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The roller set’s deep decline

Sarah Gjertson's "Parlor Project" exhibition features video, photography, found objects and sculpture documenting the decline of neighborhood beauty parlors.

“Careful to get my spit curls in the right place.”

“When I was a stewardess back then, pilots got quite friendly.”

Sarah Gjertson pans her camera in on a white-haired woman smiling under the hair dryer hood at the laughter and chatter of her beauty parlor pals.

During the last year, Gjertson, who heads up the Core Art and Media Program in the School of Art and Art History, has visited more than a dozen neighborhood beauty parlors throughout Colorado and the Midwest to document, through art, the intimate community that embodies the fading beauty parlor culture.

“These shops are a generational thing, and I think they will disappear as these women do,” Gjertson predicts. “It is a phenomenon and a group of people who one day will no longer be with us.”

Among the colorful smocks, vinyl chairs and rows of blue rinse, the ladies discuss everything from their marriages to whether they should sell their houses and move into nursing homes, Gjertson says.

Their standing weekly appointments mean that they may see their beauticians more often than members of their own family. And, while a roller set only takes an hour and a half, most ladies usually stay two or three drinking coffee and talking up a storm.

“Something quiet and lovely happens in these parlors that doesn’t happen in other places,” Gjertson says. “Our way of engaging with one another has changed. But here there is physical touch involved, sharing of words in a space with people — no Internet, e-mail or cell phones.”

Gjertson’s photos and video capture wrinkled beauties like Millie, who adamantly believes she started the pageboy hairstyle; 101-year-old Lela, who hasn’t done her own hair in more than 75 years; and Grayce, owner of Grayce’s Cosmo House of Beauté, who’s still styling hair at 93.

“In these places, you get to see the giant person that is in the little old lady,” Gjertson observes. “There are these huge personalities in what look like frail packages.”

With the availability of home beauty equipment and supplies, low-maintenance hairstyles and a “get-in-and-out” lifestyle, new women aren’t joining the parlor community, she says. “One day places like this will be gone, and younger generations won’t know what they’ve missed.”

Gjertson took a mini-sabbatical last fall and used two grants from the DU Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Creative Arts Materials Fund to cover video equipment and printing and mounting costs.

Her exhibition “Parlor Project” will open at DU’s Myhren Gallery in January; Gjertson also hopes to take it on the road. “Parlor Project” features video, photography, found objects and sculpture that represent the gradual disappearance of a generation and culture — red lipstick on a coffee cup left next to a hair dyer and foam still bubbling at the bottom of a shampoo sink.

“Someone was there a moment ago,” Gjertson reflects, “and now they’re gone.”

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