We make sense of our place in the universe in many ways: science, religion, philosophy, stories, our own experience, myth, and art. Feathers have always symbolized flight, transformation, aspiration, and hope as well as beauty and wonder. If the meaning we ascribe to feathers are useful in some way to make sense of our existence, we will always use feathers as major symbols as long as we and birds inhabit the Earth.
Feathers universally represent the ability to fly. So I was pleased to create a commissioned piece to be placed at the Philips Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks because getting close to flying is a goal of a basketball team, especially one called the Hawks. Flight is also an aspiration of the fans, we want our team to metaphorically fly, to do their best -- and surpass their best.
Each feather can symbolize flight. A team of them on two wings working together can accomplish flight.
Feathers are the central trunk or shaft of my artistic focus. Though I am not branching out to other media, I compare how feathers branch out to trees, arteries, nerves, and river systems.
Isn't a defining factor of these branching systems a process of getting from one place to another and maintaining continuity? For a feather, it begins as a little nubbin in a bird's skin, then grows into a branching system that creates a structural continuity. Nerves send signals back and forth. Trees, blood, and rivers are continuous flowing liquids.
As a creative person, I occasionally visualize off-beat scenarios. Like a a bird or a person stripped of everything but their circulatory systems and looking a bit like a branching feather.
This August, I finished a large cut feather installation in the entry of a lovely Puget Sound home. Since the windows face the water, gull shapes cut from blue macaw feathers were positioned to fly in to rest on the right wall. I called it Coming Home. As I was finishing up the installation, on a scaffold by the upper window, I glanced out occasionally to see gulls flying by.
Many people say my art is completely original but it is not. I mean I developed a technique using technologies already created, I use common accepted design practices, and I am influenced by other artist. Case in point: Maurits Cornelis Escher. He used tessellation to create many of his designs, repeating shapes that totally fill a plane with no space left over. The visible feathers on a bird’s body does it too, appearing like overlapping diamond-shaped shingles.
Out of the Box, installations continued
Much of July I spent designing, cutting, gluing and arranging prepared feathers in the silhouettes of gulls for an installation commission. These installations are different than most of my previous work in that they not restrained by the protection of shadowboxes. They are larger and can be more free-form, adapted to their environment, the walls where they are installed.
I was thrilled to create the first three large installations of my feather carvings at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art this March. They are out of the box, literally. No shadowboxes, so the feathers and cutouts are pinned directly to the wall without any protection.
The stabilized feathers are tough but the pinned feathers and cutouts could be damaged by leaning against them so they needed to be placed away from traffic and high enough to be out of the way of exuberant dogs and cats and kids. They are cleaned of dust with a strong stream of air. The feathers deter pests from eating them as their backing and stabilization treatment does this.
These installations can be large and made to fit any space. It takes a lot of time to prepare and cut the feathers but the installation on-site goes fairly quickly. I will go anywhere in the world to create these.
When a bird flaps its wing downward, feathers push on the air to keep a bird aloft, right? Then what happens when the bird moves its wing back up? Wouldn’t feathers push the air going the other way forcing the bird down? It would except for several things happening at the same time with the wings and feathers. Here are some:
1. The wing twists upward on the up-beat
2. The big flight feathers on the wing tips angle up so they aren’t flat against one another but are open like a louvered window shade opened so you can see out
3. Each feather lets a little bit of air pass through; a little more on the leading edge letting more air than the trailing edge. This is part of what allows feathers to separate from each other on the upbeat and helps them stick together on the downbeat. (Air Transmissivity of Feathers, Muller and Patone, 1998)
Wealth is not the same as having money. Certainly we can trade money for stuff and experience but what for? What we really want to mean by wealth is that elusive creature called happiness. Besides having enough for basic needs and in addition to having satisfying relations, happiness is in part, the ability to let in awe and wonder. And wonder is an ability to step outside oneself, if just for a moment. Wonder is fostered through a reluctance to summarize; a hesitancy to put observations into boxes. It is feeling safe enough not to judge.
