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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Why Painted Feathers?

It's a question I'm asked very frequently whenever I do a show or other public appearance.  In fact it's probably the most commonly-asked question, right after "Are those eagle feathers??" but that's a whole other topic!

I got going in this twenty years ago.  My mother had a large flock of peafowl that ran loose on her ranch.  Consequently, every summer we'd have shed feathers of all sorts everywhere!  My mother could sell the long beautiful tail feathers easily enough, and my sister would craft beautiful earrings from the iridescent neck and back feathers. There wasn't any use for the wing feathers.  As attractive as they were, there just wasn't a need or want for them.

One day as I was thumbing through a magazine, I saw a Louis L'Amour color ad.  This ad, while showcasing his set of leather-bound books, also presented a nice array of western paraphernalia...Navajo blanket, wooden cartridge box, and oh hey, a big wing feather that had a few blotches of paint dripped on its end and ornate multicolor lines and stripes down its quill.  That turned on a light for me!  I had a few jars of acrylic paints because I had been painting blown eggs, so I proceeded to experiment and see if a feather really would hold paint... not just the quill, mind you, but the body of the feather.  Let's see if we can actually do something that's more than drips.

I tried the dots first, and they held fast.  So it does work!  Next I tried Native pictographs.  It was tough going as the feather tends to want to split, but I eventually figured out how to avoid that and create what looked rather like cave paintings on the body of the feather.  From there, and still on a Native/Southwestern theme, I tried still lifes of pottery and lithic artifacts, then some very unrealistic animals that incorporated the quill as part of the animal depicted... that quill tip makes a dandy lizard's tail!  Ok, this is turning out to be a lot of fun!

My painting ability was very amateurish at best.  Other than a few egg shells and a bit of watercolor play when I was a child, I didn't know how to paint.  It was the feathers, over the course of these twenty years, that taught me to paint.  Fortunately in that time I have progressed from cave paintings and cartoonish animals to works of a much wider range and higher detail.  I've taken a few classes from great artists like Fred Oldfield, Robert Walton, and LeRoy Jessfield.  Their expertise in handling paint on traditional support has helped me immensely in understanding how colors work.

Then and Now
I had a very rewarding task recently, in painting the same subject matter that I did twenty years ago for my cousin.  When I was beginning, I had given him a painted feather with a mountain lion.  It was far from realistic, rather cartoonish, but represented the best that I could do at the time.  Much to my surprise he still had that feather tucked safely away.  His wife contacted me and asked me to paint another mountain lion at my current level of ability. 

I felt a bit intimidated at this, and wanted it to be the very best I could do.  The first try was unsatisfactory.  It was on a striped peacock feather like the original, but I knew I could do better.  The second try was on a Sweetgrass turkey feather, and probably would have been ok had it not been for a sudden deep freeze in this region and half-frozen paint in the studio.  Tip: This is when I learned that dropping your jars of paint in a bucket of hot water helps immensely in warming them up and making them workable. I learned that too late though and had unfortunately irreparably split the feather.  The third and final effort was successful- of a mountain lion at rest but ever watchful on his mossy granite perch within the confines of a blue slate turkey feather.

The framing you see posted here represents twenty years' worth of progression in this artistic journey.  For that it is truly one-of-a-kind.  I don't know how many of my earliest efforts are still floating around out there, but it would sure be fun to try this again.


Caroline Roberts said...

Wow, thank you, Julie, for explaining your journey so eloquently. I have always wondered "why feathers?" and now I have my answer!

The photograph is such a beautiful example of the change in your work over 20 years. I hope your cousin likes his feather - I well remember your frustration at the freezing paint.

Kathryn Hansen said...

that's a very interesting story julie!! really enjoyed hearing it!

Lori said...

Wow that is so amazing. I loved hearing your story and the work you do is so creative and different and really beautiful. Looking forward to seeing more of your work!