I sometimes work with snakeskin in my art as well as feathers. What is the relation of these outer coverings: human skin, snake skin, and feathers?
Unlike birds that sheds its feathers about once a year, or a snake that sheds its outer skin about three times a year, we shed our outer skin constantly. About .2 pounds a week. Our shed skin doesn’t look like our outer wrappings like shed snake skins do nor does it appear as beautifully complex structures like feathers. Our shed skin doesn’t end up in art. It gathers as dust in our houses.
What if instead of shedding constantly, we shed our outer layer intact like a snake? Would we have molting days built into our work schedule as days off? Would we keep our sheds as souvenirs like locks of hair? Would we use our skin in art?
I may make a piece using feathers, snake skin, and a background of dead human skin cells gathered as dust. I could mix the dust with a light water based glue like clear acrylic and paint it on paper as a background. But although I find shed snakeskin fascinating, I am slightly revolted seeing human dust when I wipe my finger across the top of a picture frame or look under the couch.
I am most grateful to the Gerald Peters Gallery and to Maria Hajic who has been supporting me in my art at this Santa Fe gallery for several years. She is working hard on an upcoming show featuring my work. I will be driving there for the opening reception July 24th and an artist talk on the 25th. If you are able to come, mention that you read about the show on my blog and I will give you a shiny feather from the national bird of Nepal.
The 15 pairs of swallows that nest in my barn line their nest with feathers. I place curled, goose body feathers in an open space in front of my studio for them to swoop in and pick up off the ground. They especially like the large ones that are the width of the inside of their nests.
Besides the fun of watching swallows carry off these feathers which are sometimes longer than themselves, I feel like I am doing a good deed because these birds’ feathered nests are twice as successful at nests not lined with feathers.
That’s because the newborn birds have naked skin like us. Would you rather lie in a bed of grass or mud or a bed of feathers? It makes sense that feathering a nest helps eggs hatch by keeping the birds warm. The feathers also reduce parasites in the nest. I’m not sure exactly how.
I enjoyed reading through some of the studies but usually just skim and read the abstracts. Mostly people don’t find earth-shattering discoveries, but there are interesting little bits of knowledge that are gleaned from each study.
Blackbird Melodies, 36 by 55 inches, turkey and parakeet feathers with a small few amazon, conure, and peacock feathers
If the blackbird’s song is a shape, it might be a circle, sort of a blurt of music, leading with red just as the bird leads its flight with red shoulder feathers. This design is influenced by music notation—do you see quarter notes?
These birds are gregarious, traveling and living together in same-sex flocks much of the year. During breeding season they get on cattails and rushes to sing. One first supposes that they are trying to keep other males away and attract the females. Males do mate with several females and one may thiunk that each male monogamously serves these females. But the curious thing is that up to half the baby birds in each nest are sired by different fathers. It seems that in addition or in place of what we assume as aggression to each other, there may be more a sort of friendliness.
Anyway, I envisioned this piece as sort of a dream shared by the males as they sing.
At 36 by 55 inches, Blackbird Melodies is one of my larger pieces. I waited until I had help to make this and it arrived in the form of Evergreen College intern Grant Walker. One week, we made the background of acid-neutral foamcore and a 4 foot wide roll of beautiful thick Fabriano cotton paper. The next week, early on the morning of the day we were to begin, I was just finishing the design. To get there, I had sketched a lot of ideas, different bird song shapes and sketches. Nothing came close to looking right. Grant was due to arrive in a couple of hours and I wanted to begin laying out a 55 inch long design then.
It is the best and hardest part of creativity, making something that has never been made before. The hard part is not being certain of a direction while experimenting and trying out ideas and discarding most of them as awful. The worst part is not knowing that the end result will be successful. The best part is having faith that success will result. The very best is when everything works out. Which is what seemed to be happening with this piece. After hours of tring out ideas on paper and not having a clue whether or not I was close to a solution, everything fell into place in a matter of a split second “aha”.
Since this post happens every two weeks, the next post will show the final piece with thoughts about its design.
Continuing from the last blog post which explored how we can’t really know how other people and animals experience the world but we can guess through behavior and through art…
One of the biggest perspective shifts our culture has had in the past 50 years is that blue earth globe image the astronauts sent from their spacecraft from twenty eight thousand miles in 1972. Birds don’t fly that high, but I am guessing that their perspective of the earth is quite different from ours based on flying and where they fly.
So I am making a series of pieces with the earth carved out of feathers. Funny thing was, images from the perspective of looking down on earth from the angle of the middle of the Pacific Ocean were rare. I wanted to show my version of the perspective of an albatross who spends it’s life flying over the huge expanses of the southern oceans.
You see the world in one way and someone else sees it differently. How can we really know the way someone else experiences the world? Sure, we can guess based on facial features and what we know of a person from our experience and what they tell us, but how can we really know? It makes me curious about people because it is a mystery; only each person knows their own experience.
The same kind of a mystery happens with other living things like birds. They don’t talk but they do give us many behavior clues if we watch. In a way, birds share more similarities with us than differences, like a nervous system, blood, bones, heart and lungs, eating equipment, skin, and reproductive organs; heads and legs and feet and necks. They see with their eyes and hear with their ears. They also have a few things that are different, the parts that we tend to focus on and which usually cause us to think that we are mostly different.
So if I think that I share most of the same attributes with birds, it is a link. This makes me curious about how they experience the world because they do have some remarkable differences based on the structure of their eyes and brains and based on seeing their surroundings from the air. So I explore that curiosity with art, but it is only a guess. Because only the birds know.
Are feathers delicate? They float on the air, they weigh practically nothing. Yet they are intricately composed of the toughest of animal materials, doing the hard work of keeping a bird warm, dry, and aloft for a year, until new ones grow in and the old ones shed.
So I am intrigued by Angelo Musco’s photograph of a feather made out of hundreds of human bodies. “I call it the ‘Paradox of Lightness’ because there is this strength and power that comes from this community of thousands of interwoven bodies, yet it is a feather,” said Musco. “Ironically it looks effortless and elegant but it is the result of a coordinated and painstakingly long process.” “The image seems so light and effortlessly floating in the air,” he said. “It is a quiet, suspended moment you first see, but as you get closer and go into the piece you find a complex and completely unexpected world.”
This 15-inch turkey tail feather offered up all its parts that were not shorebirds. I like cutting turkey tail feathers because the feather is thin. Being a tail feather, it doesn’t have to be very strong or thick to support flight. Wing feathers are harder to cut usually because they have to be thicker. For flight feathers, each barb where it branches off the shaft is kind of like a deep steel I-beam.
Several years ago, I asked several traveling friends to bring me back a pigeon tail feather from each major city they visited. I wanted to make a piece of art using these feathers from all over the world since this pigeon, originally from Europe, has established itself in cities everywhere. It is the most familiar bird in the world.
So when I travel to New York City, I get discouraged when I hear people calling them “rats with wings”. This perspective conflicts with my image of a person happily feeding pigeons, surrounded by these flying and strutting birds. Sure, pigeons cause minor inconvenience but isn’t it better to make room to share our world with other living things than hate them for causing us minor inconvenience? Especially in the city where we have otherwise almost completely changed wild animals’ living spaces to suit our needs?
I have not yet made that piece using all the pigeon feathers, but Ric Michel of Ric Michel Fine Art in New York City, recently asked for a larger, three foot version of an earlier piece I had made using pigeon tail feathers, so I used a much larger feather—from a turkey-sized grouse from Siberia. I made it to honor pigeons and it made me happy to send it to the big city.