It’s a dark day in the world of American lawn kitsch: Donald Featherstone, the New England artist who unleashed the national icon otherwise known as the (plastic) pink flamingo on the world in 1957, has passed away following a long illness. He was 79.
That strange sound you hear somewhere off in the distance? That would be the sound of a thousand garden gnomes gently weeping in solidarity for their beloved compatriot.
Aside from John Deere himself, no single person has had such a profound impact on the American front yard as Don Featherstone. A Worcester Art Museum-trained sculptor, Featherstone created his most famed work while under the employ of Union Products, a now-defunct purveyor of blow mold lawn statuary: swan planters, mutant-sized squirrels, light-up Santas and dead-eyed, splay-legged teddy bears wearing bow-ties. If it was made from plastic and had the potential to irk uppity neighbors, than it was proudly designed and manufactured in Leominster, a blue-collar burg in north-central Massachusetts that, once upon a time, was the comb manufacturing capital of the United States.
As reported by the Boston Globe, Featherstone designed upwards of 650 lawn ornaments during his tenure at Union Products, kicking off an illustrious career with a duck named Charlie. Featherstone's tulip-embossed watering can remains an icon of mid-century domesticity although the pink flamingo, which he designed with the aid of a National Geographic wildlife photo spread, is his most enduring creation.
Following decades as a designer, Featherstone later went on to serve as president of Union Products until he stepped down in 2000. Four years prior to his retirement, he was awarded the Ig Nobel Art Prize for his “ornamentally evolutionary invention.”
“An empty lawn is like an empty coffee table. You have to put something on it,” Featherstone explained to the Boston Globe in 2008.
Featherstone, of course, had created something that evolved into something much bigger than a mass-produced plastic doodad to put on one’s lawn. The pink flamingo, in all its gaudy glory, went on to become something much more: a flamboyant declaration of independence, a hot-pink mark of individuality, a middle finger rising from America’s collective — and largely staid — front lawn directed at homogenous post-war suburban life where all the houses looked the same and where no one dared deviate from the norm.
While Featherstone’s sold-at-Sears creation had no voice, its presence alone said everything.
Yeah, I know I’m totally cheap and tacky. But you know what? I don’t really care.
In 1972, with several years of disturbing suburban sameness already under its belt, Baltimore’s sleaziest native son, filmmaker John Waters, thrust Featherstone’s creation further into the cultural consciousness. With Waters’ cult classic “Pink Flamingos,” the scrawny-legged lawn ornament became synonymous with unsavory behavior — a testament to bad taste, a kitsch icon to end all kitsch icons.
And Waters certainly didn’t look down upon the humble polyethylene bird and its lowbrow associations. He celebrated the pink flamingo, even though the plastic lawn ornament appears only briefly in his deranged tale of Babs Johnson (Divine) and her quest to become the "filthiest person alive."
"The reason I called it ‘Pink Flamingos’ was because the movie was so outrageous that we wanted to have a very normal title that wasn’t exploitative,” Waters told Smithsonian Magazine in 2012, noting that he never spotted a pink flamingo while growing up in the upper middle-class suburbs of Baltimore where his mother presided over the local gardening club. “To this day, I’m convinced that people think it’s a movie about Florida.”
"The only people who had them, had them for real, without irony," said Waters. "My movie wrecked that."
Waters is mostly correct. Today, pink flamingos are more or less plastic irony-magnets or as the Smithsonian aptly puts it, "a way of hinting at one’s own good taste by reveling in the bad taste of others." In other words, they're camp.
Photo: Jared and Corin/flickr
For Featherstone, who planted 57 pink flamingos in his own yard in an homage to their birth year, plastic lawn ornaments had nothing to do with rebellion, class, irony or provoking homeowners associations through questionable outdoor décor. It was all about making people happy.
He told the Leominster Champion in 2006: "I loved what I did, it's all happy things. You have to figure, my creations were not things people needed in life, we had to make them want them. Things I did made people happy, and that's what life is all about."
He adds: "They have been called very tacky, but more than not, they've been called fun. I've received some very touching stories about the flamingos. One in particular was a woman who was very sick, and loved her flamingos. Every morning, her father would go outside the window of her room and move her flamingos around the yard. She would wake up every day to find where he had put them."
Don Featherstone (a John Waters character-esque name if there ever was one) is survived by two children, several grandchildren and his wife Nancy, with whom he wore matching outfits during much of their 35-year marriage.
And to add a bittersweet layer to the news of Featherstone’s passing, today is Pink Flamingo Day. Founded in 2007 by Leominster Mayor Dean Mazzarella, the event both honors the work of Featherstone ("a local classic") and raises awareness of the plight of this dying breed, which, by the way is now produced in the neighboring city of Fitchburg by Cado Company, which acquired the rights to Union Product's designs after the company went kaput in 2006.
Lawn flamingos have become an endangered species due to short-sighted individuals who refuse to allow them lawn room. They have space for concrete bird baths and wily garden gnomes, but to suggest including a pair of flamingos is to risk being shunned. It is a tragic state of affairs for a pink creature who once ruled America’s lawns.
It’s also worth noting that many towns in Worcester County, where Featherstone spent his entire life, celebrate their manufacturing heritage. In Winchendon, a turn-of-the-century toy-making powerhouse, you’ll find a colossal wooden rocking horse prominently displayed under a covered pavilion in the middle of town. Gardner, a former furniture production hub that was once home to as many as 20 chair factories, has an incredibly large chair.
In the near future, will Leominster erect the world’s largest pink-hued plastic lawn ornament? A towering monument fit for Paul Bunyan's mumu-wearing wife? A tastefully tacky tribute to an American original?
Until that happens, here's a few locales in which to observe these ornamental beauties in the wild.
While the (plastic) pink flamingo may be native to Leominster (aka "The Plastics Capital of the World"), Charm City has long been its spiritual home thanks in part to filmmaker and Baltimore native John Waters. You’ll find a rather large fiberglass specimen towering above Café Hon in the kitsch-embracing Hampden neighborhood.
Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, Florida
True, the northern mockingbird is Florida’s official state bird. But it might as well be the flamingo considering the copious amount of avian-inspired plastic lawn ornaments — and flamingo-themed tourist merch — on display across the Sunshine State (and, yes, Florida has the real deal, too). Serving as a gateway to Old Florida with its vintage Eames seating and laid-back vibe, Sarasota-Bradenton Airport has quite the impressive (temporary?) pink flamingo display near the main ticketing area.
Photo: Matt Hickman
While I can't recommend one specific Madison location in which to admire pink flamingos, Wisconsin's quirky capital does have a certain fondness these long-necked, hot pink beauties. In 2009, the plastic pink flamingo was named the official city bird in homage to the massive prank a group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students pulled off in 1979 when 1,000 Featherstone flamingos were planted on the lawn surrounding the dean's office.
Randyland, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
There’s a lot going on at Randyland (aka Randy Gilson’s Pittsburgh backyard). Still, it’s not hard to miss a smattering of ersatz flamingos manufactured in Leominster, Mass.
Plastic Pink Flamingo Petting Zoo, Cedar Point, North Carolina
Need I explain more?
Via [Boston.com], [NPR]
Featherstone photo: Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images