Perspectives, Part 2 by Chris Maynard

Pacific Wanderer.

Pacific Wanderer.

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.

Perspectives by Chris Maynard

Passage.

Passage.

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.

Angelo Musco's Feather of Human Bodies by Chris Maynard

Angelo Musco feather.

Angelo Musco feather.

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.”

From First Cut to Last by Chris Maynard

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, itdoesn’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.

Pigeons, again by Chris Maynard

Capercaillie Pigeon Park.

Capercaillie Pigeon Park.

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.

Black & White by Chris Maynard

Moondance 2.

Moondance 2.

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.

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At the Park by Chris Maynard

City Park Pigeons.

City Park Pigeons.

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.

Shelter by Chris Maynard

Slinkachu-Skyscraping.jpg

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.

The Unfeathered Bird by Chris Maynard

Katrina von Grouw.

Katrina von Grouw.

The defining characteristic of birds is their feathers. I like to learn everything I can about them. But now I am reading and looking at the drawings in “The Unfeathered Bird” by Katrina van Gruow. The author shows everything about the physical structures of birds—without feathers. So reading it, I take the opportunity during these dark winter days to explore underneath feathers. Delving through this book, I am discovering how birds have many little ways to help their bodies fly. Looking at it this way, feathers are one of a thousand flight adjustments birds have made like:

● hollow bones ● beaks which eliminate heavy teeth ● double-capacity lungs ● muscles to pull wings up and muscles to pull them down ● a wishbone and a breastbone to support huge flight muscles   ●  a rigid body compensated by a long and flexible neck ● huge eyes which see differently than ours.

Local Eats by Chris Maynard

Bird Berry 4.

Bird Berry 4.

I treasure the variety of wondrous foods that are easily available to me. All I have to do is go to the supermarket and in a seemingly magical way, I can taste bananas from Honduras and chow down on baked cakes with wheat from the Palouse, sugar from Barbados, and eggs from chickens fed corn from Iowa. I can have a variety of sodas with many who-knows-what ingredients from who-knows-where. I don’t have to know anything about where the food comes from, how it is raised, or how it gets here. I just buy and eat.

But appreciating and understanding where food comes from gives me a good feeling of connection.

So when I look at birds foraging, I feel a bit of a longing for local eats. I have been watching and admiring the way the local songbirds find their simple meals. The robins pull worms from the earth, the chickadees investigate every crevice in the trees for insects, and the cedar waxwings gobble the bushes’ winter berries.

The feather used in this piece is not from a local bird but is from a South American amazon parrot kept in a nearby aviary. The red in the feather was perfect for portraying berries the cedar waxwings were feasting on next to my house.

Flying off to Miami by Chris Maynard

Liftoff 2.

Liftoff 2.

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.

Turkey Time by Chris Maynard

Turkey Tails Feather Fan.

Turkey Tails Feather Fan.

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.

One million species of birds by Chris Maynard

Archaeopteryx feather.

Archaeopteryx 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 by Chris Maynard

Paleo Owl.

Paleo Owl.

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.

Petroglyph in Columbia Hills State Park, Washington.

Deceived by Blackbirds by Chris Maynard

Blackbirds 6.

Blackbirds 6.

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.

Redwing Blackbirds by Chris Maynard

Redwinged blackbirds, 14" x 32".

Redwinged blackbirds, 14" x 32".

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.

Large Blackbird Art by Chris Maynard

Blackbird Rain, 40"x60".

Blackbird Rain, 40"x60".

Blackbird Melodies.

Blackbird Melodies.

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.

Large Pieces Almost Finished: Blackbirds by Chris Maynard

Blackbird Rain.

Blackbird Rain.

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.

Sheddings by Chris Maynard

Shed feathers.

Shed feathers.

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 eight pounds a year which becomes most of the dust in the corners, on top of the refrigerator, and on my computer screen. Eeeeew.

Gaps Between the World and Us by Chris Maynard

Turkey Resurgence.

Turkey Resurgence.

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.

Escher Bird Fish.

Escher Bird Fish.