Artist Barbara Shaw makes Beautiful Poultry Portraits

Immortalising chickens in textiles

Artist Barbara Shaw makes Beautiful Poultry Portraits

Reading Time: 5 minutes

If seeing chickens depicted in art makes you smile, you’ll love the work of Barbara Shaw, an artist from Buckinghamshire, England. She creates images of wildlife and farm animals, using small scraps of fabric overlaid to create wonderful textures and scenes. Two of her latest creations, a cockerel and a turkey, have received such flattery on social media, she’s inspired to do more. “There have been so many positive comments and great feedback, I shall certainly stitch more chickens!” she says. Her new turkey portrait was finished just in time for Christmas! 

I first spotted Barbara’s work while browsing Twitter and was intrigued. She’s appeared on television in the UK, showing youngsters how to turn rags into beautiful works of art, and she exhibits in art galleries and museums across the country. “I’ve been Artist-in-Residence at two grand country houses, and had work exhibited in the Houses of Parliament,” she says.

Barbara’s first cockerel portrait, created almost 20 years ago, was inspired by a visit to an organic farm and school. It was one of the first pictures she hand-stitched. Since then, Barbara’s been making all sorts of animal and landscape images, including a recent portrait of baby owls, inspired by the work of her local owl charity.

“What inspired your latest cockerel portrait,” I ask? “It’s a picture of Cheetah — my grandson’s pet,” she explains. “Cheetah hatched about two years ago and was owned by a little girl in Wales. He had an unfortunate start in life as he was one of two cockerel chicks that she reared and he was at the bottom of the pecking order. My son and daughter-in-law found an advert for him on Facebook and went to pick him up. He was named Cheetah by my two-year-old grandson”.

Cheetah now enjoys a happy life in rural Herefordshire with three hens: Beetle, another Bantam, and Turtle and Betty who are Warren hens. “They are a real handful,” says Barbara. “They help themselves to anything that is left out to eat, particularly enjoying people’s picnics, and new shoots in the vegetable plot.”

Cheetah the Cockerel

The hens run around free-range in the garden and orchard, only going in at night to roost. “Cheetah, with his beady eyes and vigilant stare keeps them in order,” says Barbara. “He is very protective of all the hens and patrols to make sure they are eating well. When chicken food is put out he allows the hens to eat first.

“If anything is amiss Cheetah runs very fast to see what is happening and as he is so nippy, he is impossible to catch! Early in the morning, he can be heard crowing at another cockerel who lives a short distance away across the fields.

“With his beautiful plumage and feathery feet and trousers, Cheetah is a very handsome cockerel and lends himself to being interpreted in textiles. My picture of him has been created from many scraps of carefully chosen fabrics, hand-stitched together in layers. He became a little bit famous, going around the world on social media!”

Barbara used Cheetah’s image to demonstrate how to make a textile collage picture at the BBC Summer Social in Liverpool. “Four hundred children in the Children’s BBC workshop have now been inspired by him!” she says. “They watched me at work and then had a go at making a textile collage for themselves.”

Working on Cheetah the Cockerel at Junk Rescue

The Summer Social took place after Barbara appeared on television demonstrating her skills. “I was contacted by a production company for the BBC and asked to appear in an episode of Junk Rescue,” she explains. She agreed to participate and demonstrated in front of the cameras how to make art from fabric. The program was screened last year.

How did she get into textile art? “Well, apart from knitting jumpers, I didn’t think of myself as particularly creative,” she says, “but then about 20 years ago I started learning how to make patchwork quilts. I used leftover scraps from the quilting materials to make cards, and this inspired me to create much bigger images and framed pictures from textiles. I began to hand-stitch the fabrics together, achieving textured compositions, and I became hooked!”

Barbara uses photos for reference — to help her get proportions and colors right, but she also likes to visit places where she can see creatures close up.

“My latest piece of work is a turkey, inspired by a turkey farm near my home. They keep turkeys, sheep, and cattle on the farm, and when I visited, I saw the young turkeys with access to an open field and sheltered pens. I was fascinated by their beady eyes and big feet!

“As my work is an impression of a creature, I rely on what I see and sense to interpret their essence,” she says. “With birds, whether I am watching them flying overhead or observing their characteristics and movements on the bird table, I am constantly thinking about how to depict them. I have visited natural history museums to see stuffed creatures when I cannot get close enough to the real thing. The biggest challenge is always the face. They are exceptionally difficult to capture. If the artwork is just 1mm out, the expression changes from something you would have hanging on your wall, to something you definitely wouldn’t!”

Barbara has created many bird pictures, including red kites, barn owls, and an Aylesbury duck. She’s inspired by what she sees and has crafted other animals too. “I have created different breeds of sheep such as Cotswolds, Wensleydales, a Jacob ram, a Bluefaced Leicester, and a Soay,” she says.

Barbara’s first rooster picture was for a competition. She visited an organic farm for inspiration and saw the rare breed Old English Pheasant Fowl cockerel, which she then immortalized in art. The picture she created was displayed in the ‘Food for the Eye’ exhibition at the Mall Galleries, London, as part of the Soil Association’s Art Show in 2005.

“I had not come across these beautiful birds before,” she says, “with their colorful plumage and proud, strutting demeanor. The resulting picture contained one real feather. Only after it was sold did I panic and wonder what would happen if something hatched out from the feather and ate the carefully placed fabrics! Fortunately, I was assured by the Natural History Museum, London, that if mites did appear then they would only eat the feather and in the future, it would be better to freeze organic material before including it in artwork. There is always something new to learn!”

Barbara puts videos of her work on YouTube. The clips demonstrate her artistic processes and inspire others to have a go:

Barbara Shaw, Art in Textiles

Artist Barbara Shaw
Barbara’s self-portrait in textiles

Originally published in the October/November 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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