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.
It is not often one finds a feather that has different colors on each side of the shaft. These were shed from a turkey.
I’ve always liked the simplicity of black and white, especially in the traditional charcoal brush strokes of China and Japan. It’s as if life is easier to understand by painting forms as simple as possible but still recognizable.
Everything is simpler in black and white, yes. But life isn’t simple. So many colors exist that I am often lost when I think of where to begin. But fortunately for me, feathers only come in the colors that they do so whew… not as many choices.
I was thinking about ways we make life simpler putting everything in categories, which is useful for making a point but leads to all sorts of misunderstandings because life is complex. For instance, no one’s skin is either black or white, not even shades of black and white, just a whole bunch of colors.
I have always treasured the diversity of living creatures like birds. But recently I have been treasuring how much we are the same.
Feathers show mind boggling diversity in their forms, from four-foot long pheasant tail feathers to almost microscopic cheek feathers on a hummingbird. Yet no matter how diverse feathers appear, they mostly share the same basic structure: shaft, barbs, and barbules.
Just like feathers have the same basic structures yet appear wildly different, we too have more similarities to all mammals, birds and fish than we do differences. We all have skin, livers, hearts, blood, lungs, bones, and nervous systems. We have indistinguishable cellular structures and functions from those of other creatures. We share almost all the same DNA. I treasure the diversity of life. But the sameness of life is also a source of wonder and connection. And this can challenge our perception of the world as revolving around us, humans.
People tend to focus attention on relatively minor differences between humans, and between ourselves and other creatures. Just like in medieval times, when we lived as though the sun and universe revolved around the earth, around ourselves, we still observe the world as human-centric. Well, we are not the center of the universe, nor are we the center of life on earth. We are part of it, we are unique but so is each living creature. And our unique-ness doesn’t mean we’re really all that different.
With cold, wet winter weather, I am grateful for my warm, dry house.
This month’s editorial in Orion Magazine was about keeping house. The writer touched on the fact that we humans keep a poor house in regards to taking care of our larger environment, which makes it a less hospitable place to live. While reading this, I started to think about birds and feathers. Consider that a bird’s house is its feathers which provides all it needs for transportation, warmth, and shelter from rain. To keep house a bird takes good care of its feathers.
If we had feathers, we wouldn’t need our houses, fireplace, clothes, or cars. If we grew feather coverings, taking care of our larger environment would be a lot easier. Maybe we would feel less entitled to use any resources we found to fulfill our needs, because our needs would be a lot less.