The Life Cycle of a Feather

In the studio with 'Spark Birds' artist Chris Maynard

ALL CREATURES SPIRIT me away from my thoughts into the real and present world. Because birds fly, they don’t need to be unnoticeable and hide like mice do, so I, like most birders, notice them. The first time I really observed feathers was when I was twelve years old entranced by the flamingos at the Seattle Zoo. When I saw their shed orange/pink feathers on the ground and floating in their pond, I was so excited that the head bird keeper let me pick them up, put them in a bag and take them home. I sat with these feathers for hours, exploring their structure, dropping each one to watch as it twirled and floated to the earth. I still do that.

I don’t take feathers directly from birds. The ones I prefer to use are from birds that have grown new feathers, molted their old used ones, and now passed them on. The birds are still alive. Their shed feathers are gifts.

Perceiving feathers (and food and stuff we use) as gifts opens the door for me to feel in equal relation to the givers, less separate from them—more intertwined, not better than them, but mutually dependent on each other for our being here. Perceiving ourselves as separate and better makes us feel entitled to take what we want without any obligation. I guess, for me, the gift from the bird creates an obligation to be in relation to the bird, wanting to return the favor. And the shed feathers were already used by the bird—they no longer need these feathers, so they pass them along—to me to use in my art, or to the earth to be recycled, or to another bird to feather its nest. 

Photo: Chris Maynard

A bird’s feather is a structurally complex wonder. The first time we see one, it is awesome. Then, typically, the next time we see a feather, it is less awesome, and the third time it is like, “oh yeah, that’s a feather.” The fourth time it is “ho hum”, and the fifth time it fades into the background, the same way we get used to traffic noise. Somehow, for me, each feather is still as if it is the first time I ever really noticed one. My hope for viewers of my art is for people to see feathers from a different perspective, with awe, like for the first time.

The woods and streams east of Seattle cradled and formed me in my youth. I would lie on my back, looking up at the big Firs and Maples and occasional bird with a feeling of safety and wonder about my small place in the forest world. Unlike how the woods and streams transformed me, they were and still are being transformed by new roads, homes, and tech companies. Both this feeling of well-being and my fright and anger at the idea that we are entitled to take these woods and streams to do what we want with them spurs my creativity.

The art began as a celebration of flight, escape, hope, and transformation because feathers are often symbols of these aspirations. They still are, but as I question the stories I grew up with about how the world is, my art changes. For instance, the tale of Earth being where hell is, and that we should not want to be here but in heaven, goes against my love of where I am now, firmly on the Earth where I will remain in some form or another after I die. A feather is also firmly of the earth. It and the bird that grew it came from and are reconstituted by and into other creatures, all on the Earth. When a feather is shed, it falls to the ground. My art evolved to incorporate not only flight and growth, but also death and decay in what I think of as a celebratory and sometimes humorous way.

“Goodbye” by Chris Maynard
(Featured in Spark Birds)

“How the Stars Were Made” by Chris Maynard
(Featured in Spark Birds)

I prefer to use shed feathers, though I do use turkey feathers from birds that were eaten for dinner. I do not use feathers from birds that were killed for their feathers. Most countries have laws, which includes not possessing or using certain feathers, to protect birds. I support these laws by only using feathers that are legal to have and sell, using mostly feathers from farms, aviaries, and zoos. In the USA, most bird feathers, like those of Robins, are not legal to have. See my blog post for a Guide to Legal and Illegal Feathers

I am often asked how long it takes to make a piece. What is usually meant by that is how long the cutting takes. The cutting, which I do by hand using a small surgical scalpel and magnifying glasses, is only part of a long process. 

First comes the inspiration, which sometimes arrives through the feather itself, a bird I have seen, a theme I have been thinking about, or even just a kinesthetic feeling of movement. Then I search for the right feather, create a rough drawing, refine it, match the design to the feather, carve, and place the carved feathers on their backgrounds of paper. I mount the carvings with small entomology pins to elevate them away from the background and create shadows. The final piece is usually secured in a shadowbox, though some of my favorite works are large installations on walls without any protective glass. 

I strive to honor the birds and their feathers in my work. I want the feathers to retain their “featherness,” so I don’t trim them to make them look neat or flatten the feathers against the paper but keep their natural curves and shapes by elevating them from their background. By honoring the feathers in this way, I feel they have reciprocated by enhancing my work with their shadows. So each piece changes according to the intensity and angle of the light that shines on it. Also, feathers are commonly seen as being symbols of light. But everything has a shadow side that is part of the whole. As an artist, it is my work to bring out the shadows as well as the light. I am happy that the feathers I play with have joined me in this goal. 

Find Chris Maynard’s shadow boxes, along with the best stories, essays, and poems from Orion all about birds, in our latest anthology Spark Birds. On sale now

Chris Maynard carves intricate art out of naturally shed feathers – usually presented in quality, simple lacquered shadow-box frames. Maynard’s work is included in collections and publications in North America, Asia, Europe, and Australia. His book, Feathers, Form & Function, highlights his work and tells stories about what feathers are, what roles they fill for birds, and why people find them alluring. He is working on another book or two.