Large Pieces Almost Finished–Blackbirds

blackbird rain 4WEBThe sunflowers in my garden are maturing. Soon flocks of redwing blackbirds will swoop in for a feast. In anticipation, two of my largest pieces are being made—each is five feet long.

Making a small piece involves cutting a single feather or two or three to make a completed picture. For a large piece such as this, the work becomes more compositional with many more feathers needed to complete the space.  A painter has the advantage of placing any size, color, shape, or width of line on their canvas. A feather’s natural shape, form, and color are my only ways of making a unified picture.

Both blackbird pieces will be in the Miami Art Basel show this December through NOW Contemporary Art. I will post pictures of them on this blog in two weeks when they are complete.

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shed feathersAll over my field, my geese are shedding their feathers after wearing them for a year. We also shed our covering–our skin. Instead of a yearly molt, we shed our outer skin constantly, so much that our entire outer skin is replaced about once a month. Another characteristic our skin shares with feathers is that each is made of the same kind of protein—keratin.

Reading a 2010 National Geographic article on skin , I found that like my field is full of shed feathers, my house is full of my shed skin cells. I shed about 8 pounds a year which becomes most of the dust in the corners, on top of the refrigerator, and on my computer screen. Eeeeew.

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Gaps Between the World and Us.

turkey-resurgence-4WEBwmAn artist’s job is to create bridges between how the world actually is and how we experience it.   An artist help us to see and experience the world from a different angle—whether it is emotional, conceptual, or just seeing things differently from how our brains are used to—like M.C.Escher does so well. It helps us not get too stuck in one way of seeing things. It allows us to be more flexible and adaptable.



That’s one of two reasons I like Escher. The other is that feathers are arranged on birds in ways that are prominent in Escher’s drawing: they overlap into repeating diamond patterns that take up all the space on the bird’s body.

Escher Bird Fish


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The Red Feather

eclectus-whiteI’m Caucasian. My skin is not pure white—that would be weird–but I can make my relatively whitish skin turn a bit orange when I drink a lot of carrot juice.

Similarly, a male cardinal has to eat a lot of the right seeds and fruits to keep its feathers red all year.  The same class of chemicals that make my skin turn orange, carotenoids, make the red in the cardinal’s feathers. Carotenoids are a class of pigments that gets its name from carrots. The red in the feathers last for the life of the feathers, about a year; and the orange in my skin, thankfully, only lasts a day.


 This feather is from an eclectus parrot, a bird that also gets its red color from the food it eats.
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More Swallows



My home is a swallow haven. The tree and violet-green swallows get bird houses on the top of long poles in the field. Barn swallows get the barn. I supply them with feathers for their nests and in return, they swoop around snapping up mosquitoes and other insects. These birds, plus the bats that nest in my barn, seem to eat all the mosquitoes because I never see any mosquitoes near my house. A barn swallow, I read, was calculated to fly 600 miles a day and snap up a bug a minute.

When I watch one of these birds dart aside to get an insect, I hear its mouth snap shut when it captures one. But I never have actually seen a swallow actually catch a bug, just heard the “snap”. When the swallows are about and I focus on a flying insect, waiting to see a swallow grab it, the bug always flies out of my sight, unharmed.

So I made this 20 by 30 inch piece of swallows catching bugs, using two mute swan feathers. With the white on white, it is hard to see the insect cutouts, just like it’s hard to see the real bugs the swallows catch. But with a direct light, intense shadows form, bringing the outlines of the bugs into sharp focus.

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Running into trouble with feather color

I ran into some trouble trying to portray a mockingbird singing. Because they “mock” many bird songs, I wanted to show it “singing” a lot of colored feathers. Scientists have recorded a mocking bird singing 180 different songs, one after another without repeating a single one. I ran into difficulty finding the right colors to finish the piece. Frankly, I don’t often think deeply about color theory because feather colors are quite limited. For help, I called my artist professor friend, Susan Aurand, who is a whiz with colors. I provided her with a choice of different colored small feathers. When she saw this piece that I had made, it was almost like she had a paintbrush in her hand, the way she gently placed small, orange, yellow, and red feathers in different places, bringing out the blues and purples. Thank you Susan! I am going to go back and read my color theory book—it’s buried around here somewhere.
Trouble with feather colors

