“Just watch your eyes,” Hayden warns about his new installation, commissioned by the Conservancy of Madison Square Park and opened on January 18th.

One hundred cedarwood school desks litter the park grounds with tree branches erupting and blooming through the seats, arranged like an entangled woodland classroom. The branches and benches are crafted from the same wood, creating a beautiful interplay between the material and its origins. This is the largest work of his to date, spread across four separate park lawns. The installation, entitled Briar Patch, calls for equal access to education, thus echoing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Quality Education.

The familiar set-up of a classroom becomes haunting, unsettling and eerily beautiful in this  installation. The name Briar Patch borrows from the Br’er Rabbit Southern folktales that can be traced back to African tales, in which the brier patches can either be a safety net and a home or a hazard.

“In Hugh Hayden’s project, the overgrown configuration of branches overwhelms and encumbers the placidity of seats of childhood learning. He transforms everyday objects into new forms that expose the properties and purpose of the original source,” says Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Deputy Director and Chief Curator of the Conservancy.

As a storyteller and sculptor, Hugh loves to play with and undermine the notion of the American dream. In this exhibit, he showcases how the education system can be protective to some and completely inaccessible, or even dangerous, to others. This massive work has been interpreted to be about everything from natural resources, the school to prison pipeline, to school shootings. If anything, the many interpretations reflect the innumerable shortcomings in the country’s education system.

As the US education system buckles under the weight of the pandemic, it has been split open by debates about the inclusion of critical race theory in the curriculum and a constant struggle between opening schools or keeping classes online. In one school, staff shortages even led to police officers being brought in to fill in for the many teachers who were out sick.

Hayden began as an architect, but once realizing he could cast his net must wider as an artist and sculptor, he enrolled to do his MFA. As a phenomenal woodworker, this isn’t the first time the thorny issue of the American dream has popped up in his work. His 2018 sculpture series, America, featured various domestic rooms, but specifically a dining room set so no one could sit down. These spaces were house-like, but not homey. They are, like many opportunities in the country, inaccessible for those not born into privilege.

“All of my work is about the American dream, whether it’s a table that’s hard to sit at or a thorny school desk,” Hayden says in an interview with W Magazine. “It’s a dream that is seductive, but difficult to inhabit.”

Growing up as a child in Dallas Texas, he often felt alienated due to his race and sexuality. As a metaphor, the briar patch represents the rigid and stubborn nature of the education system that for many can be a space of growth, transformation and protection. For many other American students passing through the unwieldy education, the maze can be painful and downright impossible for children of colour, neurodivergent and poor students.

Briar Patch by Hugh Hayden. Image courtesy of The New York Times.

“My work is sculpture and can’t be replicated in a 2D image,” Hayden said in an interview. “It’s better to experience in person. It’s why we’re alive.”

So, if you’re in New York, the exhibit is on view from until April 24th 2022.

You can support the Madison Square Park Conservancy here. Or help to reduce education inequalities with non-profits like The New Teacher Project

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