Using thousands of plumes, Kate MccGwire creates enormous, otherworldly forms
‘Let’s get feathering!” reads a note on the wall in the moored Thames River barge that serves as British sculptor Kate MccGwire’s studio. Feathers are the 49-year-old artist’s current medium of choice, and she has drawers crammed with them—all sent to her by farmers, gamekeepers, and a dedicated network of pigeon-racing enthusiasts.
Using thousands of plumes, MccGwire creates enormous, otherworldly forms that often occupy entire rooms. They range from graceful, undulating serpent-like sculptures to site-specific, abstract installations that appear to ooze out of pipes and hearths, threatening to engulf the space. For Evacuate (2010), feathers spew forth in a solid stream from the antiquated oven of an English country mansion, as if claiming revenge for the creatures that have been cooked there. And Retch (2007) features a monstrous torrent of plumes pouring out of an opening in a crypt wall and pooling on the ground.
Though MccGwire is coy about her process, not wanting to destroy the illusion, she concedes that each work has a supportive structure composed of carved material—she won’t specify what kind—which is then covered in felt and hand-trimmed feathers. A new development is her use of oversize clamps, whose metallic grip around the soft plumage of her sculptures introduces a subtle brutality. “I’m drawn to physical constriction that’s other than human,” she says. “I think maybe I wanted to harden it up a bit.”
MccGwire was raised on the Norfolk Broads on Britain’s eastern coast—a region famed for its rich wildlife—and her father made his living building boats. After completing her M.A. in sculpture at London’s Royal College of Art in 2004, she bought the barge and mooring for her studio on a decrepit island in south London called Platts Eyot. The discovery of a pigeon colony in a nearby shed prompted her to start collecting their feathers in 2006, fascinated by the duality of their cultural associations. “The dove is the symbol of peace, purity, and fertility,” she explains, “but it’s exactly the same species as a pigeon—which everyone regards as being dirty, foul, a pest.”
Besides feathers, MccGwire has worked with a variety of mediums—many of them found, everyday materials, including wishbones, hair, and noodles. She has participated in group exhibitions all over Europe as well as at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and has solo shows slated for the fall at the Royal Monceau Hotel in Paris and in South Korea’s Cheongju International Craft Biennale. Her works sell for between $4,000 and $80,000 at her London gallery All Visual Arts, and collectors include Charles Saatchi and Thomas Olbricht.
Anchoring her current exhibition at Britain’s Winchester Discovery Centre gallery (up through August) is a gleaming, 30-foot-long black braid of crow plumes titled Gyre (2012). “I’m thinking of it as being like an umbilical cord,” MccGwire says. “I want to seduce by what I do—but revolt in equal measure. It’s really important to me that you’ve got that rejection of things you think you know for sure.”