Artist has feathery touch

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Shirley Blankenship has always been fascinated by the way a few simple lines on paper can be transformed into dynamic symbols of the world around her.

At an early age, she realized that art is the doorway into another world - a world of yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Now, Blankenship is using her artistic talent to open doors to the past and to places where her visions can actually take wings and fly.

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July 16-18, Blankenship will be a featured artist in the 4th Annual Heritage Harbor Days of Foley, Ala., in Maggie Valley, N.C.

Heritage Harbor Days is an award-winning cultural heritage exchange between two cities in different states. Each year Foley packs up and takes a 28-foot shrimp boat, the "Miss Foley," and a small slice of rich culture to visit a city in another state. Later in the year, that host city pays a cultural visit to Foley.

The first Heritage Harbor Days event in 2001 showcased Guymon, Okla., and Grapevine, Texas, before "docking"

in Maggie Valley this week.

"I am very excited about the invitation to help represent our diverse Alabama artists during the Heritage Harbor Days event,"

Blankenship said. "This is a wonderful opportunity for me to show my work and to meet other artists with similar interests."

Blankenship will showcase her latest series titled, "Fallen Feathers,"

which is a series of paintings on feathers.

"The name 'Fallen Feathers' is derived from the actual fallen feathers of domestic birds," she said. "Most of the feathers that I use are 'gifted' to me from people in the community. Some of the feathers are wild turkey feathers given to me by local hunters."

The feathers have to be sterilized, cleaned and prepped for painting. Blankenship does all the preparation work and painting in her studio at her home north of Troy.

"My interest in Native American culture comes from my own Indian heritage," Blankenship said. "And, during my study of Native American culture while teaching art and Indian education through the Pike County Indian Program, I became interested in the tradition of feathers and the many ways Indians used them. Now, I use feathers as my canvas."

To paint on a canvas as delicate as a feather takes a soft and steady hand.

"I use a brush with only a few hairs and I work with the feather, not against it," Blankenship said. "Many times the feather will dictate the painting - its length and its color. The dark feathers make a great canvas for a snow scene - either mountains or woodlands - or for a sunset or night scenes. The lighter colored feathers make good canvases for wildlife scenes and portraits. I use the feathers color to create a mood or feeling."

The larger the feather, the less tedious and minute the work.

"On a larger feather, I can put more detail," Blankenship said. "The mountain lion on one feather has a great amount of detail, but on a smaller feather, a wolf is symbolized by only a few simple stokes."

Rivers, mountains, teepees, cabins and wildlife are the primary subjects of Blankenship's "Fallen Feathers."

The scenes are contrasts of darks and lights with few mid-tones. Each feather has a western flair.

"When we think of Native Americans, we usually think of the West," she said. "My feather paintings that don't have

Native American subjects

still have a Western feel to them."

Feathers lend themselves to the Native American, Old West and mountain cultures and Blankenship feels very comfortable working on feather canvases and with the subjects that are a part of her heritage and her heart.

The first series of her work was far removed from feather painting. In 1976, Blankenship's interest in charcoal lead her to a series titled "Silent Echoes."

"I had enhanced my education through a commercial art course and had become very interested in charcoal as a medium," she said. "'Silent Echoes' is a series of charcoal drawings of old buildings, barns and tenant houses in the Pike County area."

Blankenship said, as she rode around the county, she became keenly award of old structures that were becoming dilapidated, many of which were to the point of falling down.

"I realized that soon these wonderful old houses and barns would be gone from the landscape," she said. "I knew if they were not preserved in some way they would be lost forever."

Blankenship began making charcoal drawings of the structures that seemed to silently echo the past. "Those houses and barns were a part of our history - our heritage - and they each had a story to tell," she said. "I wanted to do what I could so that their echoes would not be silent. I want to preserve them through art so that other generations would know that they once existed and were once a vital part of the Pike County community."

Most of the structures in the "Silent Echoes" series have already given in to weather and time and, were it not for Blankenship's drawings, there would be no physical record of those barns, cribs and shanties that once dotted the Pike County landscape.

One of them has special personal meaning for Blankenship.

"My grandparents were traveling back from town on a mule and wagon and my grandmother went into labor," Blankenship said, as she pointed to the special drawing. "There was nothing that they could do, but stop. My dad was born in a crib at this old homestead."

Progress has erased all but the memories of that place, but Blankenship has preserved it for those with no remembrance.

"Through the 'Silent Echoes' series, people will know more about the structures that once occupied the rural areas of Pike County," she said.

Blankenship plans a Phase II of the "Silent Echoes Series," as she continues to preserve the past through her art.

"My love of and appreciation for my Native American heritage is my inspiration for my 'Fallen Feathers Series.' I hope that both will have meaning for others."