Autumn in the woods, all movement is downward except for birds in flight. The big leafed maples shed their huge leaves which float to the earth, softly crashing through other branches and bushes. The deer hardly seem to notice. But for any quick upward movement, their heads jerk up, ears forward, nostrils quivering.
My smartphone helps me keep pace in this sped-up world. I was flustered because it was almost dead and my airplane ticket was on it. Like me, the older it gets, the more often it needs recharging. My recent recharge venue was feeling and hearing the wind and watching ripples in the lake. From that source, came this invention.
USFWS Federal Duck Stamp
In mid September, I was one of five judges to select next year’s federal duck stamp. Every waterfowl hunter in the USA has to purchase a license and stamp in order to hunt. Purchasing the stamp raises money to reserve lands in conservation. It is how much of the nation’s wildlife refuges were purchased.
Each year the US Fish and Wildlife Service sponsors the only federal art contest to choose the image for the next year’s stamp. More information about the program is here. For the artist chosen, it can be a career-maker. The five judges included me, another artist, Brett Smith, an art educator, a biologist, and an award-winning conservationist. See all the entries here to know that we had a tough job deciding.
In my previous my blog two weeks ago, I was trying to resolve how to incorporate a round raven construct into something to bring the abstract more into the real. Here is my result. Something that makes it more real for me are the feathers incorporated into the paper background. In her small studio in Maine, Virginia Sarsfield makes paper from the feathers from my geese that I send her.
This cut peacock feather is a bit abstract, a little more divorced from my real experience with the birds themselves. I enjoy making these kinds of designs but find it is difficult to incorporate them into larger pieces where I want the inspiration to arise more from my knowledge of, experience with, and respect for the birds themselves. The work of mine that I like the best tends to be simple silhouettes of birds in motion. So I am still trying to figure out how to incorporate this design into a larger piece.
Since I am surrounded by barn swallows, they are my main bird-inspired themes in the summer. Like stars, they have five points: the head, two wings, and two tails. Hence the inspiration for this piece.
The 50+ swallows that nest in my barn have a problem: the local kestrel falcon has discovered their nestlings and flies in every day to try to eat them. The swallows protest and I come out from my studio. When the little falcon sees me, it flies away.
I ask myself if it is best just to let this natural process proceed. My answer is that I am vested in watching these swallows breeding and want them to return every year. So I lightly intercede, chasing the kestrel off. It flies away to look for mice in the fields.
The natural red of this female red-tail black cockatoo tail feather seemed a good choice to kind of mimic the cinnamon-red of the kestrel’s tail.
I often think of feathers as being about flight. People who work with feathers primarily in fashion often view feathers as being about beauty. Certainly, they are about both and much more. I have noticed is that the most talented of these few people also show respect for the birds that provide them with their working materials, feathers.
A recent article appeared in the New Yorker entitled The Eternal Seductive Beauty of Feathers. It was from the perspective of fashion designer Charles-Donatien. From his point of view in the article, “Feathers are about seduction. They are meant to attract.”
Because birds fly and we cannot, they and their feathers often represent symbols of our yearnings. Among the many themes feathers may hold for us are:
- Success and achievement;
- Bridges between here and our goals, between earth and our heaven;
- Oversight, ability to see all things at once (like from on high—like where birds fly);
- Freedom from: pain, oppression, suffering, heaviness of life, death, failure, our limits.
These themes provide me more fodder for my art.
Staying near a Norwegian fjord in May, I sketched several carved feather ideas after watching fishing loons, grebes, and cormorants. This is one of the five pieces that resulted.
Just before diving, the bird expands with a deep breath. But it appears to deflate because at the same time, it compresses its feathers closer to its body.
Acchh! Last month was only time in five years that I missed my two-week schedule of posting. The excuse is that I was traveling in Europe where I met some fascinating artists. Foremost is Nelly Saunier, the plumasier par excellence whom I have written about before. She attended school in France specifically to learn the skill of working with feathers. French even used specific words for each aspect of repurposing feathers into art and fashion.
The passion to make this piece is in part from reading about Haida artist Bill Reid, and learning, about his and other cultures around the Pacific. These are people who live near the water and interact with it every day.
Since all they could see was the surface of the water, they developed a feeling for existence that everything is covered by a membrane and what is on the other side of this membrane feeds them yet is hidden and a source of myth. For instance, I read that when a bear disappeared into its den and a fish is under the sea, they became bear and fish people with human qualities.
