Not only does seeing beautiful things make us feel alive, in a very real way, beauty keeps us alive. For one thing, if we weren’t attracted to children, we’d have less of a desire to protect them. And it’s harsh, but lots of studies show that beautiful children do get more attention and generally better treatment and breaks than less good looking children. Same with adults. And beautiful people attract more mates which both gives more descendants and over time, selects for the more beautiful. It is the same with birds–only the males are the ones that advertise their beauty in more colorful and fantastical ways. Half-way through reading Survival of the Prettiest, by Nancy Etcoff, this design came to mind. I named it Beauty on the Move
Birds are my standard themes for feathers. So I felt like I was headed off this theme with this one. But honestly, it came about through writing a poem about feathers for a children’s book:
Some dinosaurs grew small plumes
To keep them warm from chilly doom
If dinosaurs had a few
Why then couldn’t dragons too?
But dragon fire would burn them off
Unless the quills were really tough
Scales is what a dragon’s got
‘cause with plumes they’d be too hot
Comparing a farm turkey to a wild one is sort of like comparing a deer to a cow. The wild turkey is wary and, well, wild. What captured my attention was what they do at dawn. Where I live and my sister Kim lives, the turkeys fly up into the trees where they roost at night. They blend in, you don’t know they’re there. Then, just as dawn makes them barely visible as large shapes high in the trees, they start flying down to the ground where they pretty much stay all day. I’ve spent some time with the only other species of Turkey: the Ocellated Turkey in Yucatan where they have the same behavior.
When I use a feather by itself, divorced from the bird, the feather can be a reminder of the bird that wore it. Art does the same thing – it can describe something, say a bird. But the art is not the bird—it’s an abstraction. Civilization seems to be a process of increasing abstraction, breaking things down into their component parts and reassembling them to suit our needs. Like writing for instance, breaking down sounds into pictures, then syllables, then just individual sounds or letters. And then reassembling them to make meaning and communicate. So then we see the world in the way we describe it – by forming these letters into words and into full thoughts. Feathers though are real in themselves and only one step away from the real bird. So I hope that my work with feathers can be more of a direct connection with the world, a little different and refreshing angle from which to observe the realm.
Feathers are perfect by themselves so why make art with them? I do it to add meaning: to direct the viewer to ideas they can relate to. Giving meaning abstracts from the thing viewed. The meaning is not the actual object seen. It involves assumptions which can be wrong. Here’s an example: These sharp-tailed grouse feathers are not grown by the bird to be images of big-breasted love demons, nor deer prints, nor heart-lipped faces. They just add to the bird’s camouflage helping it hide. I like to remember that the viewer’s mind gives meaning, not the thing viewed. The things themselves are just innocent participants of the mind’s workings. Whether it is the color of someone’s skin, the way people dress, or how we see a feather, seeking meaning helps make sense of the world. It is a very human quality.
Most of the time winter wrens scurry around under ferns and logs deep in the woods. And they give a tiny, short and abrupt, slightly harsh peep every once in a while if they are upset. Which they usually are when I am trudging around where they live. But in their springtime, which seems to be about now in late winter, they get up in the tops of the forest trees and sing their hearts out. Long, happy, wonderfully melodious chirps that go on and on. If their goal in doing this is to establish territory, they have a very different perspective of their songs that I do. So I finished this piece today with the feather-songs drifting down to the ground where I would be.
First, a little background: Each feather is made of a shaft and a bunch of barbs that come off the shaft. Like tree branches. Each branch, or barb has more branches coming off of it. On a feather these smaller branches are called barbules. Each barbule has a grabby claw hook which grasps others. That’s what keeps a feather together and flat. Without them, birds couldn’t fly. It’s like Velcro. And they can come apart and zip back together again.
So that’s how I cut this African Grey Parrot tail feather without it falling apart: by relying on the barbules to hold the barbs together. This cut shape isn’t very strong though. That’s because the connection of some of the barbs to the shaft were severed. So if the Velcro-like barbule claws come apart, the shape just falls apart. On my shadowbox work, I spend a long time on each feather placing backing material in certain places to make them sturdy. This feather is not backed.
This feather alphabet is a failure. After making a very successful feather alphabet poster from the brown, black and white patterns found in a single bird’s feathers, I said to myself, ‘a color feather alphabet would be even better.’ Looking at all sorts of feathers from around the world I did not find nearly enough to make all the letters of the English alphabet. Now that I figured out why I failed, it seems pretty obvious:
Birds use patterns to break up their body outline, to camouflage themselves, to hide. Colors advertise. Colored feathers don’t need patterns.
More than ever, every time I see a crow these past few weeks, I stop and watch. That is because I am still reading Tony Angel’s Gift of the Crows. The book has many stories but what sticks in my mind is their brain size. Our bodies are 2% brain. An animal we think of as intelligent is a sperm whale with its huge head, it has a brain size of only 0.0 something percent of body weight. Brain size for a crow, depending on the species is up to 3% of total body weight! They can count up to six, they make tools, they are extremely social. Crows can recognize your face.
Something about all this is tremendously compelling and at the same time slightly mysterious, edging toward creepy for some. Two new completed pieces and designs, both with crow themes, uploaded today onto my gallery homepage: Pro Crow Creation and Passing By.
Tony Angel describes them:
“Crows are mischievious, playful, social, and passionate. They have brains that are huge for their body size and exhibit an avian kind of eloquence.” Gifts of the Crow by Tony Angel and John Marzluff.
Crows live among us so we can see a bit of what they do and they can see us. My first three pieces for 2013 will be of crows: small 11 x 14 inch shadowboxes using their feathers.
Here is the beginning of one.