Hugh Hayden, Surrealist Sculptor, Addresses the Education Debate

“Just watch your eyes,” the sculptor Hugh Hayden warned as he circumnavigated the wooden school desk he had made from cedar logs, their branches still attached. The limbs erupted from the seat and desktop, in all directions — strange, unruly, alive.

Hayden, 38, was in the last stages of production at Showman Fabricators in Bayonne, N.J., completing his most ambitious project to date. “Brier Patch,” an art installation opening Jan. 18 in New York’s Madison Square Park, assembles 100 newly minted school desks into outdoor “classrooms” across four lawns. The largest grouping morphs ground up from an orderly grid of right-angled chairs into a wild tangle of potential eye-scratching branches intersecting midair.

“He’s simultaneously questioning opportunity and inequity in the American education system,” Brooke Kamin Rapaport, deputy director and chief curator at the Madison Square Park Conservancy, said, offering an interpretation of the “brier patch,” a reference to the fictional Br’er Rabbit stories as well as to a thorny crop of plants. The show opens amid a storm of debates roiling classrooms over curriculum changes addressing systemic racism and whether to remain open amid the Omicron surge.

Hayden, who is from Dallas, studied architecture at Cornell and worked for a decade in that field before receiving his M.F.A. from Columbia in 2018 and moving on to a full-time career as a sculptor. Working mostly in wood by hand, he reconstructs vernacular objects in the American landscape — a picnic table, an Adirondack chair, a suburban fence, a school desk — subverting their utility and meaning by giving them human qualities.

“The objects themselves are in transition between a cultural object and a natural object,” the artist Mark Dion, a professor and mentor to Hayden at Columbia, said of these startling hybrid forms. “He harkens back to the best of the Surrealists like Man Ray and Meret Oppenheim, where the objects are really unsettling. They oscillate in this very uncanny world. It’s a chair and it’s not a chair.”

At Showman, Hayden demonstrated how his logs, salvaged from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey, are split and planed into usable planks that still preserve their long branches, defying standard lumber production. “My wood is like bone-in chicken, with the foot even — you’re still seeing this is a tree,” he said. The result looks almost magical yet “there’s no smoke and mirrors,” he noted, interested in shifting how people might think about an everyday piece of wood.

The following day, the artist, dressed in a camouflage hunting jacket and cap, led his visitor through a capacious new studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, his large Ibizan hound vying for attention. Hayden moved here in October from a smaller space in the South Bronx to help keep pace with his ballooning exhibition schedule, which in 2021 included solo gallery shows at Clearing in Brussels and Lisson in New York.

He wended his way around a tall mass of Bald Cypress tree parts sourced from a swamp in Louisiana. One of these boughs had badly scratched his cornea in November as he was racing to finish carving a sculpture for a museum survey, “Boogey Men,” at the ICA Miami (through April 17).

He has been interested throughout his career in the idea of blending into American society. At the ICA Miami, the artist camouflages the surface of a classic Burberry trench coat with the bark of a tree; only the collar and distinctive lining peek out. “Burberry is this luxury item, a way of becoming part of a larger group, with wealth being a way of accessing that,” Hayden said.

The artist hangs the piece on a coat stand, with the garment’s arms splayed like a scarecrow. It is positioned near his first large piece fabricated in stainless steel: a police car hooded in a white sheet with cartoonlike holes cutout for eyes. “If you have the right look, you won’t have any trouble,” Hayden said of the pointed juxtaposition between the two works, calling his Burberry coat “almost an invisibility cloak.”

“The idea that tree bark can be a metaphor for an experience of skin is one of the driving themes in the work,” said Alex Gartenfeld, artistic director of the ICA. “Part of Hugh’s work being anthropomorphic is that it’s relatable. There’s a very human quality that signals that the issues it’s contending with are about you and me.”

Hayden’s installation of school desks at Madison Square Park summons associations for anyone who’s ever sat in a classroom. “Brier Patch” simultaneously resembles an orchard and a thicket difficult to inhabit.

“Education is part of this road map to the American dream,” he said. His matrix of branches suggests the barriers to a path forward for many young people, whether from uneven distribution of resources in public schools or the burden of college student loans.

Hayden was drawn to the 19th-century “Uncle Remus” folktale, passed on through oral tradition, in which Br’er Rabbit escapes the jaws of Br’er Fox by navigating something seemingly inaccessible; the brier patch actually becomes a haven for the wily rabbit. The artist’s branching desks could be a kind of perch, conjuring creativity and interconnectedness. “It’s open to the viewer,” he said, “imagining themselves within this finding a seat.”

Education is a subject of deep personal significance. Hayden’s parents were teachers in the Dallas Independent School District and put a premium on his and his brother’s academic success. “We had to give 110 percent,” said the artist, who attended gifted and talented programs and a rigorous Jesuit high school.

While creative, Hayden didn’t know art could be a career. Landscaping projects in his family’s backyard pointed him toward architecture at Cornell. It wasn’t until he was introduced to Derrick Adams at an opening, the first professional artist he’d met making art about contemporary life, that he felt inspired to try putting his ideas about the world into form. Hayden’s taxidermied heads of North American buffalo and mountain goats, given a Black identity with the addition of cornrow extensions, won him a residency at Lower Manhattan Community Council in 2011 and set him on a course toward Columbia while supporting himself as an architect.

Alex Logsdail, Lisson’s executive director, saw Hayden’s work at White Columns in 2018, did a studio visit two days later at Columbia and began planning Hayden’s first show at Lisson that year, after he graduated.

“It’s very unusual to see an artist and be so affected that you have to do something immediately,” said Logsdail, who has sold Hayden’s work to the Studio Museum in Harlem and the Whitney Museum.

At the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, Hayden approached both his galleries about working together on graduate school scholarships to make the art world more accessible to people of color. “You either have to take on debt or come from a privileged position,” he said.

Funded through the sale of his artwork at Clearing and donations by some of Lisson’s directors, as well as by Hayden, the Solomon B. Hayden Fellowships — named for the artist’s father, who died in 2014 — will partly support tuition for two Black students at Columbia, in visual arts and art history, in perpetuity.

Hayden will help curate as well as participate in a group exhibition “Black Atlantic,” produced by the Public Art Fund and opening in Brooklyn Bridge Park on May 17. Originally a solo opportunity, Hayden requested that “we expand the platform we had offered him to other young artists of color,” said Daniel S. Palmer, the curator of the Public Art Fund. They selected Leilah Babirye, Dozie Kanu, Tau Lewis and Kiyan Williams to engage with the site and each other.

Hayden plans to show “The Gulf Stream,” a wooden boat with a whale’s rib cage carved inside. The artist said he was visually referring to two famous images of Black life in America — Winslow Homer’s 1899 painting “The Gulf Stream,” with a Black figure in distress on a boat surrounded by sharks, and Kerry James Marshall’s 2003 response, showing a Black family enjoying sailing .

For Hayden, it is another artwork that wrestles with past, present and future in uneasy ways, as “Brier Patch” also does. “It’s a story of being thrown overboard,” he said, “and reinterpreting that as a new opportunity.”

Hugh Hayden: Brier Patch

Opens Jan. 18 through April 24, Madison Square Park, Broadway-Madison Ave., between East 23 Street and East 26 Street; (212) 520-7600;

Hugh Hayden: Boogey Man

Through April 17, ICA Miami, 305-901-5272;

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