June 23rd is the reception for my show at the Gerald Peters Gallery in Santa Fe. The title of the show is Ascension, a fitting theme for the qualities inspired by feathers and flight. Part of why I want to fly, to ascend is to go somewhere else. Another goal is to be content, not to go somewhere else, not to even have a goal. I find that some of my most contented moments are watching birds fly, especially the swallows around my house and barn. I watch for hours, feeling part of them, banking, swooping, and soaring. Like I am wrapped in these birds. Soaring like the essence of hope, yearning to get to the impossible to reach goal of hope, to continual perfect balance, to peace.
During my April artist residency in Costa Rice, I got to know more about hummingbirds by watching them every day. These were the first pieces I made when I returned to the USA. Here is one of them, very small which I made for the September Woodson Art Museum’s Birds in Art post card sale with proceeds supporting museum activities. This title rhymes but I want to name future pieces partially from the names of the hummingbirds which are delightful:
Sun Angel . Marvelous . Comet . Sparkling . Emerald . Sapphire . Wood Nymph . Coquette . Golden . Hillstar . Fairy . Coronet . Royal . Gem . Ruby . Woodstar . Jewel . Sungem . Amethyst . Brilliant
This is something I can do. Launch myself off a tall tree or a cliff or a tall buiding. That wonderful feeling of lightness and flying would last a small moment and not be worth it. Because when I spread my arms, I’d be disappointed, then either terrified or resigned. Not sure which and I don’t want to find out. I just want that feeling of catching air, lifting, and soaring off.
The patterns on this argus pheasant feather looked like little birds wanting to fly away. So I assisted.
For my current museum show on Bainbridge Island (a 30 minute ferry ride from Seattle, through May, 2017), I made this as a large wall installation. It reminded me of the fantastical flight of huge flocks of starlings in this video titled Murmuration.
My creative ideas are inspired by birds, feathers, other artists, and themes of flight. Another major source of inspiration is kinesthetic. I see the swallow swoop and soar and I can feel it in my body, as a dance, like a partially realized longing to fly.
This sense particularly developed during years of downhill skiing. What they call “unweighting” can be a subtle change that lets the skis turn, like a bird changing direction in flight. I loved the small airborne weightless moments too. I don’t take the time to ski much anymore, especially after realizing that I can have the same light flying feeling by freeform dancing to music that I like. I do it in my studio.
For the past three months I have been excitedly getting ready for the opening of my solo show at the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art. From Seattle, take the ferry to Bainbridge Island and walk to the museum. It’s free.
March 11th through June 4th. artist talk Sunday March 19 3:pm . meet the artist 1:pm March 25, May 7, and May 21.
The museum will display 46 pieces, some not yet seen in public and some from private collections. It is not a sales event although people can purchase some of the art from me directly during the show as long as they agree to loan the art to the museum through May.
I am especially excited for the three large installations. At 6 to 12 feet, they are installed on walls with no protective glass. I spent a good part of December cutting the many birds for this. Above is the result of my cutting efforts for one of the installations.
As children in North America we ate sandwiches made from white flour and added vitamins and minerals. It was called wonder bread which came in a white plastic bag designed with lots of red, yellow, and blue circles. Their advertising slogan read, “…helps build strong bodies 12 ways.”
We hunted for wonder bread in the grocery store. A hawk hunts mice in the field to build its strong bird body and feathers. The mice reconstitue into body and feathers. Is this what is meant by reincarnation? A mouse gets eaten and reappears as a feather? Does a mouse ponder its fate?
Life is harsh. We come into the world with one guarantee: that we will die. And creatures have to die so we can eat and live. More die for us to have things and go places. Feathers to me are a kind of gentleness amongst all this life and death. After the birds wear them, they gently let them go as they shed. And yet the feathers retain their structural complexity and beauty. I love that. At the same time, the cycle goes on. Each feather grows as a result of what the bird eats.
I am continuing to carve pieces of birds and what they eat. This series is of raptors—hawks and falcons. A cooper’s hawk hunts birds and a kestrel, a tiny falcon, hunts mice.
Consider that a bird’s house is its feathers. They provide all the creature needs for transportation, warmth, and shelter from rain. If we had feathers, we wouldn’t need our houses, fireplace, clothes, or cars. Our world would look a lot different because our needs would be a lot less.