Looking at Rabēa Ballin's paintings and drawings, it's easy to guess she's obsessed with hair. Not just as a textural object that's visually interesting but as an expression of status, self-worth and beauty.
"I was raised in a beauty shop," Ballin tells us. "My mom was a trained beautician and I was always her little apprentice. I always thought what she did was sculptural. These women would come in and she'd tease up their hair and make these bouffant sculptures."
Eventually Ballin realized that she was seeing more than just hair styles. "I would associate these women and their hair with their religious affiliation or their nationality or their age group so I started thinking of hair as an identifier, as a way to self-express.
"I started drawing hair in grad school because I love texture. Now I'm just obsessed with these really eccentric hairstyles that tie into culture and status and the fact that the only thing we can change from day to day is our hair. At first, I didn't want to draw portraits of people just from the back, now these hairstyles don't even have heads and bodies attached to them anymore."
Ballin used her hairdressing skills to earn money while in college. "I'd braid hair for gas money - I made a lot money," she laughs. "I still have a couple of customers that I [work with] on a regular basis. As I'm braiding their hair I'm thinking 'Hmm, can I draw that?'"
Her braiding skills came in handy during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Ballin and a friend wanted to help the refugees that were pouring into Houston from Louisiana. "We bought hair grease, rubber bands and bandanas. We went to the Astrodome and went around asking people if they needed their hair done. We spent all day braiding hair. I know it seems like a small thing, but the women especially, were so self conscious. It gave them a little bit of their pride back. First of all they were traumatized, didn't know what was going to happen and then they had nothing, not even simple things like hair [conditioner]. One woman was in a wheelchair because she had glass in her feet. She was in physical pain; we couldn't help her with that but we could help her with her hair. So we sat there with her and braided her hair. People would tell us their stories while we did their hair. We'd be braiding and they'd be talking. I think it was therapeutic for them."
What She Does: If asked what she does, Ballin's answer depends on two things: Who are you and how much time does she have? "Artist is the most simple answer. I draw. I paint. But that's not all. I'm an artist, yes, but I also teach, so I'm an instructor, a professor. It also matters when you're asking because in the summer, I'm print making. In the winter, I'm reading.
"Really, what I'm doing is telling stories, histories. I'm fascinated with under-represented cultures, little known cultures. I [do] a series called History Slept On. Slept on, colloquially means unknown. I don't want to say my work is about hair. That's so superficial but it's yeah, my work is about telling stories and lots of times I tell those stories by looking at hair."
Ballin, who studied art at the Goethe Institut in Germany, took her undergraduate degree from McNeese State University and a masters in fine arts from the University of Houston, says she's often surprised by people reaction when she says she's an artist. "Lots of people ask me, 'Can you draw me?' I'm always stunned by that. [One woman] asked me if I wanted to make some extra money? She said, 'Would you paint my kids and I'll pay you. I'll frame it and everything.' I was like, 'Ah, you want me to draw your kids' heads? You want me to draw their hair?' Every artist can't take a pencil and draw your kid. We could if we wanted to, but there are a lot of us that don't want to, we don't find that interesting. People don't know what 'artist' mean and they shouldn't because it means so much."
Why She Likes It: "Fine art satisfies one part of me, graphic design another. One has no right answer and the other has a very specific right answer. I love that I can go between the two. One day I want to do things inside the lines and then some other day I want to splash paint around and see what happens."
What Inspires Her: "My inspiration comes from being fascinated with exploring - culture, food, music, hair, I love it all. I want to find out about other people's lives, see how we're I also love being able to find and share the beauty in things that seem ugly."
If Not This, Then What: "I have a secret desire to be this badass girl DJ. And to do fashion blogging. If I couldn't do art, I would want to be a fashion blogger/DJ."
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If Not Here, Then Where: "I would stay in Houston but that's so cliche, isn't it? - I love Houston and I want to stay here, but I would want to fly between back and forth between Germany, New York and Houston. I lived in New York, there's no such thing as no there. That's exciting, but at the same time, I want to live in Houston where I can afford to have a vehicle and pay rent."
What's Next: Ballin has several exhibits and projects in the works. She's preparing for a show, sponsored in part by the Menil Collection, that's an examination of the history of non-violent struggle in Houston. This summer, she's doing "Suga," a print exhibit with three other women artists (that location has yet to be decided). "And of course, I'll continue working on the History Slept On series.
More Creatives for 2014 (In order of most recently published; click here for the full page).
David Wald, Actor Lisa E. Harris, performing and visual artist Stephanie Todd Wong, executive director of Dance Source Houston Pamela Fagan Hutchins, novelist Heather Gordy, artist Mark Nasso, comic artist Shelbi-Nicole, artist Marian Szczepanski, novelist Jonathan Blake, fashion designer Doni Langlois, interior designer Kat Denson, dancer Blame the Comic, comedian Margaret Menchaca Alvarez, artist Jacquelyne Jay Boe, dancer Rene Fernandez, painter Teresa Chapman, choreographer and dancer