Hair Today was developed by art teacher Sandra Campbell in collaboration with students of Oak Park / River Forest High School as her project for the University of Illinois at Chicago Contemporary Community Curriculum Initiative.
This project combines teaching basic drawing skills with investigating a vital subject in teens’ lives—hair. The project encourages students to investigate the postmodern notion that identity is performative—we are who we act. In many societies, one of the most basic acts of establishing identity is choosing how one manages (or doesn’t manage) one’s hair.

This project is related to the work of the contemporary photographer, Lorna Simpson. The ambiguous portraits she creates and the way in which she juxtaposes text, image, and sometimes, actual hair, introduce students to contemporary artmaking strategies that question received ideas about race and gender. Through her work, students see that though much contemporary art may seem weird to them at first, it may in fact, address issues in which they have a compelling interest.

Students enjoy and are interested in images of themselves. This interest in self-portraiture can be extended beyond interest in visual verisimilitude to include explorations of how culture and language shape personal identity and perception. The Hair Today project investigates these notions in several ways using basic media such as pencil drawing, scratchboard, photography, and text.

After discussing contemporary hairstyles and watching clips of movies that prominently feature hair, students fill out a questionnaire designed to get them thinking about their personal, family, and cultural associations with hair. After considering how drawing hair can add to or ruin a portrait, the students use magazine photos or fellow classmates as models to begin practicing strategies to depict the visually complex subject of hair.

In a later phase of this project, students take photographs of the back of each student’s head. Students use these as source material for drawings in scratchboard. This aspect of the project also encourages students to play with image and text. They make a list of "hair" words from the descriptive words on their questionnaires. They cut out the words and begin to arrange and rearrange them under the photos. Students are excited and amused to observe how the words take on different meanings when juxtaposed with different photos.

This project uses Lorna Simpson’s work as an impetus to consider how we look at others and how others look at us. The seemingly superficial subject of hair leads to in-depth and subtle conversations about the formation of identity. How hair is styled has a lot to do with how we perceive and categorize others and ourselves. This project encourages students to consciously consider the cultural and political ramifications of hair and hairstyles.