This is Art Basel week and my Miami dealer, Pablo Donna, has a booth at the Miami Art Fair. So that is where I flew. This is an opportunity for galleries and collectors around the world to meet, to show and buy art. It is one of our biggest art shows.
My mother’s side of the family is from the area; it is where she grew up. So I will meet with some of my interesting relatives and visit the old family homes. I also plan to hit the swamps and beaches to get inspiration for birds that live here, like spoonbills and ibises, skimmers and gallinules.
Hand-plucked from my turkey
This year for the first time, turkeys graced my field. I got these heritage turkeys from a friend who selectively bred them for their beautiful feathers. I quickly became enamored with the birds themselves, not just their feathers. They pretty much raised themselves. My small flock was given free range, though I clipped their wing feathers so I guess they weren’t entirely free. Nevertheless, they could hop the fence from my field into my neighbor’s. Which is what happened when my neighbor’s Chihuahua grabbed one. The bird was fine but this taught the flock to stick closer to home.
The big Tom turkey strutted around, always showing off his tail feathers. I like to use them in my art but I knew that by the time he shed his, they would be ratty and useless for me. I’d heard that if you pull fresh, fully grown feathers, that the bird will regrow them. But I was loath to do it as this bird was trusting, kind of like a friend. But after consulting several people, I reluctantly decided to do it. After grabbing the bird (as he walked right up to me) I began to pull his tail feathers. He didn’t flinch or seem to be in pain and the feathers came out smoothly and easily. He still walks up to me but seems to be a bit embarrassed having no tail to strut, even though he still tries.
Archaeopteryx 14 by 17 inches using a hornbill’s shed tail feather
Many kinds of birds have come and gone since the iconic archaeopteryx, 150 million years ago.
From a passage in Birds of the World (1961 Golden Press), Pierce Brodkorb estimated that based on the fossil record at that time that there have been between one and one and a half million species of birds since archaeopteryx. That seemed like a lot, so I checked on more recent estimates using statistics based on studies of the fossil record plus a lot of assumptions the scientists made. The estimates vary from 150 thousand to 1.5 million birds that have ever lived. Whatever the number of birds that have ever existed, there were a lot more birds that used to exist than the ten thousand-ish that exist today. Richard Pimm (who made one of the lowest estimate of total bird species) says that without humans, one species is thought, on average, to have gone extinct every 1000 years. Recently, with humans of course, it is a lot more.
Besides being sad over how much faster extinctions are happening at our hand, I come away from this with an amazement for how many different kinds of birds there were. I imagine, how many different patterns, shapes, and colors of feathers there have been which we will never know but can only try to imagine.
Paleo Owl, 14 by 17 inches, currasow and turkey feather
I welcome the darker and colder and wetter seasons because, I tend to spend more time inside without feeling the pull of the warm sun drawing me to explore the natural world. I get to work on art. The themes of my winter pieces will sometimes edge away from portraying certain kinds of birds and their behaviors and more toward the meanings associated with feathers and flight.This is a piece I made last winter. If I lived in a cave, a fire would light the walls, casting upward shadows. I made the piece specifically for this kind of shadow. Because it needs to be lit from below, it has not left my studio. A home or gallery is almost always lit from above, so it would have to have special lighting for this piece. Now that I think of it though, some upward lighting would feel kind of cozy on a cold winter night.
My inspiration was from a petroglyph that you can go see in Columbia Hills State Park on the Washington State side of the Columbia River. I took the liberty of stylizing an image to adapt it to feather cutting.
- Petroglyph in Columbia Hills State Park, Washington
Red-wing blackbirds mislead us. On one hand, their noisy and busy behavior in the cattails during mating season seems directed at keeping other males away from each of their small aggressively defended territories. Males have many female mates. But here is the curious thing that I read on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology web site: up to half of the baby birds have a different father.
I think that something else is happening in those cattails than males trying to keep a harem of females for themselves. Either the males are spectacularly unsuccessful at defending their territory or something else is going on. Perhaps a hint is found in the bird’s fall and winter behavior. All the males gather together in large same-sex flocks, spending most of the year with each other, eating and sleeping together. Maybe they are a bit more cooperative during breeding season too? Or maybe the females are controlling the shots despite all the noisy male behavior.
Blackbirds continue to inspire me. It is the time of year. Having eaten all seeds off the sunflowers, they continue to raid the goose feed. They don’t take a lot and I don’t mind because I get to watch them. Three kinds have come: brewer’s, redwing, and one solitary yellow headed, which is rare around here.
It is the flocks of the male redwing blackbirds that most attract my attention, because of their bright red and yellow-feathered “shields”—their showy shoulder patches. My attraction seems natural because after all, their bright feathers are meant to be seen. But how to incorporate their patches of bright red into a feather composition? When all I have to work with are naturally colored feathers, I thought to either scatter random small red feathers in a piece or do what I did here; use a single naturally reddish feather shed from a turaco to be the symbolic shoulder patch emissary.
Blackbird Rain . 40 by 60 inches . hertiage turkey wing feathers
Blackbird Melodies . 36 by 60 inches . crowned crane flight feathers and parakeet body feathers
As promised two weeks ago, here are images of two five-foot wide pieces, both of blackbirds. They will be shown as part of Art Basel week (December 1-6) at NOW Contemporary Art’s booth in Art Miami.
For Blackbird Rain, I used only shed feathers collected from one wing of a heritage turkey. It took four years to collect enough. For Blackbird Melodies, I used flight feathers from several crowned cranes that molted them last year. I combined these large feathers with small blue and green parakeet body feathers. Usually, no one besides me is obsessed enough or makes time to pick up small body feathers like these as they are shed. The blue ones were collected by a woman who got a parakeet companion after her husband died. She picked up every feather the parakeet shed for 22 years—and gave them to me.
The 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.
All 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.
An 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.