Don Featherstone, the reason you'll never picture Florida without pink flamingos, dies at 79

They are the birds of a Featherstone that became kitsch history. One Donald Featherstone, to be precise, who invented the plastic lawn flamingo in 1957. Mr. Featherstone has died at 79, leaving behind one of the most memorable homages to one of nature's...

Don Featherstone, the reason you'll never picture Florida without pink flamingos, dies at 79

They are the birds of a Featherstone that became kitsch history. One Donald Featherstone, to be precise, who invented the plastic lawn flamingo in 1957. Mr. Featherstone has died at 79, leaving behind one of the most memorable homages to one of nature's most memorable animals.

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Floridians are possessive about plastic flamingos, believing they are unique to our peninsula, but in truth they have been sold by the millions nationwide. Madison, Wis., to the far north, designated the plastic pink flamingo its official city bird in 2009. It's probably the only lawn ornament to achieve such status.

Lawn ornaments have existed as long as lawns have, but for most of that time they were elegant marble sculptures scattered around the gardens of the wealthy.

Mr. Featherstone, who suffered from Lewy body dementia, was part of a modern industry that mass-marketed lawn ornaments to a larger public, thus ensuring that tastemakers would become dismissive of them.

"I got myself a National Geographic magazine and found a photograph to use as a model. And I made myself a plastic one," Mr. Featherstone told the Tampa Bay Times in 2002 of his work for plastics company Union Products.

"I know some people think plastic flamingos are tasteless and tacky," he said. "But I love them."

The pink flamingo is rivaled only by the garden gnome for its reputation as tacky, helped along in 1972 John Waters' cult movie Pink Flamingos.

But that's such a narrow view.

Waters was making an aesthetic statement that has been misread in some ways. The pink flamingo is now part of pop culture in the manner of Andy Warhol's soup cans.

The interesting difference is that everyday people became, in a sense, the appropriators instead of a famous artist. The flamingos cluster on lawns, emulating nature (just as a lot of art does) but with a big wink-wink.

And we have all been in on the joke, not outsiders looking through the gallery glass wall. Professional artists have taken note. Some of them, too, have appropriated the flamingo into their work.

The most recent example I have seen was Jill Higman's delightful installation Hut at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

I'm not suggesting that staking a flock in your front yard is museum-worthy art; I'm saying that ever since the early 20th century, our views about what is art have become fluid and varied.

If a soup can says much about who we are, so can a flamingo. If serious art can use plastic as a medium, why is a flamingo fashioned from it considered lowbrow?

Maybe it's because Donald Featherstone never considered it art. He was a trained artist who purposefully created for commerce, working at a company that produced plastic animals.

His genius was in realizing the greater affection millions of people would have for a flamingo rather than a duck.

Consider if Warhol had loved one of Mr. Featherstone's plastic flamingos instead of tomato soup. Art history would have taken wing in a different direction.

Contact Lennie Bennett at lbennett@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8293.

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