Artist Kate MccGwire talks about how bird feathers have inspired her work


Look closely at the feathers on Kate MccGwire’s Purge sculpture and telephone numbers will come into focus.

MccGwire sources all the pigeon feathers for her beguiling artworks from owners whose racing pigeons have moulted.

“Using material you can’t buy adds fission to the work,” she says.

She’s spent nine years building a network of pigeon fanciers across Britain who supply her with feathers.

She contacted hundreds of people – through pigeon racing societies and clubs – and they now send her feathers in the post.

“I send them stamped addressed envelopes and every time the birds moult they send me the feathers. It’s a rather nice network.”

Racing pigeons are captive birds which shed their feathers biannually in April and October. Because they are living birds MccGwire gets a continually evolving selection. She also has a changing roster of fanciers and is always looking for new suppliers. I like that interaction with my suppliers. A lot of them are not on email so I get nice letters from, say, Wilf in Glamorgan, who’ll say my bird has won five races this season.”

On arrival, the feathers are frozen in the same way the Natural History Museum would freeze items before taxidermy. This kills bugs and moths.

The whole process of sourcing, storing and using the material is part of the art. Her final piece for her MA in sculpture at the Royal College Of Art, a 2004 work called Brood which was later bought by and exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery, included 27,000 chicken wishbones.

It is impossible to buy chicken wishbones so MccGwire had to get in touch with catering meat suppliers which bone meat for restaurants.

“As they were boning the meat I got them to cut the wishbone off for me and save it. I was getting boxes of wishbones with flesh on, 7,000 a week, which I would have to boil up and clean.

“It’s never a simple process,” she stresses, “but that is part of the wonder of the work.”

Another wonder is the juxtaposition of horror and beauty audiences experience on seeing these “rats with wings”, the so-called dirty, filthy creatures, turned into graceful sculpture.

MccGwire, who wants to seduce and repel in equal measure, is questioning how we attach meaning to objects and words.

“The analogy I like to use is that pigeons are pilloried by society as filthy. Yet the dove is used as a symbol of purity and peace and people will let go of them as a sign of hope. But the pigeon and the dove are the same bird. One is just the albino version.”

In all pigeon fanciers’ cages will be white birds beside grey birds.

“How come the same birds are held in such a different light?” she asks. When MccGwire glues and laminates feathers to the metal vessels which give structure to her sculptures, she tries to depict movement. She bases this on how feathers would lie on a wing, according to her bird anatomy drawings and studies.

“I use organic material such as feathers because they give the work an unworldly feel. You recognise them, they make sense, they look right and they look believable, but you don’t recognise them in the form they are on the sculpture.”

Pigeon feathers and magpie feathers will form the basis of MccGwire’s two new sculptures for the Crypt Gallery at St Mary In The Castle in Hastings. It’s part of her contribution to the two-week Coastal Currents arts festival, celebrating its 15th year. She will also show two older works made of pigeon feathers – Cache, 2011, and Host v11, 2012 – in the window at Butlers Emporium in George Street, Hastings.

She hopes visitors to Purge and Secrete are awestruck by their scale. She’s worked round the clock for a month with four assistants, who trimmed and chopped and sorted plumage, before helping MccGwire to place as many as 8,000 feathers together.

“There is a sense of ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ when you see them, but they are beautiful as well.”

Using large quantities of familiar, everyday objects strengthens the impact. It also reflects mass production.

“The wishbone we pull with families on a Sunday with our roast is one thing, but put it en masse and it is a scary killing field of battery farmed chicken.”

Secrete, using petrol blue magpie feathers found on a small patch on the bird’s wing, will sweep across the floor at St Mary In The Castle.

Magpie feathers might have a more striking colour but they are more complicated to source. The birds are shot by farmers because they damage crops.

“They would normally be burnt but I recycle them because the feathers are a beautiful electric green blue.”

She’s had some negative comments online. But these come from “misguided” observers.

“Maybe they think I am ordering them but that is not what I do. I am reusing them. I am not making birds die, I am celebrating them.”

It’s not just magpie and pigeon feathers which become sculpture. She has a piece en route to Inverness made of pheasant feathers. She’s had international success and last month had work in Museum Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf and MoMu in Antwerp.

“We are so proud that an internationally renowned artist of the calibre of Kate MccGwire is exhibiting in The Crypt Gallery at St Mary in the Castle,” says Zoe Ashdown, manager of St Mary In The Castle.

“We cannot wait to see what innovative site-specific installation Kate has designed for our very unusual gallery space.”

Coastal Currents director Tina Morris is equally excited to have new work by MccGwire in the anniversary edition of Coastal Currents.

“These are new, never-seen-before creations and they are going to be stunning,” she says.

“They are free and in the public realm and we think it’s a major coup for Sussex.”

MccGwire, who has never exhibited as part of a festival before, thinks her work will appeal to all ages.

That it might not be a traditional artsy crowd is another plus point. But many newcomers will surely leave the shows with one lingering question: why pigeons?

“When I graduated I was looking for a studio and I found a Dutch barge in Hampton in Middlesex.

“It was an open space moored on a semi-derelict island full of gigantic warehouse spaces.

“The one closest to my studio was full of pigeons. Every day I would walk past it to go to my studio and these feathers would be falling from the sky.

“They were there, looking at me, saying ‘use me!’, so I started picking them up and within a week or two I had a hundred feathers from moulting birds.

“I started laying them out and they were beautiful. There were incredible colours within the greys and I realised I wanted to work with them.”



Kate MccGwire
The Basement, St Mary In The Castle, Pelham Place, Hastings