At a university with more than 26,000 students and hundreds of disciplines, an innovative thesis idea can be a hard thing to come by. Yet, every year students in varied departments and colleges stumble upon original creations for their senior honors theses. The subjects range anywhere from dramatic plays to short films to … human hair.


The main installation piece for Art & Design senior Autumn Fawn Hernandez’s thesis, called “Aquhairium,” will be a set of glass cylinders, each of which are two feet tall and four inches in diameter.

Hernandez plans to suspend the cylinders from the ceiling in a dark space, filling them with water and different kinds of hair. The cylinders will be lit up and an air pump will blow bubbles into them.

“Depending on the kind of hair that’s in it — if it’s really coarse or fine or oily or dyed — air collects to the hair differently and will get trapped in it or escape,” she explained. “When they’re lit up, it puts focus on the hair and you can just see all these little bubbles caught in it.”

The inspiration for “Aquhairium” came last year while Hernandez was studying abroad in Australia. The assignment for her three jewelry design classes there was to create pieces out of a medium other than metal.

“A ‘weird’ medium is what they called it,” Hernandez said. “So I picked wax. When I was working with wax, that obviously led to hair.”

She quickly began work on a line of pendants out of wax-removed hair.

“The idea behind that was to take a piece of someone with you,” she said. “I made all these really great friends I was going to leave in six months and never see again, so I took hot wax and … I would wax one of my friends’ belly buttons or something with actual wax. If you let it set long enough and rip it off, then the hair is just perfectly in the wax.”

Hernandez then set the hair-wax in metal to complete the pendants.

Another one of Hernandez’s pieces involved cutting up the legs of pantyhose until she had 15 feet of fabric. She stuffed the fabric with hair from local salons and used it as a runway piece, draped around her body. As she walked down the runway, hair trickled out of the open ends of the hosiery.

At the same time as her Australian experiments, she was receiving e-mails from her professors about picking a topic for her senior thesis.

“And I was all geeked up and excited about hair,” she said. “I wanted to just continue what I was doing.”

“Aquhairium” opens April 15 at 6 p.m. in the basement of Work: Ann Arbor on State St. In addition to this exhibition, Hernandez has been photographing her installation for the Douglas J Aveda salon on Liberty St. She will be inserting large-scale photographs into the glass tables where customers sit while they wait to get their hair done.

Hernandez’s continued dedication to the medium of hair stems partially from the reactions she got from her classmates in Australia.

“My class was just so appalled,” she said. “I was just this one foreign, American chick that was messing around with hair, and they were just so grossed out. When I showed my class my pieces, they just cringed and didn’t even want to be by it. That response was so exciting to me.”

Hernandez hopes her ongoing interest in a rather eccentric subject will come across in the exhibition and inspire others to rethink hair.

“Hair, water, air and light — those four elements come together when you’re showering, when you’re swimming,” she said. “And you don’t really appreciate what’s happening.”

Hernandez doesn’t want people to have a specific reaction to “Aquhairium.”

“I want people to think whatever they’re going to think because it’s art,” she said. “But I want people to kind of just stop and appreciate the beauty because there’s a repulsion-attraction to the hair.

“It’s disembodied hair,” she added. “People usually think hair off the body is gross, you know — you have a random hair in your food, you don’t like it. So I’m just going to put a bunch of hair and hang it and hope that people can appreciate it and think about hair differently.”

In all dimensions

Screen Arts and Cultures senior Jacob Mendel’s honors thesis is a 20-minute short film called “Train of Shadows,” a “surrealist film noir” that tells the story of a man who wakes up on a train with amnesia and meets a hypnotist who guides him through various memories. The film begins with a shot paying homage to the Lumiere Brothers’ 1895 silent film “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” — a scene that evokes what Mendel calls the “mechanization of time” — and then proceeds through a nonlinear narrative, with the audience piecing together the story the same time the protagonist is.

“It’s all period, it’s all 1920s,” he said. “It involves many different locations, many different spaces. I’m editing it now and … you kind of get sucked into the diegesis.”

Mendel is no stranger to inventive works in the field of film. He studied abroad in Prague during his junior year and directed a film called “Zlatá Rybka,” which is Czech for “The Goldfish.”

“It was a very surreal premise,” Mendel said. “Someone’s goldfish is kidnapped and these weird cat people are responsible. It involves reincarnation … you know, weird, short surrealist film.”

“Zlatá Rybka” earned Mendel an award at the International Surrealist Film Festival, which is organized by the surrealist filmmaker Paul Yates, and eventually led into the dream-infused venture of “Train of Shadows.” It seems appropriate that the medium should match the film’s theme of memory — the half-hour movie was shot completely in stereoscopic 3-D.

“The process is using two cameras simultaneously,” Mendel explained. “You get two Canon 5Ds side by side and bend them inward … one is going to one eye and one is going to the other eye. Through polarized projection, this basically tricks your visual cortex into perceiving depth.”

Mendel quickly embraced the technical and creative challenges of shooting a “surreal film noir” in 3-D.

