Eleven years ago, when I was 55, I made a career switch. Instead of spending my days negotiating over the operation of the dams in the Northwest, I began to professionally create art. My mother was a professional artist and after she died in 2009 I asked myself, “What am I doing with my life? What is important to me?”
Age gives us a perspective on what we value and how we really want to spend our time.
In thinking about how to live the rest of my life, I took stock of my favorite activities since childhood: birdwatching, being outdoors in the woods and fields, studying bugs, and playing with various art forms. I pondered how I could express my awe and appreciation of nature through art.
I wanted to do something that would exemplify the wonder I felt and to show it in a slightly different and unexpected way that would capture people’s attention, make them look twice, and come away seeing life with a little more sparkle. I had my mission: To foster appreciation and understanding of the natural world. I also had my art medium: feathers.
Feathers are iconic for all cultures. We watch birds soaring and swooping, free from the bounds of the earth, and we long to fly. But we can’t do that with our bodies, so birds and their feathers have become replacements for our longings. Feathers are symbols of hope, transformation, escape, achievement, and healing.
Feathers are also complex and beautiful. They are complex because they have to be lightweight (so the bird can fly) and strong (so they don’t break). They are made of the strongest of animal substances, keratin, which is what our hair and fingernails are made of. Birds grow feathers, use them, and then regrow new feathers about once a year, pushing out the old ones. These naturally shed, or “molted,” feathers retain their shape, complexity, and beauty when I use them in my art.
I knew that feathers in art would appeal to the widest of audiences around the world. Even though the medium and technique are unconventional in the fine art spheres, I knew I had a winner. That is because art tries to capture some essence of life, and each feather already carries some of the essence of the bird that grew it.
My mission and the feathers themselves guide me. Since all feathers curve more or less, I wanted to keep their shape and not glue them flat onto a background. I experimented with suspending them about half an inch from the background, which created shadows. This has become integral to my work. I researched and experimented with materials, glues, and methods to back the feathers so they could be cut. The final art had to be sturdy, archival, and look like natural feathers, even though they were strengthened by backing.
Now I had something worthwhile to give.
Since my medium is unconventional, I felt it was important for it to gain respect in the art world. At first, I wasn’t sure how it would be received by the higher-end art venues I sought out. When a top gallery took a chance on showing my work and had good sales revenues, other galleries and venues began asking for it. What I most treasure though, is not the income, but the response from people about how seeing the work has touched them, inspired them, or even been comforting in hard times.
In order to reach more people, I wrote the coffee table book, Feathers: Form and Function in 2014. The book created an affordable option for enjoying pictures of my art and it also describes the biology of the feathers and the meaning they carry for us. I am at the beginning stages of my second book right now.
My work is a lot about limits. The feathers limit what I can do because they are my only shapes, colors, and lines. This forces creativity.
Growing older creates limits. I have less time to accomplish my goals. I could enjoy life by spreading my time over many interests and activities, but instead, I have chosen to focus on this single medium, feathers. This has helped me accomplish my mission and share my work around the world.
COVID-19 has also placed limits. We have to focus more locally, on fewer activities, and on fewer people. It is for me, a time for reflection. I wonder what kind of creativity will spring from this, especially from older people who no longer have to work to earn money and can choose innovative ways to make the world a more beautiful place.
You can see Chris Maynard’s work at www.featherfolio.com