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.
Eyes--sight is important to birds, even more than it is to us. For one, birds often see color and distances better than we do. Everyone knows we don’t see as well as owls at night.
Colors are also important to birds as mate attractors. So it makes sense that nature has combined eyes and mate attracting colors into beautiful (even to us) feathers. The reflective tail feathers colors of a peacock and, as pictured here, a peacock pheasant are called eyes. As a woman or man makes eyes at us to attract, these birds do the same but with their tail feathers.
But it wasn't mate attraction that led to me making this piece. Seeing iridescent shiny eyes in the woods inspired me. I coasted down five miles of logging road at night. Several times, spooky green eyes stared back at me and then broke off amidst crashing in the brush. They were deer eyes, a close match to the color in these feathers. Then a pair of red eyes stared out. Stopping and on close inspection, it was a small owl sitting on a low branch.
When my daughter was four, she drew a picture that I fell in love with. It looked like a flying angel and reminded me of my yearnings to fly, both in my conscious thought and in my dreams. I liked the drawing so much that I recently created this stylized version in feathers. When I showed my now older daughter what I had made along with her drawing, she said, “Oh, there’s a story about that, it was about Mr. Poop Man!” I guess four-year-olds can get obsessed with this sort of thing. So instead of naming this piece “Dreams of Flight” or “Mr Poop Man”, I will settle for “A Feeling of Lightness”.
Did you know that the word “pen” is closely related to feathers? Penna is “feather” in latin. Since feathers were used to write, now we have pens and pencils.
Sharon Carter wrote a page about feather pens on the North Carolina Reenactment Society website. The author, in one paragraph, outlines the history of feather pens from the 6th to 18th centuries. Then she covers where to get quills, how to clean and harden them, and how to cut them so they work well. http://www.6nc.org/quill-pens-the-18th-century-way/
We filter much of how we see the world through our language, both spoken and written. Words paint a picture in our minds of, say, a feather or a bird. We may think we know a feather or a bird after reading about it. But the picture in our mind is not the thing itself. We don’t really know a thing only through reading. Nevertheless, we often confuse words with what is real. This piece attempts to portray a feather pen that is writing the word “plume” in feathers. Except when the little feathers form the word, it is upside-down. As the little cutout bird flies, it spews small feathers, also forming the word “plume” but right-side up.
Birds are what they eat. What birds eat while growing feathers contain isotopes, trackable portions of hydrogen, carbon, and nitrogen which vary in predictable patterns around the world. Enter feather analysis.
Finding the chemical isotopes in a feather can tell approximately where a feather grew and what the bird ate.
This is a new way to learn more about birds because chemically analyzing feathers is easier than banding birds. Though scientists discover information about a bird’s exact location and time by banding, they have to catch a huge number of birds since only a very small portion of the bands are recovered. It is an inefficient process yielding only limited information: where and when the bird was recaptured.
Placing small electronic radio signal devices on birds can tell us more such as exactly where the bird travelled and, depending on the device, data like temperatures along the way. However, these devices are expensive, don’t work well on small birds as their batteries have to be lighter, don’t have much range, and soon expire.
Collecting fallen, shed feathers is much easier than capturing live birds and it is kind to the birds. The information gained from isotope analysis is not specific to an exact location but more generally associated with a region. Since feathers grow in a very short time, the isotopic content of a feather will reveal the bird’s diet when the feather grew, and therefore the area where the feather developed.
https://www.aba.org/birding/v36n2p142.pdf general information about feather isotope analysis from the American Birding Association
http://isomap.rcac.purdue.edu:8080/gridsphere/gridsphere This university site is a good place to begin if you want to delve into the technical aspects of how it works and think about using it as a tool.
http://sirfer.utah.edu/tour.html The University of Utah provides training in isotope analysis, lab analysis, and more information through their programs and websites.
I made three pieces inspired by the sounds birds make.
- The raven. In English, we describe a certain raven sound as a croak, which is also how we describe the sound a frog makes. I wonder if they ever fool each other.
- A jay (around here they are Steller’s jays) expresses a large variety of sounds including a very good imitation of a redtail hawk. I have been fooled.
- A kingfisher voices "kak, kak, kak, kak" so loudly it feels like a series of pulses. I wonder if the fish they are hunting hear it or feel it and are somehow fooled?
We see color through three different lengths of cones in our eyes. That is why we say there are three primary colors, blue, red, and yellow. Most birds have four lengths of cones so they see a fourth primary color in the ultraviolet range. Just like blue and yellow combines to make green, ultraviolet light combines with the other three primary colors for birds to make combinations we cannot imagine. That means that bird’s feathers often have an ultraviolet color component that we can’t see but birds can.
I’ve been thinking how to express this in my work with feathers. I began by thinking about some ways we express the color spectrum: rainbows, color charts, color wheels, graphs, and prisms. So here is a take on it in this piece.
I pay special attention to the legal requirements of possessing feathers since I sell feather art. Many people tell me about their small feather collections so I thought I’d share a rough guide to what feathers you can have in the USA.
