Pigeons get no respect. They’ve been called “rats with wings,” and sometimes worse. That’s if they’re even noticed. Most of the time they pass unremarked along with other urban flotsam, ranking invisibly somewhere between graffiti tags and cigarette butts.
Martha Cooper would like to change that. As a longtime champion of street art and urban culture — her bestselling 1984 book Subway Art is the standard reference — pigeons are right in her wheelhouse. They play the starring role in her show Feathered Friends, now up at Coffee Plant Roaster. The show features 38 pigeon pictures tightly jigsawed against the shop’s west wall. Mounted in salvaged frames, they come in all shapes and sizes, like their subject matter.
The subject is, as I’ve said, pigeons. But it’s not as simple as that. There’s at least one chicken thrown in for good measure, held by local art promoter Debbie Williamson-Smith, and a handful of photos that isolate pigeons on their own. As for the rest, they are essentially portraits of people — who happen to be holding pigeons. Almost without exception, everyone is proud and smiling. A viewer can’t help wondering if perhaps pigeons are some secret ticket to happiness.
They certainly seem to make Cooper happy. During her weeklong Eugene visit in early August, I rarely saw the New Yorker without a smile and never without her SLR and camera pack. She’s a pro’s pro. At 76, she’s been active in the industry for more than 50 years. Coming up with material for the show was not a problem. Most of the photos she picked are from the past five years. A few stretch back to 1978. To supplement this past archive, she was busy during her visit shooting new photos. Nine of these local shots are on the wall.
It’s wonderful to see Eugene folks seamlessly integrated into pigeon history. But more wonderful is the speed of execution. Cooper shot, edited, printed and framed almost a quarter of the show in a few days, a tireless feat. She has an international reputation for a reason.
To the left side of Feathered Friends is a small door that leads outside around the corner. Here on the back wall stands the companion piece to Cooper’s photographs, a giant portrait of a local pigeon painted by Belgian muralist Adele Renault. With luck this mural — part of this year’s 20×21 crop — should be around for many years to come.
Cooper’s Feathered Friends runs through August at Coffee Plant Roaster, 2836 W. 11th Avenue.