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Hearing: an Owl Story

A short drive from my home is a beautiful prairie full of wildflowers this time of year.  After doing errands and computer work all day, I was happy to finally drive there, but it was already early evening.  As I walked on the paths, a moonless dark set in and I was a half mile from the parking lot. This is not a place where people walk at night, probably ever; especially without a flashlight. Nor are there any nearby roads or houses to provide any light. Feeling my way with my feet while looking up at the starry night, I must have appeared strange to any creatures who lived there. Especially the owls. Suddenly, their screeches combined with fleeting glimpses of their silhouettes close over my head made me a little nervous. Not just one or two owls, but about ten. They didn’t seem to like something about me because they swooped down so close to that I could feel their wing-wind.


I felt a bit creepy, but mostly exhilarated. After semi-blindly stumbling back to the car and driving home, I marveled at how well those owls can not only see and at night but also hunt with their sense of hearing. Their feathers help them do this. Each bowl-shaped face-feather grows on the satellite receiver-shaped face of a barn owl. Come to think of it, each feather is sort of shaped like a tiny cupped ear. These shapes funnel the tiniest of mouse noises into the owl’s brain. I assumed that these birds found me through their vision but I could be wrong. My assumption comes from my own reliance on sight. Perhaps the owls located me just by the noise of my breathing and walking. Like they find mice.

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Another way to have fun…

What springtime activity costs next to nothing, requires little or no travel and no electronics, brings both the joys of flight and interaction with wildlife, and does something good for creatures?


  • A ten-foot, one-inch-wide plastic pipe.
  • A bag of 2 to 6 inch-long curved body feathers from a goose or a swan or the larger feathers from a duck. Turkey or chicken feathers will do. One-inch to six inches long.

Part one…

Begin by scattering a handful of the smaller feathers on a cleared open space. A driveway or closely cropped grass is a good bet.

In my area, if barn, tree, or violet green swallows are building their nests nearby, they will find the feathers and swoop down to pick them up to line their nests. Nests with feathers, I read, have a higher success rate for hatching and rearing young than for those nests without feathers.  If this is the case, you are doing a good deed.


Once they have found your treasure trove of nesting materials and they know they can count on you for a continuing supply, they regularly come back for more. In return, you can count on them to be there for the next step.

Part two…

This is the time to bring out your ten-foot tube.   Put a feather in the top end of the tube, raise it vertically, and blow the feather out. The birds will have their chance as the feather slowly floats on the air current.  Swallows greatly prefer grabbing their feathers in the air than to swooping headfirst toward a feather lying on the ground.

If you have them, start with two-inch feathers. Once the birds work up the courage and skill to grab these, you can work up to bigger and bigger curved feathers. These bird’s bodies, head to tail are only about 4 or 5 inches long, so a seven inch feather is a challenge to fly with, but they do. It is a bit clumsy at first and they will let go and re-grab the feather several times. That is unless another bird doesn’t get it first. If it does, a chase is on.

It’s a great photo opportunity if you have a fast lens, are quick and lucky, and take a lot of shots, most which will be misses—these birds fly and swoop fast! I would like to figure out how to capture the action on video but am nowhere near the cameraman I would need to be. Please tell me if you know a technique that can video-capture these swallows on the fly, or if  you have seen it done. Is it even possible?

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Why I Find Feathers Alluring

Written for Center for Humans and Nature, May 4, 2015

Growing up, three bothersome younger sisters drove me to seek beauty, knowledge, solace, fun, and wonder in the big woods surrounding our home. This was in a rapidly suburbanizing area just east of Seattle. I remember, at 14, crouching by an overgrown ditch along a busy road, watching a foot-long trout, motionless in the clear water, occasionally flicking out to catch an insect. Even during those early explorations, I remember feeling the enormity of life and my small place in it.

Then came the bulldozers and construction. The ditch disappeared. I doubt if anyone else had a clue about the community of creatures that was destroyed. Most called it “development” but I saw it as a kind of un-development. I felt tremendously sad and have continued to feel this sadness the last 30 years as this sort of thing happens again and again. The feeling keeps following me as it follows many of us as we sift through the losses.

This feeling of awe and wonder as well as sadness has shaped my life’s work. I became a biologist and worked on various conservation advocacy projects, which exhausted me. I also worked for a long time as an environmental regulator, which, sometimes to my chagrin, was a profession geared toward asking, “How can we find a path through the regulations for this project go ahead?”