Anyway, drawing this heron while watching one at the lake, I saw only reflections in the water and wondered how well the bird could see below the surface.
A Capercaillie is a turkey-sized grouse from Sweden to Siberia. Recently, I have been fond of using their large, black tail feathers to depict ravens. I drew the original sketch with the lower wings and the tail as empty cutouts like the rest of the cutout birds on the lower part of the feather. It didn’t look right so I added back the lower wing and tail at an angle from the central shaft. Then placing the bird removed from the biggest cutout at the tip of feather made the piece seem unbalanced so I just put the tail of it in the upper right of the frame instead of the entire bird. This little change makes the entire piece read quite differently.
Keeping your arms straight, hands open, swing them fast around and around. Feel the air? For a bird, the thickness and palpability of the air must be a little bit like water feels to us when we swim. Birds need to feel the air currents going past the tips of their wing feathers to be able to respond to the needs of flight. Their long flight feathers act as levers, transmitting the sensation of air pressure to the nerves in the birds' bodies at the bases of their feathers.
This large piece represents about one-tenth of all the bird families in the world. Carved into each feather is a bird or birds from a different family. The left row shows more or less the earliest existing birds to evolve; the right row shows the latest. The top row of cut out birds are loosely the highest flyers, the bottom row are the lowest.
This was commissioned by a natural history museum in late 2017 so the piece has a lined-up row feeling of a museum specimen collection.
My great-great grandfather left five volumes of big “natural history” books from 1900 with thousands of photographs. Three of them picture and describe animals of the earth. Two of them picture and describe different peoples, different cultures of the world. My first reaction to these two volumes about people was distaste: these authors, pretending to be scientific (it comes off as objectively superior) wrote about societies different from their own, the same way they wrote about the animals with the same attitude. That said, I find these two books fascinated and endearing for the diversity of human cultures in 1900.
Most of the animals pictured and described in the three volumes are still with us (though often diminished in number) but most of the cultures they portray are gone or greatly diminished. Which means that the art associated with these cultures has also faded.
Art tied to culture is what art has been all about. Now with vanishing cultural diversity and living in a much more globally connected world with little in the way of a cohesive culture except consumerism, where is art? What ties creativity together? What does it mean to make art today? How can art have meaning for us?
My choice of medium has been a blessing in that feathers have been part of the human psyche and woven into our cultures forever. Though our cultural roots are withered, the feathers and what they mean to us remain. We will always want to fly. I see a larger role for natural materials including feathers in art’s future toward reviving connections with our roots and with the natural world.
The People’s Natural History of the World, 1905, The University Society, New York
I often redo work I am not satisfied with. Or sometimes I just destroy it. Painting over a piece is not an option so if I can, I readjust or recut feathers.
The piece on the right I did not like so I removed and discarded the carved singing bird I had made in 2016. I cut a new feather which I am pleased with. The finished piece on the left has the same name. Should I write on the back “2016” or “2018” or use more words and say “2016 but redone in 2018”?
Before I seriously began my professional art life, my work involved negotiating with the hydropower (dam) industry for which I received an average of about ½ a compliment per year. At my first solo art show, compliments for my work was one a minute. I found this attention a bit intimidating at the time. So I ducked out for a moment to call my sculptor friend Ross Matteson. All he said was, “Just be grateful that people like your work.” That advice stays with me every day.
Thank you for liking my work.
Grebes eat a lot of small feathers, their own shed feathers and plumes floating on the water. They feed them to their chicks too. Feathers may be the first thing that the chicks eat.
The thought is that the feathers protect the birds’ stomachs from pointy fish bones—until the bones are soft enough to go through the rest of the way. The feathers may provide some health benefits too. Ron Dudly writes a little more about it on his photography site and the Wilson Journal of Ornithology has more yet.
Joseph R Jehl, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 129(3):446-458. 2017
Life offers two features in abundance: beauty and horror. So how does a sane person cope? Focus on one side of this, the beauty? Watch horror movies? Emphasize sacredness and specialness of existence? For me, I find an underlying theme of humor provides some balance. People often say that my pieces have a bit of comedy. I don’t usually try to do that but I like it when a piece makes me smile. Especially when the title fits.