Rhody Maker: Artists Ana Flores and John Kotula Found Pandemic Creativity in Fowl Play
The two artists collaborated on a series of whimsical chicken art and inspired others to participate, too.
Rhode Island Monthly: Could you both share how the idea for Fowlplay came to be? What’s the significance of the chickens?
Ana Flores: During the darkest days of the pandemic, we were all so stressed, so sad and focused on the grim news that I felt that I would break. So I decided to do something that made me smile everyday. Making paper mache chickens was one of those things. I had made chickens before; I am from Cuba and chickens have been part of my cultural mythology. I knew John Kotula had lived in Honduras and Nicaragua as a Peace Corps worker and his work often included chickens. So one day we had coffee and we decided it would be a good stress reliever for us to do chickens and perhaps have a show in the future. Then John suggested a Facebook page for us, and I suggested it be open to whoever wanted to add in. Both of us have always done a lot of community art projects, so it seemed natural to make it bigger than us. So Fowl Play, INK started on Facebook.
My interest in chickens began, for me, when I was a kid in Cuba. My favorite TV cartoon was Foghorn Leghorn, by Looney Tunes. I thought chicken behavior gave me an insight into the adult behavior around me. And I also made a connection between Foghorn Leghorn, the big funny rooster, and the other rooster dressed in green fatigues who kept giving endless speeches on the other TV channel; his name was Fidel Castro. We left the island because of Fidel.
It took me forty years to return and that first trip back, in 2002, made a profound impression. I created a large installation based on the trip that was called “Cuba Journal.” The Cuban paper chickens were part of that traveling project as a response to the chickens I saw everywhere. After the Russians left the island in 1991 there was a terrible food scarcity and Cubans had to learn to farm again, growing what they could and breeding animals and chickens even in the cities. I saw chickens on urban balconies, on the roofs of building in the cities, on leashes in the streets. And the rooster metaphor became a perfect parallel for Latin American dictators who rule the roost for too long.
John Kotula: Ana Flores and I have been friends for a long time and, in my opinion, she is one of the best artists in Rhode Island. However, we don’t typically stay in close contact. So, I was delighted to get a call from her out of the blue. As I recall it she said, “John, these are hard times. I need to get more fun in my life! Let’s do a project together with the goal of just having a good time.” Well, she had me at, “John…” One or the other of us said, “You do chickens and I do chickens, let’s do chickens!” Then later, one or the other of us said, “These are times in which everyone needs their spirits lifted, let’s see how many people we can get involved.” I think I suggested a Facebook group as a way of gathering a community of people to have a good time sharing everything chicken. I think Ana said, “But we are perfectly serious artists and we don’t have to lose track of that, right?” And we were off and running.
Rhode Island Monthly: How has the response been to Fowl Play, INK?
AF: We’ve been delighted by the Facebook group Fowlplay, INK and “all things chicken” that people share. And of course the comic relief we all find in them; I think we see ourselves in them. In the future we would like to see some kind of Fowlplay Festival with the community but that is certainly on pause because we are far from being done with this pandemic. I’m also thinking that maybe we need a campaign to do giant chickens across the state, like so many places have done whales and cows as public art. The chicken is our official state bird, after all, and we do have the famous Rhode Island Red chicken breed to thank as being our perennial international ambassador. Imagine a giant colorful chicken in front of your town hall or in our public squares?
Rhode Island Monthly: John, you created rooster masks and took them on the road. Could you tell us about why you chose to travel the country with the masks, and how they were received?
JK: Creating paper mache masks has been a regular part of my art making for a long time. I’m fascinated with masks in general and have studied mask making traditions in other cultures. Once Fowl Play Ink got rolling, I was inspired to make rooster masks. I liked the way they came out. Ana came up with the idea of “residencies” for her chicken sculptures and my rooster masks; we would loan them out to people for a month in exchange for taking photos of them and posting them to the group. My masks have been out on two residencies and I loved the photos that resulted. As soon as we got vaccinated, my wife and I planned a road trip to visit our children and grandchildren, who we hadn’t seen face to face in a year and a half. I decided to bring the rooster masks on the road with us and see what mischief I could get in to, with the goal of documenting it in photos to share to Fowl Play Ink and with other friends. On the way west, I took a rooster mask selfie everyday to share with people back home. For the six weeks we were in the Pacific Northwest I asked other people to don the masks and pose for me.
This project is still developing. I have this notion that the rooster is an alter-ego for me. I think when I have a rooster mask on, I’m a less inhibited, more impulsive, raunchier version of myself. My motivations are simpler and I do things without thinking through the consequences. I have few regrets. Perhaps this will develop into a short story or other narrative that will be worth acting out and documenting.