You can have:
- Feathers from most birds that are not native to North America. European Starlings, House Sparrows, Eurasian Collared Doves, and Ring-neck Pheasants are not native to North America. Also, think feathers of peacocks, many parrots, most of the 55 species of pheasants, and small songbirds like zebra finches that are kept in cages. The biggest exceptions to this are the restrictions on having feathers of most birds that live outside North America that are critically endangered1,3.
- Feathers from most wild duck and geese you can’t sell, except for mallards. You can sell other kinds of duck feathers if it is for fly tying for fishing.
- Upland birds that people hunt—like turkey, grouse, and pheasant. Each state can have more restrictive laws, like in Washington State the Sharp-tailed Grouse is threatened so you can’t have those feathers unless you show it came from another state where hunting is permitted.
You can’t have:
- Feathers from almost all other birds in my country—not eagles of course, but also not seagull feathers, songbird feathers, or crow feathers2.
- Feathers from many birds from other countries that are critically endangered3.
Though all birds naturally shed their feathers about once a year, you’re not legally supposed to have most of them. A law called the (U.S.) North American Migratory Bird Act was made a long time ago when people were killing too many birds to use for fashionable hats. It’s a broad-brush law intended to protect birds. It doesn’t recognize the difference between plucked feathers, shed feathers, or bird skins; you can’t have any of it. If a feather was pulled from a dead bird that you found at the side of the road or the beach, how does someone know that the bird wasn’t killed on purpose just for the feathers? It can sometimes seem silly but it is a matter of reasonable enforcement, like speeding law enforcement on the highway.
I try to be familiar with the laws but the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is the place to go to for the final word in the USA. Here are some links to their sites plus another helpful link:
1 The American Federation of Aviculture's website has a discussion of when you can have feathers from parrots from other countries that are critically endangered in those countries but because they are commonly kept in aviaries in the USA, it is ok to have their feathers in the USA.
2 The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is the place to go for the final word on the Migratory Bird Act. The law is explained and they have an alphabetically arranged list of protected birds.
3 Here is a link to lists of earth's endangered species; click Cites Appendices. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversees the Convention on Internation Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) within the USA.
A focus on feathers offers a different way of looking at birds. Feathers are meant to function best on birds but each individual feather is a bit of perfection in itself. What if the function of the bird’s existence is to produce these perfect feathers? The bird would mate, lay eggs, and raise baby birds so they can continue making feathers. Then the feathers would shed their birds once a year.
Nelly Saunier creates wonders as a plumassier in Paris. A plumassier is a person who deals or works with feathers. Her creativity shows brightly in her feather art, art installations, collaborations, fashion, jewelry, and what caught my attention first, her recent micro-feather work on the faces of watches. It is worth spending some time clicking around her website. I am always interested in other artists who work with feathers and have several other artists in mind to feature in this blog later this year.
As my garden grows with more abundance than I can use, so does my creativity. Apples on the ground, baseball bat-sized zucchini thrown into the compost; more lettuce, beets, figs, kale, chard, and tomatoes than I make time to harvest and use.
Producing creative ideas for new pieces is like that for me. I feel blessed with abundance and yet I am able to gather only portion of the opportunities, making them into art. Is it a waste perhaps like the garden produce? Or, like the unused fruit and vegetables that go back into the soil to nourish next year’s plants, do unused creative ideas somehow nourish future creativity?
In the stop motion video, you can see the progression of placement and cuts. For me, what really stands out is how the feathers and the cutout birds pop out at the end when they are elevated. The shadows give the work an added dimension.
A big piece like this usually comes after making several smaller pieces where the design concepts are tested. It took a while to collect enough of the right feathers—these are all from the right side of the wing of molluccan cockatoos. Some were shed from a pet bird over several years and some shed in a nonprofit rehabilitation sanctuary for parrots.
I often show a playful element in my work. Playfulness allows me to learn new things and skills without being too tense, like the second brood of swallows today that were just off the nest learning to fly. I watched these young ones playing with a feather, catching it in their beaks, dropping it, and picking it up again and again. I bet they were enjoying improving their flying and bug catching skills.
This all seeing cyclops feather just travelled from Washington State to New Mexico and back. Having it with me reminded me of how I have chosen to see the world, through my focus on feathers. Perhaps it also brought luck as the Santa Fe show was a success and I am invited back next year. Now I am told that having a rearview mirror adornment is illegal if it blocks the driver’s view of the road.
Part of what makes making art rewarding is exploring new creative ideas. But people see the art I have already made and often want something like it, the original having already been sold.
This can create a quandary for the artist because if we fall completely into producing similar pieces to satisfy demand, we lose our time to create new works. So we strive to find a balance between producing a lot of similar work with producing only completely new creative original work.
Fortunately for me, I enjoy the process of making each piece and therefore am satisfied making a few originals based on previous designs, like “Harken.” However, exploring new creative territory remains extremely important so at least a day or two a week, if not more, I work on completely new design ideas.
If you find yourself in Santa Fe before July 23, stop in at the Gerald Peters Gallery to see my show. You will see “Harken” in person. It is sold but I am sending the gallery several more pieces about the same size based on this design.