Shaking sparkling drops shimmer in the sun. A jay needs its bath just like you and me. A good bath and shaking will loosen dust, dislodge mites, shake off dander, remove loose feathers, de-oil, and clean messes. In a pinch, a dust bath will do. But bathing is just a start. When done with the bath, the jay flies to a safe perch and preens for an hour, finishing for the moment, the never-ending task of keeping its feathers in impeccable shape.
I have rediscovered the artist, Charlie Harper. In his art, he reduced the complexity of animal shapes into their essences in geometrical forms. He also had a fondness for and understanding of the natural world which he captured, often with a sense of humor. Charlie Harper’s piece, Owltercation (in addition to watching three crows chase an owl out of the tall fir tree near where I live) inspired me to design this feather shadowbox I call, Owl for One and One for Owl.
Like the eagle in the United States, the blue peacock is the national bird of India. It follows then, that like the USA, India also made killing peacocks illegal. In the USA, you cannot have feathers from their national bird. But in India, you can have peacock feathers but only if they are naturally shed. To find out if a feather is naturally shed or if it was plucked from the skin of a bird, authorities simple place the shaft under a fairly low magnification to examine the base of the shaft. They also use their technology to perform a simple chemical test.
The biggest, fluffiest down feathers that I know of grow under the tail of a male peacock. They stick out from the back of the male bird when it is displaying. Since in India where they are from, peacocks don’t have a lot of need to protect against cold, perhaps they use them for display? They are rather prominent, but only from the back-side. So why are they on the rear-end if the business side of the peacock display is the front?
Unlike this down feather built around a long central shaft, the lightest of down has hardly any central shaft at all, just long fluffy barbs coming off a shaft so short that you can barely feel it when you roll the down between your fingers. For their size, these feathers are so light, they come close to defying gravity. Why then are they called “down” when perhaps a more fitting name would be “up” ?
To make the background for this piece, I took apart, flattened, and pasted a big paper wasp nest. It was just finished and framed when I noticed a bug crawling around inside. Apparently, the paper had hid a little beetle living in a fold. The beetle chose to come out an hour after I had sealed up the entire piece. So now I have to take it apart, remove the beetle, and freeze the whole thing—which is what I should have done to the wasp nest in the first place like I do to all my feathers.
Feathers have bugs too, which are adapted for living and chewing on them. They have mites. And certain beetles can eat feathers. Fortunately, a few 48-hour, zero degree Fahrenheit chillings kills these tiny creatures, so I have never had a problem as long as the feathers are stored in a sealed place. I have two shadowboxes full of arranged and still perfect feathers that has been around for 25 years.
Last week, Janice Arnold and I took down our trial installation combining her felt and my feathers. Because of this collaboration, I am thinking about keratin, the protein that makes hair, skin, claws, beaks and feathers. It also makes spider webs and the baleen of whales.
You can start to get an idea of the shared function of this material just by asking what keratin does that is the same for all these things, from skin to claws. Keratin provides toughness.
It provides toughness because its protein building blocks are long and complex. Claws, beaks, hair, and feathers look different for two reasons. One, keratin comes in dozens of varieties. And two, like the same kinds of bricks go into building different structures, so can the same variety of keratin build different structures.
I am hugely attracted to Colin Woolf’s use of tiny pinfeathers as paint brushes. He will place one in a special handle to paint a watercolor image of the bird that the feather came from. Each bird has only one of these stiff tiny feathers on each wing. It is from the same place the tip of your thumb would be if you grew wings. It is actually one of three feathers that helps a bird navigate in slow flight, called an alula.
This is an old painting technique that Colin has revived from 200 years ago. He authored a book in 2012 about pin-feather painting and has a couple of five-minute YouTube videos describing the technique. His website also describes the technique and shows some of his painting.
I sent Colin a couple of ruffed grouse pinfeathers. From them he just finished this picture which I will feature prominently in my home once I get it framed.
When walking, if I find a feather I often bend over, pick it up, hold it high and let it loose to watch it spin, twirl, float, flutter, circle or otherwise make its way back to the ground. I love the way each feather shape elicits a different motion and I cannot always predict exactly what it will be.
Daniel Wurtzel uses blowing air engineered to do amazing things to different materials including feathers. The feathers he uses here are wing flight feathers, which spin, shafts downward. Body feathers float and circle. Other feathers come down in different ways as air flow interrupts the pull of gravity.
After spending several years looking for matches for feathers, one black and the other white, I found several. These two are from the same species of pheasant, the silver pheasant. The black one is a subspecies called the Lewis pheasant.
Black and white is a powerful combination for an artist to work with because people attach strong meanings to these two opposites. Different peoples place different values on black and white. For instance, in southern Thailand where the black form of the silver pheasant lives, black is the usual choice for mourning and in China where a white form of the silver pheasant lives, white can be the choice. The birds just attend to their business, unencumbered with the values we place on whiteness and blackness.
I eat birds – well, chickens and turkeys. Someday, I expect, a bird will be pulling up and eating worms that have been feeding on parts of my long decomposed body. It is really quite remarkable the way organic life keeps reinventing itself. It’s not morbid to me.
Life is precious, but it goes away, and there is a grace in letting it go. Hanging on through fame or lasting accomplishments seems a bit futile. My mother was a fairly well-known artist in her time. She died in 2008 and just six years later, except for a few collectors, no one knows her. The person with the longest lasting fame that I know of is that recently discovered fellow who fell in a Alps glacier 35000 years ago. So if you want to be remembered a long time after your death…
This is my favorite piece, in part because it tells a fairly clear story. But that is not saying much because my favorites tend to be my latest. The one I am making now—of crows laced into an intricately carved large black feather – will probably become my favorite, until one I make after that.