BOSTON (AP) — Don Featherstone was a classically trained painter, a talented sculptor and artist who became famous for creating the pink plastic lawn flamingo — the ultimate piece of American suburban kitsch.
And it didn’t bother him a bit.
Featherstone, who died Monday at 79, embraced the fame the invention brought him.
He died at an elder care facility in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, after a long battle with Lewy body dementia, his wife of 40 years, Nancy, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
“He was the nicest guy in the world,” Nancy Featherstone said. “He didn’t have a selfish bone in his body. He was funny and had a wonderful sense of humor and he made me so happy for 40 years.”
Featherstone, who studied art at the Worcester Art Museum, created the ornamental flamingo in 1957 for plastics company Union Products Inc., of Leominster, modeling it after photos of the birds he saw in National Geographic.
Featherstone worked at Union for 43 years, inventing hundreds of products in that time and rising to the position of president before his retirement in 1999.
“People say they’re tacky, but all great art began as tacky,” Featherstone said in a 1997 interview.
He was forever humble about the flamingo, and in fact, his wife often brought it up in conversations with people they would meet, bringing a sheepish smile from her husband, she said.
The flamingo even made an appearance on the silver screen. A pink flamingo, dubbed Featherstone of course, was a major character in the 2011 animated movie “Gnomeo & Juliet.”
“The thing that thrilled him the most was that movie,” Nancy Featherstone said.
“Humble” is how Marc Abrahams, editor the Annals of Improbable Research magazine, remembers Featherstone.
The magazine hands out an annual spoof on the Nobel Prizes known as the Ig Nobels. Abrahams became good friends with Featherstone after he won the Ig Nobel for art in 1996.
Featherstone kept his real artistic talent under wraps to everyone except those closest to him, Abrahams said.
“He decided it would destroy the illusion and pleasure for people who knew him for the flamingo, so he only let those very close to him see his work,” he said.
The flamingo almost met its demise in 2006, when Union went out of business. But the company was eventually bought by Cado Products Inc., which to this day proudly manufactures the ornaments in Fitchburg, retailing for about $14.99 a pair.
“We still sell thousands of them a year,” said Bruce Zarozny, president of Cado, noting that the company’s packaging refers to them as “The original Featherstone pink flamingo.
He’s not sure how many have been sold over the years, but it’s in the millions.
“They say there are more plastic Featherstone flamingos in the world than real flamingos,” he said.
In addition to his wife, Featherstone is survived by two children, four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
A wake is scheduled for Friday with a funeral Mass scheduled for Saturday at St. Joseph Church in Fitchburg.