Friday, 21 October 2011

Elephant No. 19: Feather Collage

I bought some feathers about about a week ago for a workshop, but never used them, so today seemed like a good day to try some kind of feather collage.

The art of featherwork—creating paintings and adornments with feathers—appears to have originated with the indigenous peoples of Central and South America.

In ancient Mexico, featherworkers were highly valued craftspeople. Using the brilliant and often iridescent plumage of birds such as quetzals, macaws, and even tiny hummingbirds, featherworkers decorated clothing, headdresses and shields.

Featherworking typically involved attaching feathers one by one. Artisans threaded a fine needle through a hole in the feather's quill, then carefully knotted the feather in place.

I won't be doing that today.

Following contact with peoples such as the Aztec and Inca, the Spanish introduced featherwork to Europe in the form of clothing and tapestries. Some of the best-known works of feather art are the "paintings" produced by Nahua featherworkers, who were known as amanteca. The Aztecs, a branch of the Nahua people, also produced tapestries, capes and headdresses using featherwork techniques.

Europeans were fascinated by the delicate and colourful work brought back by the conquistadores, and Aztec artisans were soon being commissioned to create featherwork paintings in a European style. Diego de Alvarado Huanitzin, a Nahua ruler, commissioned The Mass of Saint Gregory (1539) as a gift for Pope Paul III. Feathered objects such as cloaks were also a source of wonder to Europeans. Today, historical feathered cloaks are rare, and there are only seven known examples in European museums.

The Mass of St. Gregory, feathers on a wood panel, 68 x 56 cm, Mexico 1539, Musé
The Mass of Saint Gregory, 1539
Commissioned by Nahua ruler Diego Alvarado de Huanitzin
for Pope Paul III
Feathers on wood panel, 68 x 56 cm (27 x 22 in.)
Musée des Jacobins, Auch, France

The Chimú people of Peru's northern coast also created featherwork, which was much prized by the neighbouring Inca. The Chimú made featherwork by tying individual feathers to a cord, which was then sewn to a piece of cloth. Additional cords of feathers were applied in horizontal rows, working from the bottom up, each row overlapping the one below. Occasionally an adhesive was used, particularly if the feathers were small.

During Victorian times, the craze for handcrafting included all kinds of featherwork. Women created scenes featuring feathered birds nestled within landscapes of moss and bark. They covered firescreens in feathers. They made brooches, fans, millinery items, and small featherwork paintings of butterflies and flowers.

For today's elephant, I started with several small bags of feathers from a dollar store. There is no way I would have time in a single day to stitch feathers into a piece of cloth, so I decided simply to glue them to a 18 x 23 cm (7 x 9-inch) canvas board.

I discovered today that feathers kind of creep me out. I have no idea why. I like them on birds, but I don't like them in bags. In addition to making me sneeze, they have an annoying tendency to stick to everything, or to float off all over the place.

My first idea was to lay down some brightly coloured feathers as a sort of a colour wash to which I would then glue my elephant. Although the colours were pretty together, the overall effect looked vaguely ridiculous for what I had in mind. It was also far too gaudy a background for the grey/black feathers I wanted to use for the elephant. So I started over.

The feathers I used were more spotted than grey or black, which makes them interesting as feathers, but a bit weird for the kind of pictorial work I had in mind. I decided I should try to figure out what kind of feathers they were, but knowing the name of the bird—guinea fowl, as it turns out—made me a bit sad. Better generic "craft feathers" than those of an actual bird, I guess.

I didn't bother to draw any kind of outline to start with, because I thought the final form might be dictated by the shapes, sizes and curves of the feathers. I decided from the outset that I wouldn't trim or cut any of the feathers, since I find the look of cut feathers a bit harsh, and I wanted this to have a soft, organic look.

I had absolutely no idea how to do this, so it was definitely a learning experience.

I started with the ear and trunk, sticking the feathers down with something called "hi-tack craft glue". Unfortunately, the glue didn't really live up to its name, so I also used tiny pieces of thin white athletic tape to make the feathers stay put while the glue dried.

Once the elephant started to take shape in my mind, I began glueing feathers. I laid a few more feathers in the ear area, then worked on the trunk. I don't know if feathers can be reshaped by wetting them or warming them or something (and I didn't really want to find out), so I chose feathers based on the curve of the shaft, as well as the general shape of the feather's body, or vane.

I learned along the way that there are a few things to bear in mind when laying feathers. First of all, the quills (ends) of the feathers are ugly, and you don't really want them to show when you're done. To get around this, you'll have to overlap feathers, covering the quills as you go. This means, however, that there's going to come a point when you have to reverse the direction of your overlaps—otherwise you'll just have a bunch of quills along one side of your design.

Working from both ends now leaves an area in the middle somewhere that is more or less a chaotic web of quills and fluffy down. Figuring out how to lay feathers over this, without any quills showing, is a bit of a challenge. One way is to use tiny feathers, tucking their itty-bitty quills under larger feathers. Another way would be to stick beads or something on top of the joins. Believe me, I considered it.

When you're done, it's not a bad idea to "groom" the feathered edges a bit. Attaching feathers to a canvas board turned out to be good idea in this case, as the feathers cling to the canvas surface, making it easy to smooth them exactly where you want them to stay.

I don't really mind the final result, although I haven't quite decided if I like the polka dotted feathers. This took me about two hours (not including my original multi-coloured-background experiment), and the process wasn't particularly demanding or frustrating. Unless, I suppose, you're just not a big fan of feathers.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Hindu mythology tells of a time when all elephants had wings, as well as the ability to fly. One day, a flying elephant landed on a tree to rest. The branches of the tree broke under the weight of the elephant, disturbing the hermit meditating beneath it. The hermit flew into a rage, cursing all elephants, and declaring that henceforth elephants would have to walk rather than fly.

Despite the hermit's curse, elephants retained the ability to produce clouds. Because of this, the Hindu god Indra can shower rain upon the earth, as long as he is seated on his white elephant, Airavata.

Another Hindu myth credits elephants with causing earthquakes. Although their movements are considered the epitome of grace, elephants also represent earth tremors—probably because of the way the ground shook when large herds thundered by. According to legend, the world rests on the head of a giant elephant, and when the elephant shifts its head to get more comfortable, an earthquake occurs.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society

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