Besides running the slideshow at sensational Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players multimedia shows, Tina Trachtenburg is legend for making the singular act’s merchandise: totebags, fabric CD covers, oven mitts and of course, reusable “planetary napkins” menstrual pads.
But her current handicraft focus is on her lifesize felt pigeon pieces.
“I’ve always been super-obsessed with pigeons,” says Trachtenburg, who hails from San Antonio and is joined in the Slideshow Players by singer-songwriter-guitarist-pianist/husband Jason Trachtenburg and drummer/daughter Rachel Trachtenburg.
Now living in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, Trachtenburg lived in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when she moved here in 1988, “at Norfolk and Houston--when it was the creepiest part of town: No one would come and visit me, and there were chalk outlines of people who’d just gotten killed and stuff."
At that time, she continues, “Tompkins Square Park was full of homeless people, and basically Tent City. I’d go and see the pigeons there all the time, and ended up loving them and feeling somehow connected because they’re about the only nature we have in Cement City.”
Visiting pigeons became “part of my routine,” Trachtenburg notes, both at home and abroad.
“When we toured in England we’d feed pigeons in the park and get yelled at by the locals,” she says. “They’re definitely the underdogs of the bird world, and I love outcasts of any genre--humans, birds, whatever. The scruffiest, ugliest ones. I go to look at dogs, and I want the one with the weird eyeball. I’m attracted to sensitive pigeons, the ones that have a clubfoot or just one foot, which is typical in the city.”
With a lull in Slideshow Players touring, Trachtenburg has found more time for birdwatching.
“I’ve found a lot of interesting facts, and there are always new things to learn and surprise people with,” she says. “So I wanted to do something as a service to pigeons, so that everyone will love them.”
But what?, she wondered.
“Hurricane Sandy came, and we had a month without any work,” continues Trachtenburg. “So I thought about what I wanted to do for pigeons, and ended up making a pigeon costume, with wings and a paper mache head! I’d go around and hand out pamphlets to let people know how wonderful pigeons are. Then I made one for Jason and we walked around in our pigeon costumes, and we ended up in the Easter Parade, and I wore a bonnet with a New York cityscape. It was really cute.”
Now Trachtenburg was faced with the quandary of “how to make money and promote pigeons at the same time.”
“Times Square has SpongeBob and all those Disney characters making tons of money, and I tried that,” she says. “But it was awkward, and all those Times Square characters have a post and really work it hard. So I went to Central Park and walked around the pigeons, holding up a sign that said, ‘Pigeons mate for life!’ Tourists who just got married would come up, and a lot of people talked, but none gave me any tips--or helped me buy pigeon food.”
There is indeed such a thing as commercial pigeon food, Trachtenburg adds, then relates her realization that her ability to make puppets could be transferred to pigeon-making.
“I made a few pigeon heads out of felt and recycled filling to see what they looked like,” she says. “Then I took 10 of them to a party at a really cool art space in Williamsburg. Everyone went crazy and bought all of them at $35 each, so I made a bunch more. But where could I sell them?”
Trachtenburg took her new pigeon wares—with silkscreened “Handmade by Tina Trachtenburg in Brooklyn” labels affixed beneath a wing--to Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn, where “people set up books and stuff.”
“I set up my pigeons and put out some bird seed and people loved them,” she says. “I was hoping to get some weirdo pigeon activists, but got a rich European clientele—and lo and behold, I had $35 in my hand. ‘Holy s**t! I just sold a pigeon!’”
She does report one atypical purchase by an Englishman.
“I get a lot of English people who like pigeons, but this one said, ‘No. We hate them—but we like t*,’” she says. “So I gave him a flier so he could learn about why I love them.”
“Pigeons mate for life, which is a beautiful thing that humans can’t even do!” says Trachtenburg. “And they’re homing birds: They go to bed at 6:45 p.m. They have a bedtime, so you never see them after 7 p.m., and they wake up at 7 a.m. and go about their business. And if people feed them seed, their poops aren’t destructive.”
Rather, she adds, pigeons “have nice, clean poops that just wash away! But instead they’re known as rats with wings. But I love rats, too, so that carries no weight with me!”
Because they’re homing birds who stay within “a quarter-mile radius,” Trachtenburg, who carries pigeon seed with her whenever she’s in the city, tends to the same flocks.
“You see pigeons at the crosswalk on 14th Street, they’re not just some pigeons!” she notes. “They live in that neighborhood, in their little worlds. So certain flocks that I feed know me.”
Trachtenburg sees herself as “the compassionate pigeon lady” rather than “the crazy pigeon lady,” and as such, is also involved in pigeon rehabilitation.
“I found one in Times Square with a broken wing, and took it to the Wild Bird Fund on the Upper West Side,” she says. “They’re amazing people there, and take care of everything—and it’s all paid for except that you have to take the bird home aferward and nurture it back to health.”
More recently, Trachtenburg brought in a pigeon with a broken wing and chest bone.
“They said he was never going to fly again,” she says. “I couldn’t ethically have him euthanized, because he was too big and strong. So I kept him for three months, and he said, ‘F**k that, "I’m not gonna fly again,"’ and sure enough, he flew again and I let him go! His name was Berry, because I found him on Berry Street in Williamsburg.”
Trachtenburg has also named two of her own flock of 20 pigeons, which she tends on the roof of her building.
“Freddy and Patty are a couple, and have lots of babies,” she says. “I’ve modeled a lot of my pigeons on them and feed them really nice seeds and fresh water every day. Other pigeons come from all over.”
Trachtenburg did observe a hawk once, she adds, “but he went back to Manhattan.”
As for picking favorites, Trachtenburg cites the blue bar pigeon.
“It has a dark gray head and light gray wings with two dark stripes,” she notes. “The funny thing is, humans love to blend in and look like everybody else and not stand out, but they like the most colorful birds. Well, excuse me, but pigeons blend in with the city and no one gives them any attention because they’re not purple or green or whatever--and I think that’s really, really lame! They have the worst press agents ever, because they get the worst press!”
To counter it, Trachtenburg has a suitcase full of pigeons ready to sell tomorrow on Bedford Avenue, and is sticking with traditional pigeon coloring.
“I don’t want to go with colored ones that look like some weird suburban craft fair pigeons,” she explains. “I’m staying with the real urban pigeon look, although last night I made my first baby blue pigeon because I saw an article about an artist in Copenhagen who trapped pigeons and colored them with food coloring so it wasn’t harmful, and let them go around the city and get attention. They probably will sell right away because people are weird like that.”
Trachtenburg, incidentally, has fashioned a pigeon display piece out of a microphone stand, lining her pigeons on the microphone boom in simulating pigeons resting on a traffic light.
“I'm a believer that art should be functional,” she says on her Etsy page. “I have thought about making stuffed pigeons in the past but I didn't since I didn't think it would be a functional thing. So, I just made one. He came out well, so I made a flock. I found that by displaying them around the city, they earned a purpose as an animal rights installation bringing awareness to people about the plight of the pigeon population. My art has become a way to show love for pigeons.”
Meanwhile, she continues her key role in the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, screening slide collections of anonymous deceased strangers purchased at estate sales and thrift shops and arranged by Jason into story-songs like the immortal “Look At Me” (“Here we are/There’s a bear up against the car”) or “Mountain Trip To Japan, 1959.”
Jason, by the way, also has a swing jazz band, the Pendulum Swings, while Rachel has her own Rachel Trachtenburg’s Homemade World Internet TV show (which has included a delightful video of her "The Pigeon Song,” also featuring her mother) and the acclaimed girl group trio Supercute!.
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