Thought-feathers

October 17, 2012 § 3 Comments

Six months ago, at the London Original Print Fair, I came across some brightly coloured birds rendered with the painstaking detail of nineteenth-century natural history illustration. Nothing so unusual about that – except that they weren’t printed on paper.

Rebecca Jewell, Snowy Owl (2011)

Rebecca Jewell, Snowy Owl (2011)

They were printed on feathers.

The artist, Rebecca Jewell, has a rather unusual background – two degrees in anthropology, a stint of field research in Papua New Guinea, a PhD in natural history illustration and several years’ experience as artist in residence at the British Museum, based not in the Department of Prints and Drawings but in Africa, Oceania and the Americas. I instantly fell in love with her work and meant to write about it, but for various reasons this post ended up on the back burner until I went to New York a few weeks ago and one evening found myself walking up Mott Street past a display of her prints in her dealer’s New York space. I stepped in and found myself enchanted all over again.

Rebecca Jewell, Wisdom Headdress (2012)

Rebecca Jewell, Wisdom Headdress (2012)

What is it about Jewell’s prints that makes them so arresting? I think it’s the combination of the Victorian attitude to the natural world – the conviction that everything can be classified and everything is inherently orderly and functions according to immutable laws – that the illustrations enshrine, with the sense of something wild, mysterious, almost shamanistic in the feathers. (Indeed, some of Jewell’s feather prints are arranged into crowns and tiaras, as if intended for the priest of some as-yet-unknown religion. Many of the smallest feathers she frames in antique photograph or picture frames, which heightens the sense of nostalgia, that we are gazing upon artefacts of an irrecoverable age.

One thing that intrigues me about Jewell’s feather prints is how exactly she creates them. Printing on feathers must present all manner of difficulties – the unevenness of the surface (particularly if it’s a wing feather with a thick shaft), the variations in texture, the fragility. I asked the (uncommonly kind and helpful) gallery assistant about Jewell’s technique and she explained that she was more or less bound to secrecy on the subject. All she was able to tell me is that Jewell uses an etching plate (which I had more or less guessed anyway), but nothing about the actual printing process.

I suppose my best bet is to somehow meet Jewell (not entirely outside the realm of possibilities!) and see whether she’d ever answer my questions. No matter what, though, I’ll always keep an eye out for these enigmatic, melancholy feathers.

Rebecca Jewell, Robin, Blackbird and Thrush, After Thorburn And Frohawk (2011)

Rebecca Jewell, Robin, Blackbird and Thrush, after Thorburn and Frohawk (2011)

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