality of her drawings – she reminds me of Mary Cassatt, another artist from the Philadelphia area. (Melanie studied and later taught at the University of the Arts. Cassatt studied a few blocks away – but about 150 years earlier – at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.)

One glance at Cassatt’s “Woman Bathing” (right) and you can see the resemblance – and the compliment. Legend has it Edgar Degas, Cassatt’s friend and fellow artist, took one look at that painting and exclaimed, “I do not admit that a woman can draw like that!”

"Drying" locket by Melanie Bilenker of gold, ebony, resin, pigment and hair (photo by the artist)

Melanie Bilenker has worked with some well-known artists herself, at least in the world of contemporary studio jewelry, as a research assistant for Bruce Metcalf and studio assistant for Gabriella Kiss.

Her jewelry has also made it into the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the National Museum of Scotland. Not bad for some who graduated from art school ten years ago!

5 comments for “Melanie Bilenker: Victorian-inspired hair jewelry

  1. February 26, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Wow — this is really beautiful. I’ve seen a lot of the Victorian lockets with hair woven into flowers and numbers, but it’s new to me to see it used as a medium for representational stuff. Great post.

  2. Cathleen McCarthy
    February 26, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Beautiful, isn’t it? And original. She’s so talented.

  3. April 22, 2011 at 12:11 am

    I am big fan of your blog and thought you might enjoy my work. Check out my sculpture/jewelry inspired by adornment and metals history.
    Thanks for looking,

    Into my heart’s treasury

    I slipped a coin

    That time cannot take

    Nor a thief purloin, –

    Oh better than the minting

    Of a gold-crowned king

    Is the safe-kept memory

    Of a lovely thing.

    -Sarah Teasdale (1884-1933)

    Stacey Lee Webber is a Philadelphia based artist who finds unique ways to recontextualize objects from blue collar neighborhoods. Webber’s sculptures embody a refined aesthetic and challenge the conventional possibilities of everyday materials. Through her investigations, Webber’ celebrates working class families which make up the heart of American culture.

  4. Cathleen McCarthy
    April 22, 2011 at 12:40 am

    Cool stuff, Stacey! I’ll keep it mind. Thanks for sharing.

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