About Featherskin

What I said a year ago when I began this project –

I was given a golden opportunity to examine and photograph some of the hummingbird specimen collections in the OUMNH and use the Alexander library of Ornithology, part of Oxford University’s Bodleian library, for research. I am looking at many aspects of the bird, its physiology and anatomy to investigate how their mythical movements and rapid wing/heart beats are possible. I am also hoping to research mythology and tales of the hummingbird, how it has featured as an exotic mythical creature, and as an exotic object of trade in colonial times. I am interested in how the hummingbird was used as ornament, both by Aztecs and Victorians, its ‘materials’, mythology and physiology. Its feather patterns are intricate and often give the bird the appearance of having been embroidered. It is a beautiful jewel like creature to paint and I will attempt to evoke the notion of it as a transformatory bird with spectacular and complex movements, light reflecting feathers and an entangled colonial history.

The Featherskin project a year on –

The Featherskin project is a group of paintings which I began over a year ago.Having seen a pair of jewel like hummingbirds decorating a Victorian fan in a case at the Pitt Rivers Museum where I work, I became curious about their history – in one year alone during the peak of the British Empire, over 400,000 hummingbirds and other South American bird skins were sold in London for adornment of hats and fans. The slaves of Brazilian citizens had to prepare hummingbird skins for sale. Nuns in Mexican convents made flowers out of the feathers.

I wanted to conjure mythical aspects of both their dark exploited pasts and their extraordinary physiology. Feathers of hummingbirds create harmonics of sound, individual feathers of different shapes and sizes in tails of male hummingbirds generate a range of acoustic frequencies and harmonic structures as they aeroelastically flutter. The iridescence of feathers is caused by bubble filled platelets in the feather structure, arranged like a mosaic with dark spaces in between. Light must fall at a particular angle for fiery colour to be diffracted, otherwise feathers appear black. I experienced this strange effect while handling hummingbird specimens. Their tiny preserved bodies, bundles of dark feathers attached to long needle like beaks, would flash green, blue, or gold fire in the sunlight, then suddenly flick back to inky forms. Hummingbirds fight duels with their beaks, can fly backwards, upside down and hover. In legends this was the resurrection bird, as it can enter a state of torpor, it’s heart rate and body temperature fall drastically and respiration may even stop so it appears dead. The warmth of the sun resurrects the bird.

Magical facts combined in my imagination with mythical tales of hummingbirds, Mesoamerican shimmering feather fabrics, talismanic ornaments, and tiny glowing ‘exotic’ and exploited bodies stitched onto colonial Victorian ladies’ fans and hats.

The work aims to evoke physical/material manifestations of intangible phenomena – movement traces, sound patterns, thought substances, transformation residues, flight pathways. It also explores notions of the body/self transformed through feathers, by touching and wearing them. In the imaginative space a skin of feathers enhances the sensual experience of the world.

I am excited to be able exhibit the outcome – nine works of watercolour on paper. Sketches, photographs and text works also form part of this body of work.

These new pieces involved a more developed exploration of my concerns with metaphorical bodies and marginal metamorphic identities. Each one explores facets of being an ‘exotic’ and ‘ornamental’ bird/body. Some pieces took many hours to make, like Feathersilk. They evolved through slow passing of time, in meditative space. They are an elaboration of intricate movements of eye and hand, and allow accretions of meaning. I liken the way in which I make this kind of work to the process of making lace, weaving or embroidery – laborious and transforming. I loved making the sensual, textural ornamental space and unfolding line in this painting. Works like Hummingbody, involved much sketching before they unfurled themselves with rapid calligraphic strokes.

The paintings – Feathersilk (53cm W x 114cm H), Hummingbody Vortex Talisman (114cm W x 27cm H), Hummingbody Harmonic (114cm W x 27cm H), Black Lace Music Makers (57cm W x 76.3cm H), Bird-man Changing Charm (28.5cm W x 38cm H), Wing/ Lace/Bone (27.5cm W x 38.3cm H), Tiny Feather Pelt (7.2cm W x 19cm H), Featherskin (76.3cm W x 28.3cm H), Feathersound Textile strip (76cm W x 13.7cm H).

Visit the Featherskin Gallery.


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