HILLARY YOUNGLOVE stops women in the streets to talk about hair.

No, she’s not looking for a good hairdresser. It’s not her own locks she has in mind.

A few years back, the San Francisco artist became entranced with elaborate displays of African-American hair braided, twisted, woven, piled high and suspended in beautiful, unimaginably intricate coils. Younglove had been seeking a personal project, something more meaningful than the commercial works she was doing. As she looked about her, Younglove realized she was responding to the breathtaking artistry that went into African-influenced hairstyles.

The first person she photographed was a friend. Then, she says, “I started approaching people in the street. I’d see a style and chase after someone, and I’d ask them if they were interested in posing for me.”

Younglove began doing research to find out the origins and symbolism of these hairstyles. From historical drawings and photographs, she replicated hairstyles that no longer existed on her oil paintings; in one, she used her younger, adopted sister (who’s half black) as a model.

The project “kind of took over my life,” Younglove says. She visited salons to seek models, but many didn’t show up for appointments despite her promises to provide them with free photos (her portrait commissions normally cost $400 to $1,000). She has had more luck with impromptu street or mall encounters.

“Because I’m white, people have been suspicious,” Younglove says. “Why are you interested in this project?’ You,’ meaning white.”

She didn’t even think of the political implications entangled in black hair when she began her pursuit, and she wants to stay out of them. “I didn’t want to get into that, because it’s not my place to get into that. I’m looking at it from the point of view of the artist.”

Younglove’s firmly entrenched aestheticism is what appealed to Vandean Philpott, the executive director of the San Francisco African American Historical and Cultural Society. She remembers when African hairstyles were more political than aesthetic, whether in its intention or its reaction. “People were getting fired from their jobs for wearing braids,” Philpott recalls. “In the beginning, people were intimidated, but now people are beginning to see the beauty of these hairstyles.”

Their collaboration has led to the museum’s exhibit, “African & African American Hair as Sculpture,” which runs at Fort Mason in San Francisco through July 1. Besides Younglove’s oil paintings and photo watercolors, the show includes artifacts from Philpott’s own collection and that of museum board member Dr. William Hoskins. The opening reception (5-8 p.m. Saturday) will also feature a guest hair-shop owner.

Coincidentally, Younglove’s interest comes at a time when African hair has commanded the center of attention in books like “Hair in African Art and Culture,” the companion book to Museum of African Art exhibit, “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America” and “On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C.J. Walker.” The last, an account of the San Francisco businesswoman who invented African-American hair-care products, is written by her great-great-granddaughter A’Lelia Bundles, whom Philpott hopes will do a book signing in connection with the exhibit.

Philpott admits she deliberately tells people the artist is white to see if she can get a reaction. “I’ve had positive responses from everybody,” she says. “I was trying to get a rise out of people, but I guess that period has ended.”

Just as well, since Younglove doesn’t want to be considered an authority or historian on the subject. “I just want to bring attention to this art form that has been around for a thousand of years.” she says. “If I can make a lot of people happy with the beauty they create, that’s my goal.”


* What: “African & African American Hair as Sculpture”

* Where: San Francisco African American Historical & Cultural Society, Fort Mason Center, Building C, San Francisco

* When: Noon-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays through July 1. Reception 5-8 p.m. Saturday

* How much: $2, free ages 11 and under; reception free (donations accepted)

* CONTACT: 415-441-0640, www.fortmason.org.