Olympia artist Chris Maynard cuts tiny figures from what seems to be the most fragile of artistic media — feathers.
Chris Maynard remembers being in the third grade, looking out of a bus window and contemplating the universe, when he began to hyperventilate.
His class was on its way back from a field trip where he had learned how telescopes made it possible to peer light-years away into an endless array of stars, and feeling that small was not a source of wonderment, as it is for some, but of helplessness.
A few years later he was again looking at the sky — framed this time by the trees surrounding him in the woods — when a single feather from a bird floated down and found its way to him. Tumbling in the wind, as powerless as that third-grader was on the bus, the feather became an anchor in a world that at times seemed overwhelming.
“If you focus on one thing, you can be good at it. But if you focus on everything, not so much,” he said.
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And so many years later, after seven years of juggling his art with his career in hydropower, Maynard decided in 2014 to focus exclusively on his art, and today, feathers anchor Maynard’s life as an artist by providing the medium for his bird-inspired designs and carvings produced in his Olympia studio.
His work can be seen in his book “Feathers: Form & Function” (Aviva Publishing, $40), which showcases his art as well as his insights into feathers themselves.
Mixing silhouettes carved from the feather and negative space within the feather itself, his work typically evokes birds in flight but also includes silhouettes of other animals and other images.
Maynard, 61, uses only naturally shed, legal feathers, most of which come from abroad, because of strict laws regarding feather use in North America; other than turkey and grouse, most birds’ feathers are illegal to use even if they are found on the ground.
This makes for a somewhat limited supply of materials, as well as making each attempt working with a feather that much more important.
“Sometimes I’ll just sit and hold a feather for an hour,” he said of his inspiration process. This was likely the case for one piece of his, where Maynard found each letter of the alphabet in the pattern of a pheasant feather and arranged the “letters” side by side to make a poster.
Once he has the final concept in mind and a suitable feather at hand, Maynard photographs the feather and works with the image on his computer, where he can sketch his design and properly scale and measure out a stencil used for carving — limited materials means no room for error.
Using a scalpel and surgical loupes, Maynard cuts his designs in the feather, then arranges the pieces on paper and finalizes the concept of the work before treating and backing the feather with a process involving paper, pressure and glue. Finally, he attaches the feathers to stainless-steel rods meant for displaying insects (like those you might see in a natural-history museum), suspending the feathers above the canvas to create shadows and preserve their natural form.
The process of cutting the feathers is not what is most time consuming, as many assume, but rather coming up with the concept and finding the proper feather. Making the final arrangement is also time consuming, as it is one of the only parts of the process where Maynard has complete creative control and is not limited by the size or color of the feather he is using.
One misconception people and museums often have is that his artwork is fragile.
“People confuse lightness with delicacy, but they’re really structural wonders,” he said of feathers.
Maynard was raised in Bellevue. His father was an eye surgeon, and he utilizes some of his father’s ophthalmology tools in creating his art. His mother was an artist and professor at Agnes Scott College in Georgia.
In particular, her interest in sumi-e, the Japanese name for a type of East Asian ink-wash painting, informs his artistic approach. Central to the aesthetic philosophy of sumi-e is not to replicate the appearance of a subject, but instead to capture its essence with the fewest and simplest brush strokes possible.
“If I start with a feather, I already have something, and it already has the essence of the bird, so I can work from there,” he said.
Alluding to the galaxy-gazing telescopes that sent him into a panic attack as a boy, Maynard flips the concept and likens his approach to discovering new worlds beneath a microscope instead.
“The more I limit myself, the more it opens up other possibilities,” he said.
Ultimately, feathers are a tool for flying, and flight is a universal and romantic concept for humanity. It inspires feelings of transcendence and hope, and is one reason, he believes, that people are drawn to his work.
But for Maynard, feathers are what keep him grounded.