Taking flight with Kate MccGwire

“I gather, collate, reuse, layer, peel, burn, reveal, locate, question, duplicate, play and photograph,” is how world renowned British sculptor Kate MccGwire describes what she does.

What truly separates Kate as a sculpture is her choice to use feathers as her working medium.

Kate’s innovative and complicated creative process started when she was a child living in the rural area of Norfolk in the U.K. Her father, a boat builder, would bring his daughter to work with him, where she would spend the day playing by the river and in the boats.  There she took in the untouched nature that surrounded her.

My parents were constantly telling me that I was always very observant as a child, seeing lots of birds and animals that other people wouldn’t see, looking through the reeds and things,” Kate explains.  “So I’ve always had an interest in animals and specifically birds. I was constantly collecting feathers as a child.”

The theme of nature was an integral part of Kate’s career as began to develop her artistry, working with feathers to recreate patterns and visuals found in water, air, and other natural phenomena.

“I moved to my studio in 2005, which is on a boat on the Thames [River]. So again, we get this sort of lying alongside nature all the time,” explains Kate.  “At the moment the river is running quite fast here in the winter. So you get some very beautiful but treacherous patterns in the water, and the currents could take you underneath if you fell in. But actually on the surface they look very beautiful. So I think of my work as being sort of beauty and treachery at the same time.”

Kate always uses natural mediums in her sculptures from feathers to bones that have been responsibly sourced. The process can take years for a single piece. This gives Kate plenty of time to design and think deeply about how she wants to go about creating the work. The collection of materials informs her process, and is a major part of her creativity.

“A lot of the materials I use you cannot buy. It is a process of negotiation and coercing of people that have the things that I want, that they would normally throw away. For example, for the pigeon feathers I send envelopes to pigeon racing people. I send them drawings and letters telling what I’m doing and thanking them for the letters they’ve sent me before. There will be a stamped self-addressed envelope so all they have to do is put the feathers they would normally throw away in the envelope and send it back to me in the post,” Kate explains. “Otherwise these things would just get thrown away. I like the fact that it’s a recycling. Sometimes it alarms people; they think I’ve been going around killing thousands of birds to make the work. It’s very important to me that every bird that I use is a form of recycling. They are birds that are disregarded.”

Gathering materials is just part of Kate’s creative process.

The sculpture starts its life as a series of drawings. Kate doesn’t use any 3D computer mapping to plan out the sculpture. She uses her drawings as her only blueprint to begin her work. As she glues and molds the feathers together, Kate concurrently begins to create the casing in which the sculpture will live.

“As I make a piece and I normally find an antique cabinet or dome. Then I make the work that will fit that space – make the work look like it has been trapped. There’s very little space between the dome and the glass sides and the piece itself. It looks like it’s squirming around within that space. I never make a piece of work and then try and find the dome because it would be impossible to find one that absolutely fits the shape that I’ve made. I want the shape of the enclosure to really impact the shape of the piece,” explains Kate.

“Entrapment. I want the piece to look like it’s writhing; that it’s tormented within a smaller space. That it’s alive and it wants to get out. I think of these pieces as being a three dimensional manifestation of a state of mind, so constantly, slightly in turmoil, but beautiful, and anguished at the same time. There’s this constant sort of aesthetic and discomfort at the fact they look like they’re trapped.”

To learn more about Kate MccGwire and her work, please visit her website.

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