By Alec Clayton
Olympia’s Chris Maynard is a marvel. He makes art of a kind seldom if ever seen anywhere else. He makes images of birds and places them in shadow boxes. Often the birds are in flight and in combination with totem-like formations and abstract or stylized scenes, and everything in the boxes is made from the feathers of turkeys, parrots, peacocks and other birds.
Most of his feathers, he says, are naturally shed.
Maynard’s art is held in private collections throughout the United States and in Europe, China, Japan, Australia, Brazil and New Zealand. He has had solo shows in Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, China, and closer to home at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art, and here in Olympia at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts and Childhood’s End Gallery. His work has also been featured in publications in North America, Asia, Europe and Australia, including “The Man Who Reincarnates Feathers” in Audubon, “Bohemian Rhapsody: Olympia, Washington” in American Craft and “Beautiful Artwork Cut Out of Feathers” in Smithsonian magazine. And he has published a coffee table book of his art, Feathers, Form and Function, which offers “insight into how feathers grow, how they evolved, what they are made of, and what they do for the birds.”
“Right now I am most excited about a new proposal I am working on with Janice Arnold, a local artist who works with wool and felt,” Maynard says. “I woke up a few weeks ago with the remnants of a dream/idea for a museum show and it is morphing into other types of venues. That is because I am thinking about what people might need right now and who knows when, how, or even if physical, in-person museum shows will be a possibility in the next year or so.”
The idea is about keratin, Maynard explains. It’s the strongest of animal materials, which feathers, horns, snakeskin, and porcupine quills and “stuff like clothes” are made of Their museum show proposal is for art using these materials while honoring the animals they came from. Maynard says he would like to put out several calls for art from such materials to be juried to shared online.
Maynard first became fascinated with birds as a young boy growing up near Seattle. He describes walking in the woods near his home with “his head nestled in moss,” watching the birds in tall trees. This early interest led him to a degree from The Evergreen State College and a career in biology. He worked with the hydropower industry for the state on fish and water issues, working with tribal, state and federal governments negotiating the flow of water through the dams of the Columbia River Basin in an effort to balance the needs of salmon with the needs of water for irrigation and electricity. In 2008 he went to halftime in order to free up time to work on his art, and then six years ago switched to full-time artist.
“I carve feathers into intricate art by cutting them into detailed shapes and arranging the cutouts into scenes that celebrate life and flight of birds and the meaning that birds and flight have for us,” Maynard says.
Many of Maynard’s cut-feather shadowbox artworks share a look and emotive power with Native American art. There is a great deal of back-and-forth play between positive and negative shapes, with the holes left in feathers when he has cut out bird shapes becoming positive shapes. Often bits of feathers “fly off” his iconic arrangements to morph into murmurations of birds in flight, much in the way images of fish and birds morph into each other in the art of M.C. Escher. Also, since the shapes he cuts out are pinned with stainless entomology pins in front of a backboard, their cast shadows become intentional images.
“Once a feather has finished its life as part of a bird,” Maynard says, “I believe it still has much to offer. The essence of a bird is inherent in each of its feathers. In carving and arranging a feather into a thought-provoking scene, I use an individual feather’s unique qualities in order to celebrate the bird that gave us the feather.”
Maynard also notes that although feathers appear fragile, they are quite strong. They are made of the material that forms human fingernails. “I consider a feather’s patterns, shapes, and sometimes its colors when I’m creating a new work of art. The subjects of my work are drawn from my own experiences as a naturalist and artist, observing and thinking about wildlife,” he says.
Childhood’s End Gallery’s Jonathan Happ says, “Like all great artwork, Chris’ work fosters curiosity beyond what is depicted. The simplicity of the images makes an immediate impact; precise and seemingly effortless, but never purely decorative. We are thrilled to exhibit Chris’ new works and are honored to work alongside such a dedicated and talented voice in the arts.”
Greg Robinson, Chief Curator, Bainbridge Museum of Art, says of Maynard, “When I saw his work, I was completely blown away. They are meticulous, exquisite pieces. They have so much movement and life. I had never seen anything like them.”
It is quite likely that Olympians who see Maynard’s work for the first time will also say they have never seen anything like them.
Maynard was scheduled to show his work at Olympia Arts Walk April 24-25, 2020. The event was cancelled in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.