Artist Paints Feathers of Birds Mentioned In Shakespeare (and Other Plumes, Too)

Pictorial Encyclopedia of Shakespearean Birds, by Missy Dunaway.


What, is the jay more precious than the lark,
Because his feathers are more beautiful?

So asks Petruchio in a rhetorical musing from William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew (Act IV, Scene III), suggesting that appearance isn’t everything (“’tis the mind that makes the body rich,” he says). The metaphor is just one of many references the Bard makes to birds in his repertoire—indeed, his poems and plays “stand apart for the remarkable extent to which he singles out individual birds by name, often with such detailed reference to their habits as to show that he well knew them in their native haunts,” writes Sir Archibald Geikie in Birds of Shakespeare (1916). “Recognizing in these creatures traits that remind him of the feelings and actions of mankind, he makes varied and effective use of them as symbols and illustrations with which to enrich his vivid picture of the great drama of human life.”

According to Geikie, Shakespeare alludes to “some 50” types of birds. At least one other source, available online, lists more than 60, including birds as diverse as cuckoos, kites, and ravens. Using the latter, Brooklyn-based artist Missy Dunaway created the painting above, which she says features feathers from every non-mythical bird on the roster.

Detail from Pictorial Encyclopedia of Shakespearean Birds, by Missy Dunaway.

Dunaway’s idea for the composition took root at Carnegie Mellon University, where she studied art and art history and minored in English. While reading the Bard for coursework on medieval literature, Dunaway was struck by the number of avian allusions that appeared. “Luckily, there’s enough Shakespeare fanatics and bird fanatics out there that they found each other, and this list was just online,” she says. She created the piece—which took her three months to complete—after college as part of a series on feather compositions that she had started while still in school.

Blue Stork of Biegen, by Missy Dunaway.

Dunaway fancies feathers for their strong silhouettes and detail. “They convey motion so easily just because of their shape and their function,” she says. To capture their ethereal nature on paper, she uses a mixture of natural and acrylic inks. For source material, Dunaway typically researchers images online. At first, completing a feather could take a half hour; now she’s got it down to a science, at seven minutes per plume. “It got really methodical,” she says. These days, they’re “relaxing” to paint.

Other pieces from Dunaway’s feather compositions include a study of bird song feathers and an ode to a blue stork found in Germany in 2010 (above). For those particularly fond of the Bard’s birds, try visiting Washington, D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library, where Dunaway’s Pictorial Encyclopedia of Shakespearean Birds was permanently, and fittingly, acquired.

Plethora of Parrot Feathers, by Missy Dunaway.

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