By the 1970s, members of the American counterculture had latched onto the bird as not only a symbol of tackiness, but of resistance to cultural norms. In Waters’s “Pink Flamingo,” a yard dotted with plastic flamingos served as the backdrop for a story about a bold, brash drag queen. Before long, the lawn ornament was popping up in gay pride parades.
Then, in 1979, a group of University of Wisconsin–Madison students covered the lawn outside their dean’s office with 1,000 flamingos—a playful affront to the administration. The plastic bird, as Price has written, “had become a signpost for the transgression of social and cultural convention.”
All the while,
art and its celebration of mass-produced imagery was making its way into the art-historical canon. By the ’80s, rebel artists like
were spinning kitsch into high-art gold—so it’s not surprising that, in the late 1990s, MOCA Los Angeles
started stocking its gift shop with Featherstone’s flamingos.
As the plastic birds made their mark on American culture high and low, Featherstone kept working for Union Products. During his tenure, he designed over 600 lawn ornaments, including elephant-shaped watering cans, Santa Clauses, and planters resembling swans (flowers poked up from the space between the bird’s neck and its tail feathers). According to Featherstone, the swan actually sold better than his flamingos. “But no one ever writes about the plastic swan,” he once quipped
. “That hurts its little plastic feelings, but what can you do?”
Eventually, Featherstone shimmied up the ranks to become president of Union Products. All the while, he relished the bit of glory his sculptural pink flamingo brought him.
The creature could be read as something of Featherstone’s alter-ego. Like his most famous creation, the artist resisted dominant tastes and trends. Throughout his later years, he and his wife wore matching outfits—always flamboyantly patterned. More than 40 of the getups were made from fabric covered in different flamingo motifs, and the couple kept a brood of 57 plastic flamingos in their backyard. “I say it isn't poor taste,” he once told
. “It's what you do with it that's poor taste.”
By the time Featherstone passed away in 2015, you could say he’d become one with his invention. The color of the sheets that covered his deathbed? Plastic-flamingo pink. While Featherstone is no longer with us, his Phoenicopterus ruber plasticus lives on, preserved across kitsch and high culture alike.