“I’m nerdy and I’m artsy, so it’s a nice mix of the two,” he said. “To do a shot, you basically have to do trigonometry. You have to do the angle in which the two cameras are bending … where they intersect is the perceptible depth of the screen, so everything in front of that is popping out at you and everything behind that is receding.”

“Train of Shadows” is an exhaustive collaboration between more than 100 graduate and undergraduate students, with areas of study ranging from performing arts technology to media arts to theatre performance.

Mendel spoke about the history and challenges of shooting in three dimensions.

“The thing about 3-D is that it’s actually very old,” he explained. “The technology of stereoscopy was invented before cinema … Every now and then, it’s rediscovered and there’s a lot of hype and then it kind of fades away.”

Added Mendel: “There’s not really 3-D film schools, so you have to teach yourself a lot.”

The film may be a project for the University, but it is also an integral part of Mendel’s future beyond graduation. He and a friend plan to start a Michigan-based 3-D film company in the fall, called Giant Eel Productions, through which they hope to push the boundaries of 3-D cinema.

“What would a 3-D Western look like? Why isn’t there a 3-D documentary?” Mendel asked. “Now that indie 3-D is possible … you can use digital video cameras that are affordable. That’s what we’re trying to do. People are already ready to watch 3-D — we just want to make more interesting content with that medium.”

Mendel is not a subscriber to conventional 3-D as it is used in popcorn movies.

“A lot of films now overuse that, I think,” he said. “Things flying at you and explosions and all this sort of stab-you-in-the-face sort of amusement park 3-D. We’re trying to do something more subtle.”

“Train of Shadows” premieres tomorrow at the Michigan Theater as part of the TEDxUofM conference. RealD 3D donated free glasses to Mendel and his associates as an incentive for students to continue experimenting with 3-D technology.

“I’m a cinematographer by training,” Mendel said. “I think mostly the film will be aesthetically something new and different and kind of exciting. I hope that it’ll transport people a little bit.”

Spinning a performance

Meanwhile, Interarts senior Yonit Olshan’s thesis, “Arachne: The Origin” premieres tomorrow night at the Walgreen Drama Center. Though it classifies as a play, “Arachne” includes live music, dance and puppetry, making it a truly inter-artistic experience.

“I was really trying to think about what I wanted to say about myself as an artisan, as a performance artist,” Olshan said.

The play brings to life the story of Arachne and her feud with the goddess Athena over who is the best weaver in the world. Olshan sees it both as a play about an artist, fighting for her craft and trying to break tradition, and as an origin myth: the creation of the spider as a result of Arachne’s eventual transformation.

“Athena doesn’t really have a lot of faith in mortals,” Olshan said. “But the truth is that mortals have a lot of beauty in their uniqueness.”

Olshan has had this show in her head for more than a year.

“To finally see what other people can bring to it is so much more beyond what I could ever have imagined it to be,” she said. “It’s so exciting.”

Olshan’s involvement in the play was inspired by her interest in different artistic backgrounds, as well as the idea of cross-cultural origin myths. She researched myths and performance techniques of different cultures to create the play.

“The beauty behind it is that all of these different creation myths, even though they’re so different,” she said, “they really all hit on very similar things like love, or joy — all these purposes in life.”

Though her primary background is costume design, Olshan was drawn to creating things with groups rather than on her own. As a result, she transferred to Interarts, a major newly rendered by the University that combines programs from the School of Art & Design and School of Music, Theatre & Dance to give the students involved a truly holistic view on performance arts.

“That sort of sense that it actually is an Interarts performance is one of the main inspirations for the piece itself,” she said. “The collaboration and the meaning behind performance art is still a new sort of emerging art form.”

As an Interarts collaboration, “Arachne” has received assistance from a host of different studies, from a director from the Department of Theatre & Drama to a composer from the School of Music to a choreographer from the Dance Department.

“It’s really cool right now, in tech week,” Olshan said. “It’s one of the first times we’re seeing a lot of it come together. We put the cello recording with the dance choreography for the first time and it’s just goes so well. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking, but they really do just make each other so much better.”

For Olshan, directing a collaboration introduced her to a whole new world of creative potential.

“Typically, I’m the costume designer,” she said. “I’m not used to being the person who gets to make the final decision. We just go by what the director wants, but right now I’m playing that role … I’ve learned how to trust myself to be the leader amongst all these other amazingly talented artistic people.”

The opportunity to bring dancers, musicians and actors together in such a way was a learning opportunity in and of itself. Olshan said it was inspiring to work with other people to bring out their best.

“It’s about all of these artistic things, but it’s really about Arachne,” she said. “It’s about her wanting to fight to be creative, which I think is what we’re all doing. We’re fighting for our individuality and we’re fighting to be unique against society.”

She hopes the audience takes away the importance of Arachne standing up for who she is and trying to accomplish a feat that others thought to be impossible.

“It’s a hope,” she added, echoing the sentiments of fellow aspiring artists. “It’s a hope and an inspiration to be unique and creative and be who you are. It sounds really cheesy, but it’s beautiful.”

Senior Arts Editor Jennifer Xu contributed to this article.

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