Rhode Island Monthly: You also have an unusual — and very sweet — chicken mask/tattoo story, John. Could you share that with us?
JK: I hadn’t seen my West Coast grandkids in over a year. When I visited with two of my grandsons — brothers Sammy (twenty-one) and Simon (eighteen) — they talked with me separately about wanting to get their first tattoos. They asked if I’d design one for them, maybe one of my roosters. I sent them four of my rooster drawings and they both chose the same one as their first choice. Then they decided they would get matching tattoos, the same image, the same place on their bodies. I, being very moved by the whole process, said, “I’m paying. Let’s do it!”
We set up appointments with a tattoo artist named Brian Visser at Grizzly Tattoo in Portland, Oregon. (Where else could this story take place?) Before the appointment, I sent Brian the following email, “Hey Brian, Two of my grandsons, Simon and Sammy, have appointments with you on June 17 starting at 1 p.m. They are getting tattoos based on a rooster I drew. I’m an artist and roosters are a common theme for me. One thing I do is make paper mache rooster masks and get people to pose for pictures wearing them. Would you be willing to pose for a picture with one of my grandsons wearing the masks? The shot would be a rooster tattoo artist, giving a rooster tattoo, to a rooster client. It would probably take five minutes tops. I’d bet this will be the weirdest request you get today. If you don’t want to do it, I totally understand. Let me know one way or the other if you are into it.” He responded, “Hi John, That’s awesome. I’m game haha. Brian”
The appointment came off without a hitch. The boys love their tattoos. The photos are the best yet of the rooster poses. I feel I’ve negotiated with my mortality ’cause I’m going to live on in a story that my grandsons will be telling for years.
Rhode Island Monthly: Could you both tell us about your artistic practice outside of Fowlplay?
AF: I am an ecological artist, which means that I’m very focused on a multi-disciplinary understanding of places where I’m called to work. I study the natural history, geography and cultural history. A new show of mine has just opened at the Lyman Allyn Museum about the influence of the forest I live in. That show is called “Forest Dreaming”; it’ll be up till late October. There are no chickens in it but making the paper mache chickens did help me as I finished up the bronze and aluminum sculptures for the show. Metal work is slow, hard work, and working in paper mache was a good counterpoint. I found doing an hour or two of paper mache was therapeutic and joyful, and the people who were commissioning them were really enjoying them.
But the chickens did begin to take over the studio and the other serious work so now they have their own brand; it’s called the Splendid Hen, you can find out more on Instagram @thesplendidhen. A website is coming soon. The Splendid Hen will be at the RISD Alumni Craft Show on October 9th; I’ll have a clutch of new paper mache chickens, prints and T-shirts. I’m looking forward to that.
JK: When he was well into his eighties, an artist friend of mine, Brie Taylor, asked me, “John, do you know why artists live so long?” He answered his own question, “Because when they get up in the morning they always have something to do.” I always have something to do! I draw and make prints. I paint. I make collages. I create paper mache masks and take photographs of them, etcetera, etcetera. My artwork usually comes about because I am delighted with something and want to share that delight with others: “Hey! Look at this!” I think of myself as much as an arts organizer, promoter and educator as I do a working artist. Art is not mainly an economic activity for me, but it helps that I probably sell enough to pay for the habit. (My wife might question this claim.)
Rhode Island Monthly: John, could you tell us about another project of yours, the World’s Smallest Gallery? What’s on view now?
JK: The World’s Smallest Art Gallery is a joint project of Hera Gallery and the Peace Dale Revitalization Committee. It consists of an outdoor kiosk with two separate display cases located on the South County Bike Path. I have been the organizer and curator of this community art project for approximately eight years. Artists are invited to show their work for two months. In the past year, three artists who are part of the Fowl Play, INK group have had shows in TWSAG: John Dee, M.J. Ferraro and Grace Farrell.
Grace has the current show, which will be up through August. She is showing a really exceptional body of work. I first became fascinated with this series of photographs more than a year ago when Grace began posting them to Fowl Play, INK. In a group that tends to be humorous, whimsical and irreverent, Grace’s photos stood out by being beautiful, mysterious and suggestive of more serious intent. I asked her almost immediately if she’d be interested in sharing them in The World’s Smallest Art Gallery. She said no, they weren’t ready yet. I’m so glad we waited. This series of photos has evolved and deepened, in my opinion, into something extraordinary. Whether you stand up close and take in the details or take a step back and study the two groups of nine photos arranged in a grid, you’ll be rewarded by seeing a common object in a way you’ve never seen it before.
To learn more or to participate in the Fowl Play, INK Facebook group, visit facebook.com. For more work by Ana Flores, visit earthinform.com. For more art by John Kotula, visit heragallery.com or read his writing on Medium.