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Voices Spring-Summer 2008:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Upstate column, “When the Flamingos Return to Canton” by Varick A. Chittenden.
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Voices SS08

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Volume 34
Spring-Summer
2008
Voices

When the Flamingos Return to Canton by Varick A. Chittenden

The swallows of San Juan Capistrano, the buzzards of Hinckley, Ohio, the flamingos of Canton, New York. If there was any doubt left in anyone’s mind about global warming, you should have been in Canton this last summer to see the occasional appearance of a flock of flamingos . . . of the pink plastic variety. Somehow, twenty or thirty of these rare birds would appear in the dark of night on the front lawn of a family home in a nice neighborhood. They would stay around a day or two, then disappear, only to show up soon on another lawn, maybe several streets away. Come to find out, this was a well-orchestrated practical joke by a couple of members of our local Presbyterian church. Once there, in exchange for a modest contribution to the church, the lucky household was given the opportunity to have them mysteriously removed. For a larger contribution, others could buy “insurance” that they would never arrive in the first place!

Pink flamingos in yard

Of course, pink plastic flamingos have been one of America’s most popular lawn ornaments for decades. Invented in Leominster, Massachusetts, in 1957 by designer Don Featherstone, the “authentic pink flamingo” came only in pairs. Each bird had a yellow beak with a black tip, stood on long, straight metal legs, and had an embossed Featherstone signature under its tail. Volumes have been written about the popularization of this phenomenon, simultaneous with the growth of suburbs and a culture of lawn care, the ascendancy of Florida as a vacation and retirement mecca, and mass production of inexpensive goods for home decoration.

Following the flamingo’s glory days in the 1950s, a revolution against many aspects of popular culture took place in America. Art critics rejected most mass-produced decorative arts as kitsch. Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, has said: “Let’s face it. As iconic emblems of kitsch, there are two pillars of cheesy campiness in the American pantheon. One is the velvet Elvis. The other is the pink flamingo.” Despite the mockery, the plastic birds remained a common yard decoration in working-class neighborhoods and rural communities for years. In fact, they never went away. For some, they became objects of derision; for others, a kind of rebellious act against the norm.

The Canton appearance and my recent research have reminded me of a turning point in my own thinking about folk art and what it means. It actually began years ago, when as a student in Cooperstown, I had access to one of America’s finest public collections of folk art. What had been assembled at the New York State Historical Association was part of the growing canon of folk art for that generation. Quilts, weathervanes, trade signs, decoys, stoneware— all products of a preindustrial, rural way of life—were found mostly at country auctions or in small town antique dealers’ shops. These beautiful examples had been removed from any connections to their makers and users. Instead, they suddenly became objets d’art.

With that as my introduction to folk art, I attended a conference in 1977 at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware that was the first formal gathering of art historians, collectors, dealers, and folklorists/anthropologists to discuss common interests in folk art. Folklorist John Vlach of George Washington University remembers that someone there decided to describe the two camps as “mouldy figs” and “pink flamingos.” Sociologist Gary Fine would later write that at Winterthur, “mouldy figs are the art curators hung up on canonical works of art, and pink flamingos are the folklorists looking at such matters as community and creativity.”

This event was a real eye-opener for me. Once I returned home and watched closely what my North Country neighbors were doing artistically, including how they chose to decorate their houses and lawns, I saw much more clearly how creative people can be and how their tastes are shaped not only by tradition, but also by popular culture and their neighbors’ tastes. Gradually, I morphed from a fig to a flamingo. As time has gone on, I’ve embraced saints made of concrete, throw rugs crocheted with plastic bread wrappers, decoys crafted from old tires, baskets made from bottle caps, and artfully arranged lawn ornaments. I’ve decided it’s not up to me to call it art, but to let the makers and their community decide for themselves.

Last year was the fiftieth anniversary of Don Featherstone’s iconic pink flamingo. It has survived and flourished. That’s why I’ll be glad, whatever the motivation, when the flamingos return to Canton this spring.


Upstate


 









Photo of Varick Chittenden
Photo: Martha Cooper

Varick A. Chittenden is professor emeritus of English at the State University of New York in Canton and executive director of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY).


...As iconic emblems of kitsch, there are two pillars of cheesy campiness in the American pantheon. One is the velvet Elvis. The other is the pink flamingo.



This column appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Spring-Summer 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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