Hugh Hayden’s Striking New Sculptures Take on the Inequities of Public Education

Jewels Dodson
Feb 1, 2022 3:00PM

Portrait of Hugh Hayden installing Brier Patch, 2022. Photo by Rashmi Gill. Courtesy of the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Throughout the world, there is an inextricable link between education, equity, and economics. It is also widely believed that education is the greatest weapon against inequity and injustice. Sculptor Hugh Hayden’s new work Brier Patch, an installation that was recently unveiled in New York’s Madison Square Park, calls into question who does—and more importantly, who does not—have access to the primary antidote to generational and systemic poverty: high-quality public education.

Hayden, 38, whose principal material is wood, constructed 100 school desks to create “classrooms” on four lawns throughout the park. The desks, of the 1970s wrap-around design, are tan and raw, stripped of their protective maroon bark; the logwood was salvaged from the New Jersey Pine Barrens. Emerging from the desks are lanky and languid tree branches void of foliage. The limbs are so barren, it’s hard to resist the notion that they exist in a permanent state of winter, never to blossom again. Up close, it’s easy to become entranced by the masterful melding of branches to desks; Hayden once again proves to be a skilled sculptor. He creates a discourse between what was and what is, the organic and the inanimate.

Hugh Hayden, installation view of Brier Patch, 2022, at Madison Square Park, New York, 2022. Photo by Yasunori Matsui. Courtesy of the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy.


Viewing the “classroom” in panorama, the branches read like a cacophony of chaos, wreaking of discord and danger. The latter Hayden knows all too well: He suffered a scratched cornea from a branch last year while hurrying to meet a deadline. Through Hayden’s purview, the branches are indicative of the bureaucratic labyrinth that has become the hallmark of American public education; the thickets are emblematic of the barriers to the American dream. The once ubiquitous promise for a better life has become significantly harder to achieve.

Though Hayden’s stance is valid, his own access to education and academic experiences are in contrast to those featured in this latest work. Hayden, a native of Dallas and the son of educators, attended gifted and talented programs as well as a private college preparatory Jesuit high school, and he’s also an alum of Ivy League universities Cornell and Columbia. Perhaps it was this differentiation that sharply brought into focus how deep the disparity in American education is, in a particularly personal way.

Work in progress view of Brier Patch at Showman Fabricators, 2021. Photo by Yasunori Matsui. Courtesy of the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy.

Hayden sources the title of this installation and some of his concepts from the Br’er Rabbit stories. The tales of a witty trickster rabbit originated in West Africa and emerged in the American South through “Uncle Remus” folktales. The clever rabbit outwits his adversaries, navigating an otherwise perilous brier patch that becomes a refuge for him. Hayden leaves it up to the viewer to explore the brier patch as a place filled with potential and possibility amid tumult.

This installation couldn’t be more befitting for a city with a new mayor and a new school chancellor, whose public school system is in relentless pursuit for equity; and a nation in the throes of restructuring history curricula to be more accurate. Hayden’s Brier Patch isn’t only timely, it’s necessary.

Jewels Dodson