My heart remained absorbed with the beauty of the world. When I look at a bird, feel the wind, or even gaze at my own hand, I am enthralled. I wondered: how could I inspire this feeling in others?

Now, as a full time artist, I limit myself to a single medium. Any number of natural forms can foster appreciation for the natural world. I chose to use a rather unusual form: feathers. Ever since the head bird-keeper let me pick up pheasant and flamingo feathers at the zoo when I was twelve, I’ve seen feathers as reminders that I share the world with other creatures. Birds grow them, use them, and shed them. Yet when we find them, they have kept some of the essential qualities of the birds they came from like hints of flight, warmth, and beauty.

feathers from many species of starlings. photo: Chris Maynard


We have used feathers as symbols for millennia, everywhere on Earth. Feathers, to us, mean flight, transcendence, bridges between worlds, and escape. They are in our dreams. They are full of metaphor. As humans, we crave meaning. We find it through art and science, through religion, culture, myth, and our own experiences and imaginations.

These are not heart lipped faces. The patterns help a grouse to hide. Photo: Chris Maynard


I sometimes blink, finding that I have been holding a feather and staring at it for the last half hour. I’ve been marveling at its lightness, wondering where it has been, and thinking, “How did this feather serve to keep the bird warm and dry, or help it to fly?” I might drop the feather to see it swirl, spin, or flutter to the ground. I find myself in the middle of three spaces of perception: wonder and awe at the form; a small sense of connection to the feather’s original owner; and the desire for creative construction, with the accompanying thought, “How can I manipulate this into elegant, compelling, and meaningful art that will make people stop and wonder?” I view each individual feather as a small bit of perfection, a structure that art cannot enhance. Even so, I cut bird shapes out of feathers to augment the meanings.

The Dive. 18 x 12 inches. 2015. Chris Maynard


It is feathers’ forms that draw me in. Certainly, feathers can have lovely colors and varied, interesting patterns. But the shapes and complex structures of the feathers are what makes them unique in the animal world. A museum curator recently told me that they were considering excluding my work from a museum tour around the United States. When I asked why, she said that the feathers were too delicate so she feared they would be damaged. This is a common misperception. We confuse lightness with delicacy. Feathers are made of protein, keratin. It is the same material our fingernails and a bird’s claws and beak are made of. They are made to be tough. At the same time, feathers don’t weigh much. They are light enough for a bird to fly at freeway speeds. They protect a bird for an entire year before they’re molted. They are a marvel of structural engineering.

The shapes of feathers drive my art. To honor feathers and the birds they came from, I don’t flatten them to a background but instead, keep their gentle curves by setting them apart from their background. Each flight feather curves a bit to form an airfoil. Each body feather, say of a duck, curves front to back and a bit from side to side to fit the bird’s body, like shingles covering a house’s roof. The body feathers’ curved shape also lets birds more fully expand or contract the feathers to provide less or more warmth. They fit together perfectly, overlapping to let both air and water slide smoothly along.

Croce Ircle. 20 x 30 inches. 2015. Chris Maynard


These are some of the reasons I find feathers alluring. It is a curious phenomenon: limiting oneself to a single focus can open up an enormous world of awe and exploration. So in my art, I find myself cutting and designing each piece, striving to capture an essence of a bird or what they do, like fly.

Life is harsh. We are born to die. To live, we kill things to eat. Creatures and habitats perish so we can have things, get where we are going, and pursue our many dreams. Part of me cries out for gentleness where beauty and wonder have the upper hand. Feathers do this for me. They serve their functions while gracing the bodies of the birds and are gently let go when a bird sheds. Yet they keep their form, complexity, and beauty. They are gifts from the birds.

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Feathers Wasted

I made this video thinking about my January 11th blog entry. We eat about 50 billion chickens a year! But we do not eat their feathers. Historically, we have not known what to do with all the chicken feathers.  A chicken is about 6 per cent feathers by weight.  That is 8-10 billion pounds of feathers a year! Most go to landfills but some are tilled into the soil as a low-grade fertilizer.

A friend gave me several 50 pound feed bags full of large shed wing feathers from his crowned cranes. Some, the “B”-grades got “planted” in a garden.


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