Feathering Her Nest
Date: July 16, 2009
Byline: Penelope Green
DESTINY: When a rooster followed Hope Sandrow home, her life was altered forever. "He took one look at Hope," said Ulf Skogsbergh, her husband, "and said, 'That's for me!'"
SHINNECOCK HILLS, N.Y. — IN this story, it was the chicken that came first.
One afternoon in late March, three years ago, Hope Sandrow, a mixed-media artist, was looking for her cat in the woods near her house here. Rounding a tree, she ran smack into a large blond rooster. Nearly knee high, he was as tall as a young coyote and sported an eye-catching Warholian feather headdress.
Human and chicken goggled at each other, frozen for a moment. Ms. Sandrow recovered first and invited the chicken home. And the chicken, as Ulf Skogsbergh, Ms. Sandrow's husband, put it the other day, "took one look at Hope and said, 'That's for me!' "
Their relationship — the rooster and Ms. Sandrow's, that is — followed the usual fowl-meets-human trajectory. Ms. Sandrow gave him a name, Shinnecock, for the woods he was found in, and then set about learning how to make him comfortable. The rooster set about charming his new family: flying down each morning from the tree he roosted in ("Who knew chickens could fly?" Ms. Sandrow said) to dance a jig and gently peck their cheeks.
Ms. Sandrow determined he was a Paduan chicken, a crested fowl prized by 16th-century European painters for its exotic good looks. She spent hours with a local farmer learning poultry care. Meanwhile, she surveyed her neighbors, trying to find out where the rooster had come from, and continued to wait for his rightful owner to surface.
As is sometimes the way with chicken visitations, no one did. Thus, once the rooster's elaborate needs were met, Ms. Sandrow had to ask herself if she really was up to the commitment of keeping him. That was the point at which a familiar narrative took an unexpected turn.
Even at this particular cultural moment — when hipster locavores from Brooklyn to Seattle embrace the chicken as a pivotal component and symbol of the ever-burgeoning urban farming movement; when newbie farmers' memoirs continue to sprout on publishers' fall lists, replete with chicken-keeping tales; and when chat rooms like urbanchickens.org burble with speculation that the Obama White House, with its organic fruit and vegetable garden, might take the poultry plunge — Ms. Sandrow's wholehearted embrace of a chicken-centric life might seem extreme.
For Ms. Sandrow has turned her chicken-keeping, her century-old carriage house and, indeed, most of her day-to-day activities, into an evolving fowl-focused art installation. And the products of that installation, which include live feeds from four Web cams, painterly poultry portraits and ecru-hued eggs whose parentage has been fastidiously documented, have been shown in galleries from here to Wyoming. (The full fowl experience is at hopesandrow.com.)
Shinnecock, now a family man and patriarch, has become a muse to rival William Wegman's Weimaraners. Indeed, Agnes Gund, president emerita of the Museum of Modern Art, is proud to own his portrait. Last Christmas, she commissioned 40 portraits of Shinnecock and his descendants to give as gifts to her art world peers; Ms. Sandrow rendered them in delicately textured albumen — that is, egg-white finished — prints.
"You're on the Web cam," Ms. Sandrow cautioned a reporter recently. It was a bright July morning, and she was showing off her garden, a "Through the Looking Glass" landscape of taxodium, cryptomeria and juniper, alliums, corkscrew grass and ostrich ferns — foliage shaped like her poultry's plumage, it must be pointed out, or in fetching spiral shapes (the better to baffle the hawks kiting opportunistically above) — and introducing the flock, which includes 15 hens. Female Paduans, the reporter noticed, look like nothing so much as 18th-century French court ladies, with their bouffant white wigs and sharp little faces.
"This is Agenor, that's Simaria and there is Amurra, isn't he gorgeous?" Ms. Sandrow said, explaining how she named her brood mostly after art world figures (Agenor for Ms. Gund; Simaria for Maria Morris Hambourg, the former curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Amurra for Murray Nanes, Ms. Sandrow's stepfather). But Cleo, Chloe and Clarissa, Shinnecock's first wives, were named by a friend after a long, wine-drenched dinner. "We were looking for variations on 'Cluck,' " Ms. Sandrow said.
She and Mr. Skogsbergh, an amiable still-life photographer and composer, settled into armchairs in their living room facing the bank of French doors open to the pond and waterfall built for their brood, many of which began bobbing and weaving into the room to investigate a plate of corn muffins on the coffee table. Shinnecock grabbed a beakful and then called the hens over, just as Ms. Sandrow predicted: "Watch, he won't eat until the hens are done. Isn't he chivalrous?"
Besides being well mannered and "really good company," the chickens provide a trove of topics she can tackle as an art maker. A poultry-based oeuvre, she pointed out, can pose questions about the origins of the species — the old chicken/egg debate — or agribusiness or even gender politics. "Phrases like 'scatterbrained' or 'featherbrained' are the same put-downs applied to women," she said. "My chickens are incredibly intelligent."
