In fine feather

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For birds, feathers serve three main functions, to fly, keep warm and to attract their partners. But for Kate MccGwire they serve a very different function – art. Since her graduation from the Royal College of Art in 2004, Kate has become renown for working with organic materials, such as bones, hair and most prominently, natural bird feathers. Often her works have been large-scale sculptures, where cascades of feathers flow and spill out of unexpected places, such as vintage cookers and painted fireplaces.

Her most recent exhibition Lure has enjoyed an extended run at All Visual Arts in London and drew inspiration from the ring of feathers used by a falconer to call and command their birds. The exhibition was full of sinister shaped sculptures encased in glass globes and cabinets while her the largest piece escaped from a circular tube in the wall, where crow feathers were twisted in an alluring but as equally unsettling manner.

Glass caught up with Kate as she prepares to start work on her next project to find out what’s in store for the future.
Congratulations on the extended run of  Lure and its accompanying book – how does it feel when an exhibition comes to an end?
There’s always a mix of emotions, particularly when you’ve invested so much of yourself. It took me a solid 18 months to make the work for Lure – that’s not counting all the thinking time I put in either. When you’ve been immersed in something for the best part of two years there’s always a kind of void after you’ve taken it all down. The work’s been in your mind or your physical space for such a long time that when it goes it almost leaves a shadow. I feel an overwhelming sense of guilt if I’m not working constantly – something I really need to work on. On the other hand, there’s also a feeling of excitement and rebirth when one chapter comes to an end and another begins. A moment of calm before the storm starts again.
Describe a typical day for you.
Generally my day starts with a walk in the park with Tilly, our studio dog. It’s a great way to get the day going and means I get to pick up all sorts of feathers. Mostly pigeon, but also wild parakeet feathers – there’s a rumour that they escaped from nearby Shepperton Studios during the filming of The African Queen (1951) but they’re more likely just escaped pets, which have flocked to the open spaces outside central London. My walk ends with a short boat trip across the river to my studio, a Dutch barge moored on an island on the Thames. I then light the wood-burning stove, make a mug of tea and check emails. If there’s a piece of work in progress I’ll start on it around 10 am and carry on until lunch. The whole studio stops to eat so if I have any assistants in we all make lunch together and talk about upcoming projects. The day ends around 6pm but I often stay much later; time flies when I’m really stuck into a project.

What is it like working with feathers – are they an easy material to work with?  
Feathers are quite forgiving to work with but you have to treat each one with respect – they can be ruined if not handled properly. First of all we freeze them for three weeks to kill off any pests and bacteria, then we shape and trim each one individually. It’s a very time-consuming process. They have such a singular beauty, which I’m totally in thrall to.

As an object a feather has so many unique properties, from the colour, which can be so intense on one side and virtually non-existent on the other, to its perfectly aerodynamic shape. It’s mind-blowing when you think that it’s this material that allows birds to fly – something humans have spent years perfecting mechanically. Not only that, they also get regrown twice a year as part of the natural molting process.

You often play with oppositions in your work; can you define how you perceive beauty and ugliness?
My experience of beauty and ugliness is of two visceral emotions that intertwine rather than of two separate entities. It’s a relationship I see mirrored in the natural world where there’s both darkness and light – two halves of the same idea; you can’t have one without the other. Working on the river, as I do, means I get to see nature at its most raw – you literally watch as the “bucolic idyll” unravels before your eyes. It’s a never-ending cycle of birth and death, of one animal preying on another, of harsh realities and unhappy endings with fluffy ducklings being snatched by other, carnivorous birds. It’s both beautiful and horrifying.

This dichotomy continues in our cultural relationships with animals. Take doves and pigeons, for instance; they are the same bird, just different colours, but while one is considered to be the embodiment of purity and peace, the other has connotations of filth and disease. It is only our perceived understanding that chooses to divide nature into beauty and ugliness. Scratch under the surface and they are one.

Your work is very nature-based and, in particular, bird-oriented; do you have a special connection with any one bird? If so, how and why?
Pigeons will always have a special hold over me. When I first started experimenting with feathers, it was the support of the pigeon-racing network that gave my work the momentum it needed to grow. I enjoy the fact that the medium I use can’t be bought unlike conventional art materials. My materials have a miraculous quality to them; they are unique, transitory. To collect the volumes needed for each piece requires a certain level of persuasion; I have to convince others of my vision.

Pigeon feathers also have this wonderful dichotomy; they’re dirty (they’ve been shed by “rats with wings”), yet in isolation they’re wonderfully sculptural and really rather beautiful. This dual identity is reflected in the process of collection; while the bird-keeper may think of a bird’s molted feathers as waste, littering the floor of his pigeon loft, to me they are precious and I appreciate every donation. Pigeon feathers are a natural by-product of bird-keeping so by using something that would otherwise be thrown away I feel the feathers are being given a new life, recycled and appropriated in a way that does the birds justice (certainly, no harm).

What do you think about the art world today, and how do you feel you fit into it?

I’m not really sure if any artist can really know how they fit into the art world or anticipate how their work will be received by it; it’s too complex and confusing. All you can do is make what you make and let others draw their conclusions. I make work that resonates with me, in the hope that it taps into a wider universal meaning. Beyond my studio walls it’s a mystery and one I prefer not to spend time contemplating.

Finally, what are we to expect from you in the future? Will you continue to work with feathers?
In the meantime, yes, but watch this space. Nature is inextricably linked to my practice; in the past I’ve used human hair and chicken bones but I’m enjoying focusing on feathers for now. I certainly intend to revisit, and experiment with, other natural materials in the future.

Some of Kate’s work is currently on show at the me Collectors Room in Berlin until April 28 while her book Lure is also available.

by Maria McKenzie

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