Written by Neil Horsky, this column was originally published in the June 2015 issue of the Boston Compass
Art by Jennifer DeAngelis, “Plastic Flock”
June 21 1958 marked the beginning of the summer where American lawns were first ornamented with Plastic Pink Flamingos. In 1957 Don Featherstone, a local art school graduate and employee of Union Products in Leominster, MA, sculpted two flamingo moulds inspired by photos from National Geographic. One bird stands upright while the other bends down to graze upon a lawn. The ornaments were popular in Northern working-class suburbs as an affordable pastiche of ‘50s Floridian fascination – a weatherproof reminder of America’s exotic yet increasingly accessible tropical vacationland. As popularity grew, cultured elite labeled the flamingos the epitome of poor taste “kitsch,” disguising their distaste for the Working Class as merely patronizing aesthetic criticism. In 1972 avant-garde director John Waters produced Pink Flamingos: An Exercise in Poor Taste, a film which shockingly embraced all things kitsch, thereby challenging and subverting conventional bourgeois aesthetic mandates. Sticking it to the Class Snob, the film’s cult following assumed a confrontational “we love it because you hate it” attitude towards taste-making privilege – one facet of farther-reaching forms of privilege and oppression. Plastic Pink Flamingos then became a powerful symbol for counter-cultural efforts, particularly the gay rights movement of the ‘70s & ‘80s. Faux flocks of flamingos fluttered about gay nightclubs and equal rights demonstrations; flamingo printed motifs and miniature accessories accented the flamboyant fashion of proud protesters and partiers. By the late ‘80s the bourgeoisie had caught up to and co-opted counter-culture in many forms including the iconic Plastic Pink Flamingo, which was now sold at art museums and galleries. The “high culture” adoption of the tacky ornament stripped it of its subversive quality and it was largely abandoned as a revolutionary tool except as a nostalgic ode to more radical times. Don Featherstone climbed the ranks of Union Products, eventually becoming company President. He retired in 2000 and currently resides in Fitchburg, MA with his wife Nancy.