Ms. Sandrow is not the first artist to focus on fowl, said Adam Weinberg, director of the Whitney Museum of American Art. Ed Ruscha was making rooster portraits in the 1960s. One of Robert Rauschenberg's combines is topped with a stuffed rooster. Andrea Zittel, an artist who, like Ms. Sandrow, works the patterns of her life into her art-making, was breeding chickens in the early '90s (and housing them in her A-Z Breeding Unit, a stylish blond wood coop).
Mr. Weinberg, like many in the art world, receives a semi-regular delivery of eggs from Ms. Sandrow — a hen's weekly yield (about four) in a carton with a card detailing the eggs' genealogy. The challenge, Ms. Sandrow said, is for the recipient to figure out whether to eat or save the eggs.
She is delighted by all the themes contained in this act. "Art, of course, is one kind of nourishment," she pointed out. "It can be ethereal" — something that vanishes, like certain installations or performance art — "or more permanent, something that is collected, a treasure."
Mr. Weinberg has three cartons of eggs on a shelf in his office, next to a piece by John Baldessari, a box of M&M's with a sign that reads "No More Boring Art."
"I have yet to discuss either with our conservator or our registrar as to what to do with them," he said this week. "I like the idea of Hope making art about and from the chickens. If you eat the eggs, they become part of you. If you choose to save them, they are a kind of memento mori." (No, they don't smell, he said. Eggshells are porous, and their contents will eventually evaporate.)
Malcolm Daniel, curator of the photography department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said he's in the former category: a confirmed Sandrow egg eater. "And they are tasty," Mr. Daniel wrote in an e-mail message. "I don't think that having a collection of aging eggs in my museum office would be the best thing, but on the other hand, I'd love to have a collection of her pictures in my office.
"Hope's chickens are just about the wackiest looking birds I've seen, and she's managed to make some wonderfully expressive and fun pictures of Shinnecock and family," he continued. "Every now and then I open up her Web cam and take a peek at what the birds are doing, then move on to other work, forgetting about them until, all of a sudden, I hear a cock-a-doodle-doo coming out of my computer speakers!"
For the last three decades, Ms. Sandrow, whose career began in the early-'80s East Village, has made art, mostly photographs, that has tackled science, myth-making and all manner of identity issues, and has been shown everywhere from Gracie Mansion, the East Village gallery, to the Whitney. Her photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney and the Met. But Ms. Sandrow's chicken portraits were the first portraits she had composed since the 1980s, when so many of the friends she had photographed died of AIDS, artists like Peter Hujar, Greer Lankton and Jimmy De Sana.
She didn't tell anyone about her portrait project, she said. "I was afraid people would laugh at me." And then Ms. Gund phoned with her commission. "I just about fell off my chair," Ms. Sandrow said.
As Ms. Gund explained, "I was so excited by the breadth of these photographs, and so taken with the backstory of each chicken, which Hope provides, and the narrative that she pursues. You wouldn't think somebody could be so involved with chickens."
The chicken project has not been without drama, however. There was a kerfuffle the first summer of the Web cam, when she invited art world denizens and poultry people alike to view her hens atop their eggs. A chicken breeder's club rebuffed her invitation with scathing criticism in a series of online posts, she recalled.
"You'll ruin the breed," she remembers reading.
"We don't need AR's on this site," proclaimed another post, referring to animal rightists.
Ms. Sandrow was amazed. "I was thinking I would get something like, 'Gee, what a great idea!'" she said.
It seemed the breeders were alarmed by the willy-nilly mating habits of Ms. Sandrow's flock (rather than the careful color-coding that serious breeders follow, a practice that creeped Ms. Sandrow out). Also, Paduans are designated non-sitters in chicken manuals — that is, they are said to not have an instinct to sit on their own eggs, which are hatched in incubators. So egg-sitting, Ms. Sandrow deduced, was another heresy.
The thread detailing her transgressions has been removed from the site, said Ms. Sandrow, who nonetheless printed the whole back-and-forth. "I thought it would make a great artwork."
It is her habit to videotape fellow passengers on her jitney or train trips from Long Island to New York City to deliver her eggs. It's all part of the food-chain patterns she is capturing in her work.
This documentation practice has yielded quietly affecting film of, for example, a woman sobbing into her book across the aisle of a Long Island Rail Road car. Mostly, no one seems to mind or even notice Ms. Sandrow's video camera, she said, "even when I'm right up in their face like this." She pantomimed holding a camera a foot from a reporter.
Except for the time when a famous actress recently sat in a seat vacated by someone Ms. Sandrow had been filming for an hour and a half.
"She freaked out and left," Ms. Sandrow said. "I wanted to run after her and say, 'Don't worry, I'm just an artist!' "
Perhaps Ms. Sandrow should have that phrase printed on a T-shirt.