Binary Beauty

Kate MccGwire experiments with what is binary in nature and art

“I’d like them to provoke a disquiet beauty. The work should be seductive but also slightly alarming, it is uncanny rather than fully frightening. The familiar made strange can repel and enchant in equal measure,” Kate says of her work.

Kate MccGwire grew up in rural Norfolk. She graduated with first class honors from University College for the Creative Arts, Farnham in 2004. Since then, she has become an acclaimed and award-winning sculptor. Her distinctive work inspired a recent Helmut Lang collection.

She began working with bone, hair, and other organic matter. Kate credits her piece, Brood, made from 20,000 chicken wishbones and bought by Charles Saatchi for launching her career. From there, she began collecting feathers for her pieces. 

“My first adventures into using natural materials I can probably trace back to my childhood, however it wasn’t until I moved to my studio barge on the Thames that this urge to collect first introduced feathers into my work. Every day I would walk my dog along the bank and find discarded feathers from the feral pigeon population. I began picking them up, collecting them, and realized that they had great potential, but for the piece I was imagining I’d need thousands…”

Collecting feathers for a large piece of work can take several years. Kate began corresponding with bird lovers and members of the pigeon racing association for feather donations. Through the correspondence, she attends pigeon releases and learned the birds typically molt in April and October. “It’s a cycle of regeneration and persuasion,” she said in an interview in March 2010 in Inhale Magazine.

Her work often features feathers from common birds like pigeons and crows. The cultural association with different birds- such and death and the common crow- is one of the dual aspects Kate explores with her sculptures. Therein lies one of the revelations underlying the binary aspects of her work. The viewer is invited to feel both disquiet and transcendence. Sculptures, such as Purge, raise dialogue about what is real and what is merely perceived. 

“I gather, collate, re-use, layer, peel, burn, reveal, locate, duplicate, play and photograph,” Kate wrote of her process in her artist’s statement.  She first reflects on a piece before she begins to put it down on paper, exploring a new work’s many facets. The technique itself is something she prefers to not speak of, lending to her reputation of mystery and ability to keep the focus on the story her work tells. There is no standard, there is only the shift of perception of what is funereal and disturbing apropos to modern culture’s definition of beauty.

Her work appears in the second visual arts exhibition at The Lowry, curated by dancer and photographer Akram Khan. This is a unique experience during which visitors are led by dancers through the exhibition. Thus, patrons experience an intimate multi-media introduction to Kate’s sculptures. She has this to say of the experience: “…the exhibition at The Lowry has opened my eyes to a world of interactivity. I love the way Akram’s piece relates to my work and the other pieces in the exhibition, it opens up new interpretations and possibilities, it unites ideas and creates a new narrative, and that’s very exciting.”

Kate MccGwire’s sculptures are available to the public in other exhibitions of note. Patrons can view Disquiet Beauty at the Rochester Museum and Art Gallery. Covert resides at Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris.

She cites artists Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, and Berlinde de Bruyckere as inspiration for her artistic process. “I feel great affinity… for their sensitive and intuitive use of materials, their connection with 'the uncanny' and making strong beautiful, visceral work, which has incredible presence and impact.”

Using feathers and other organic matter, this British contemporary artist removes objects from the familiar and exposes the viewer, through her sculptures, to what is dynamic and ultimately, disquieting. . Her sculptures ask of us to invest in a dialogue about what is real and what is merely perceived- the lines between beauty and disgust, malice and tranquility. “Like a solar system the three (the art, the artist, and the viewer) intersect and influence each other, they are sometimes orbiting in unison and other times far away, but the art should always be the centre of gravity.”

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