Miniatures painted on feathers

I was nominated by the Mississippi Arts Commission to represent our state for the 2016 National Christmas Tree Display. My ornaments will be on display in President’s Park, south of the White House in Washington, D.C. as part of the 94th annual National Christmas Tree Lighting display. Each of the 12 ornaments I made contains a wing feather from a Mississippi Eastern Wild Turkey on which I have painted one of twelve different birds that frequent my neighborhood, right next to the Natchez Trace Parkway. Wild turkeys, mockingbirds, blue jays, cardinals, crows, and woodpeckers hang out year-round, while bluebirds, robins, cedar waxwings, goldfinches and red winged blackbirds visit only at certain times of year when migrating. The hand crafted ornaments will adorn one of 56 trees representing each U.S. state, territory and the District of Columbia from December 1, 2016 through January 1, 2017 as part of the America Celebrates display. 

I paint on feathers because I like how the shape, size, and specific demands of feathers challenges me creatively, focusing my attention on detailed, mindful, miniature work. Like watercolor, there is little room for error. Once my brush touches the feather, it cannot be erased. My painted feathers are displayed behind glass, either inside glass ornaments or mounted in shadowboxes that I create by refinishing and repurposing picture frames. You will regularly find parrot, peacock, guinea fowl, and turkey feathers in my work. Most of the feathers come from small family farms that raise free-range fowl specifically for feathers that the birds have naturally dropped. I enjoy personally meeting the birds that provide the canvases for my acrylic paint. Living and working in Ridgeland, Mississippi, I have been a member of the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi since the summer of 2012.

About the Artist

feathers are my canvas

Meet the Birds

feathers feathers everywhere

All of my feathers are thoroughly sanitized. Any feather that comes into the house first goes into a ziplock bag and straight into the freezer for several weeks to kill potential microscopic mites. I then store the feathers in boric acid (an odorless powdery insecticide) to kill any surviving organisms and to deter future pests. When I am ready to paint, each feather is gently washed with water and dried with a hairdryer. After the painting is complete, I seal it with a matte finish archival spray that retains the feather's flexibility and luster.  

Know the Law

federal feather facts stated

I handle only feathers that are legal to posses and use in crafting. There are both federal and state laws that govern what is allowed.

Federally, I am held to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918. It is unlawful without a waiver to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell any of the 800+ birds listed in the law. The statute does not discriminate between live or dead birds and also grants full protection to any bird parts including feathers, eggs and nests. I do not use any feathers that I find outside. I am limited to domesticated birds, which includes things like chickens, swans, domestic ducks and geese, peacocks, pheasants and turkeys raised on farms, wild turkeys (see the next paragraph), and pet parrots (unless they are an endangered breed of parrot. Because parrots have long lifespans, there are a few legally owned endangered parrots in the United States that were grandfathered in after they were placed on the endangered-species list. It's legal to own the parrots, but not the feathers once they've molted). 

In the state of Mississippi, Wildlife and Fisheries Public Notice 3816 - Sale of Game was issued on December 15, 2011, which states that "any part of a wild turkey, except the meat or a mounted turkey" may be bought or sold. Unlike wild ducks and Canadian geese, turkeys don't migrate, so they are regulated by state law, rather than federal law. Local hunters are primarily interested in harvesting the birds for their meat during turkey season and I am glad to accept and use turkey feathers that would otherwise be discarded.

Elaine Maisel