Barn Owl

Creating the costume

5/8/20232 min read

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (RAMM) asked me to create a costume for carnival and community events in Exeter. The rare and beautiful barn owl was chosen for its potent symbolism of the wild and rapidly diminishing habitats of the UK. I took a trip to the museum to observe the delicate features and dimensions of the barn owl on display there. When creating costume this is really helpful, with photographs it is often difficult to see the contours of the features

Because this costume is for street events, I needed to represent the key features yet with artistic licence to bring in some theatrical elements so the bird could be seen from a distance and have impact. The challenge in creating any bird/animal costume is in highlighting their characteristics whilst adapting them to be worn by humans on two legs and have a sense of movement. For me the white underside of the owl is a key feature, this is often what we see when they are in flight, yet the feathers on the back have beautiful markings, I took some artistic licence here in using gold fabric mixed with browns and whites. It felt important to have moving wings and yet I needed to keep them light for the performer. I had already began making the wing tips from gold fabric and backed them for strength, each wing tip is wired and took quite a while to make. The frame for the wings is made from carbon fibre rods, inspiration taken from a stunt kite.

The other key feature is the size of the head and eyes. This was my main challenge and I tried various techniques to create this. The biggest challenge was finding a way to balance the head and have the eyes in the right place for the performer to see through, as barn owl eyes are not in the same proportion as ours. I used an old sleeping matt structured over a cycle helmet and layered with stuffing and papier mache, then painted with many layers of white acrylic. Artist Jen Major painted the owl's distinctive facial features, highlighting the gold from the wings giving impact and a carnival feel.