RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Los Angeles artist Alison Saar says she gets a sense of calm in all this chaos watching seeds she planted begin to sprout. The prints and sculptures she's making help, too. Here's NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg.
SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Race, gender, woman power, African American hair - those are Alison Saar's themes; also, the kitchen.
ALISON SAAR: Six cups of water, some - tablespoon of vegetable bouillon, a pound of dried black-eyed peas...
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STAMBERG: Her last show in LA offered a small cookbook of family recipes and photos of her works. The sculpture "Kitchen Amazon" is there - a large female nude, sheathed in antique, rusted tin salvaged from ceilings in old New York tenements, embossed with patterns. The tin is tacked tightly onto the carved wooden figure like skin. It's gorgeous.
KIMBERLY DAVIS: It is gorgeous, but...
STAMBERG: This is Kimberly Davis, director of LA Louver, the gallery that shows Saar's work.
DAVIS: ...It also speaks of scarification and African rituals of how the body can be changed and glorified in a certain way.
STAMBERG: A heavy chain belt drapes around the Amazon's hips. From it hang used cast iron skillets and...
DAVIS: She's holding a pan up above her shoulder...
SAAR: People get out of hand.
STAMBERG: This is Saar.
SAAR: You can hit someone upside the head with a skillet - along those lines.
STAMBERG: Alison Saar's "Kitchen Amazon" also nourishes her family, holds them together. The sculptures starred in an LA Louver show called "Chaos In The Kitchen." Her childhood kitchen in California was wonderfully chaotic, Saar says - full of manic energy. Her mother, Betty, a well-known artist, painted there. Alison and her sibs did homework there. They cooked.
SAAR: We also heated up our hot combs and did our hair. That was also the hair parlor.
STAMBERG: The kitchen always smelled of cornbread and singed hair. Saar, whose father was white - her mother, African American - has a gray cloud of soft, frizzy hair. But there is nothing soft about the hair in her sculptures. It's made with barbed and baling wire. The nude in Set to Simmer has it - dangerous hair you wouldn't want to touch. The woman is voluptuous - vibrant red lips, tight breasts. She stretches out on a long red table.
SAAR: Something which most families would not approve of - a naked lady laying on your kitchen table.
STAMBERG: A chair is drawn up to the table.
SAAR: She's challenging you to sit down in that chair. She says, yeah, if you want to look at me, don't just give me a sideways glance. Sit down in this chair and know me.
STAMBERG: Confident in her own embellished skin, powerful with her thick iron hair, a very 21st-century woman. She takes Saar back, again, to her childhood days in the kitchen where her grandmother straightened her hair with an object Alison now makes art about - a hot comb. They become bases for small nude sculptures. She knows well how the combs are used.
SAAR: Put the pomade in and you kind of get the hair nice and oiled. And then, you know, you got the hot comb and you'd start from the tips and then you'd work your way up to the scalp.
STAMBERG: Took forever, Saar says. Finally - done.
SAAR: And then, you just got to, like, stay out of the water. And don't sweat (laughter).
STAMBERG: Sixty-four now and laughing about decades-old, not-so-fun experiences, Alison Saar says her generation mostly didn't straighten their hair - freed up a lot of time for other things - making sculptures, say. A show is scheduled to open in Southern California in the fall. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
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