"Give and Take" (detail) | Argus Pheasant Feather | 24 x 19 inches | 2016

On A Wing

THEY TUMBLE FROM THE SKY, quotidian or miraculous, depending on how you look at them. When you find one on the ground, if from a North American migratory bird, it will be illegal to pick up and keep, but some say it’s still lucky, like a penny, only better. If all white, an angel may be near. 

For artist Chris Maynard, feathers are always miraculous. They’re a gateway to creativity, a medium in which his imagination plays and dances, concocting designs that will convey his love of birds. 

Looking at his shadowboxes, the majority of which are between 12 and 24 inches in length and width, can be a visceral experience as your eye takes in the suggestion of movement; a cloud of swallows swooping up, a murder of crows crowding a tree, a bathing blue jay splashing water. With a shadow behind each figure, his compositions move a notch further on the continuum of real. And there is always that nanosecond of disbelief. Can these tiny figures really be made of feathers? 

Yes, actually, they can. And they are.

This is how people experience Maynard’s work, what New York City gallery owner Ric Michel calls the “wow factor.” 

Maynard, who lives outside of Olympia, Washington, has been making art from feathers since he was 12. But the unusual form his work takes today — placing his intricate feather cuttings in shadowboxes — is a more recent development. The boxes are both beautiful and surprisingly edifying. Each one teaches us something about bird behavior. They are, as one naturalist put it, a union of science and art. 

“He’s the only artist I represent — in fact he’s the only artist I know — who uses the feathers without any ornamentation or adulteration. It’s carved and it’s reconfigured, but there is nothing that’s added to it,” Michel says. 

How did Maynard arrive at this unique expression? Not overnight, as he explains in a 2015 TEDx Talk. In fact, the roots of his work reach back to a third-grade class trip. At a museum with his classmates, looking through a powerful telescope, he listened as the teacher expounded on all the millions of light years that lay between the earth and stars. Instead of being awed, Maynard felt that he was so small he was insignificant, “a speck of nothing,” and he became anxious. 

Later in the day, he hyperventilated and passed out under his school bus seat where he was trying to hide. But a few years later, when on a walk in the woods, a bird flying overhead dropped a feather at the exact moment Maynard looked up. It floated down right to him, and though he still felt the world was big and frightful, holding the feather, he wasn’t scared. Yes, Maynard thought, the universe is big and frightful, but wonderful at the same time. 

As Maynard tried to reconcile the duality of a big, frightful yet also miraculous universe, he explored a wide variety of interests. In time, he came to realize that to be great at something, he would have to pull in his focus, choose “one small thing,” and make it the center of his work. That thing turned out to be feathers. 

“When we focus on one small thing, it’s like looking through a telescope, only in reverse, like a microscope,” Maynard says. “It opens worlds of possibilities that we never would have thought of.” 

The world of possibilities that opened up for Maynard has been a boon to the larger world as well. In addition to being represented by galleries throughout the country, the Bainbridge Island Museum of Art will feature Maynard’s work in a solo exhibit, Featherfolio, taking place March 11 through June 4. Greg Robinson, chief curator at the museum, says he has never seen anything quite as fresh as Maynard’s art. “He’s not just reflecting nature in his work, he’s using nature in his work,” Robinson says.

Maynard is fortunate to have in birds many sources of inspiration. The kinesthetic feeling of flight is one spark, another is the meaning feathers hold for people, including hope, transformation and whimsy. And then there’s Maynard’s rich catalogue of experiences from observing birds where they live. 

Take Blackbirds, a rectangle-shaped shadowbox 32 inches wide and 14 inches high. Inside are 18 feather stems in a row, representing perhaps a field of cattails, which is an environment blackbirds favor in particular. On each stem is perched one or two blackbirds; some have their heads raised in song, others gaze around at each other. Each posture is different, as each bird is an individual. Suddenly, the lively noisiness of a blackbird colony comes alive in your imagination. 

“I have this whole history and knowledge and feelings about the [red-winged blackbird], and so I had to ask, ‘How can I express that in my art?’ And then I had to drill down to, ‘How can I express that with feathers?’ which are very, very limiting,” Maynard says. 

Another source of inspiration are the 15 to 20 pairs of swallows that nest in Maynard’s barn each year. “They make my day every day in the spring. And I give them feathers. I have geese in my field, and they shed their feathers, so I have bags full of feathers that I give to the swallows when they’re making their nests. They see me come with my feathers, and they come out and swoop around. I haven’t had one quite take one from my hand. But they come very close. I put them up in the air, and they come and grab them out of the air.” 

Right now he’s working on a series of circles — birds coming out of a feather and then going back into it, so the returning bird (or flock of birds) appears to be part of the feather, not the other way around as is the case in nature.

Maynard uses only naturally shed feathers obtained from private aviaries, zoos and other sources; the great majority are from non-native species, even the crow feathers. It’s illegal in America to own a feather from one of the 800 or so species of North American migratory birds. This has been the case since the passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a law credited with saving the snowy egret, flamingo, roseate spoonbill and other birds from extinction. 

“I still have a big impulse to scatter my energies. I love to explore, I would love to do metal casting, I’d love to do all sorts of things, but really there’s only time for a finite amount, unfortunately,” Maynard says. “Life, as far as I know it, only happens once, and though there’s a little bit of sadness with that, I’m going to be working with feathers for all of my life.”

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