He’s most recognized for helping to dot the yards of US suburbs with shocking pink plastic flamingos — the exemplar of kitsch that rose from its resin roots to become the “ambassador of the American lawn” and even a “signpost for the transgression of social and cultural convention.” But Donald Featherstone, who died last week from Lewy body dementia at 79, was also a trained painter and sculptor who left behind much more than his fuchsia specimens, upon which he had bestowed the playful trinomial nomenclature “Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus.”
Featherstone, born in Worcester, Massachusetts, began making art as a child and recalled drawing the neighborhood bread truck when he was four. He became more interested in the arts in middle school when he started sketching and working with watercolors, and, during high school, took fine arts classes on nights and weekends, studying photography, oil painting, architecture, and design. He eventually attended a three-year program at the Worcester Art Museum‘s art school, but rather than pursuing a career as an artist upon graduating, he joined the plastic manufacturer Union Products (acquired by Cado Company in 2009).
“I did it to keep from starving,” Featherstone said in a 1997 interview. “It was the 1950s, and everyone said plastics were going to be big so I went into plastics.” According to Bangor Daily News, he “likely would have taught in an arts school or focused on watercolors” if he had not chosen a career in yard ornamentation. That decision, however, forever transformed landscapes across the nation: over the course of his 43 years with Union Products, Featherstone designed more than 600 garden tchotchkes, many of which are still available for purchase.
Among his creations are more feathered friends (perhaps a personal salute to his name), from pheasants and roosters to pelicans and graceful swans that double as planters, showing his consideration of function in addition form. Also available: a pair of comically wide-eyed penguins gazing skyward, making for fun winter decorations or cheesy punchlines in the tropics. Featherstone’s first assignment was actually to sculpt a duck; he purchased a living one as a model, named it “Charlie,” and kept it in his sink. He couldn’t repeat the process for his next assignment — the (in)famous flamingo — so he drew inspiration instead from vivid photographs that accompanied National Geographic‘s October 1957 cover story. That bird became his masterpiece and even carries his signature on its rump, but Featherstone’s ostrich was apparently his favorite fowl.
Aside from the birds, Featherstone also fashioned elephants into darling watering cans; introduced dinosaurs, pilgrims, and witches into the canon of lawn decor; and got into the spirit of Christmas with elves and smiley Santas.
When he retired from Union Products in 2000, four years after rising to the position of company president, he returned to painting but shared the works only with his wife, Nancy. In a gem of an interview with the Guardian in which she discussed the couple’s quirky habit of wearing matching outfits, she noted that her husband had an “excellent eye for color.” The one painting Featherstone did share with the public was a submission to a contest held by his local library; it was a winning work and, titled “Bookmingo,” featured none other than his distinctive flamingo beak-deep in a lawn art tome.
Some may still find Featherstone’s plastic sculptures tacky, but their enduring presence speaks to a desire to accessorize and embellish our personal spaces; to transform and color the generic with individual tastes. As Featherstone told the Chicago Tribune: “An empty lawn is like an empty coffee table; you have to do something with it.”