|Watercolor Drawing of feathers|
“`Hope’ is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words--
And never stops—at all—
“Feathers: Fashion & The Fight for Wildlife” on view at the New York Historical Society from April 6-July 15, marks the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) of 1918. The exhibit presents examples of the use of feathers and actual birds in decorative wear. The widespread use of feathers for decoration led to the MBTA legislation which prohibits the hunting, killing, trading, and shipping of migratory birds, their feathers, and their eggs. Since its passing, the MBTA has been administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service whose power extends to the regulation of the commercial plume/feather trade, a thriving trade in the early 20thcentury that by 1918 had already decimated the population and in some cases led to the extinction of many American bird species. The restrictions had a huge effect on New York City, which--as the US fashion capital-- was the center of the US feather trade producing hats as well as other clothing, decorative items, and ephemera constructed of feathers. The exhibit honors activists like George Bird Grinnell, the founder of the Audubon Society; Olive Thorne Miller, Lilli Lehmann, Florence Merriam Bailey, Mary S. Sage, and Mabel Osgood Wright who worked to ensure the passing of legislation protecting birds from slaughter and suggested that people respect the lives of birds and instead use ribbons and flowers to decorate their clothing and homes.
The exhibit and the anniversary, as well as our present moment in history, urge us to think about conservation, about feathers themselves and to reflect on the birds whose bodies they cover. We can think about the different types, shapes, colors and iridescence of bird feathers. The life of every bird in the world depends on its coat of feathers-- a tiny Ruby-Throated Hummingbird has about 1,000 feathers and a Mute Swan up to 25,000. Much of a bird’s life is spent maintaining and caring for its feathers. Feathers are truly one of nature’s miracles and every bird knows this:
“Feathers can conceal or attract. They can be vibrantly colored without using pigment. They can store water or repel it. They can snap, whistle, hum, vibrate, boom, and whine. They’re a near-perfect airfoil and the lightest, most efficient insulation ever discovered.” Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle by Thor Hanson
I took a course with Mary Christiansen at the NYBG in drawing feathers. She was careful in obtaining feathers from hunting websites where feathers and even wings of game birds are legally sold to help teach dogs how to hunt. These feathers helped me as an artist to learn the structure of a feather. Just as with eggs, all feathers are not the same. Some grow in tracks for the wings or the body shape. Some are downy and keep the bird warm or cool. They serve different purposes for the bird. See the structure drawing to see the parts of the feather—all feathers from the largest to the tiniest, from the stiffest to the fluffiest have the same basic structure.
Drawing them is a challenge. It is important to capture the softness as well as maintain the structure of feathers in addition to the colors, textures, and shapes. Part of drawing birds as well as drawing feathers is to attempt to make them appear light yet solid, strong yet delicate. Drawing feathers, eggs, and birds themselves for me and this blog is a way of reminding myself and any reader of how vital each of these small lives is. And reading about these activists show us how important our role can be in making sure that their lives are protected and valued.