Neil Feather, creator of experimental musical instruments, wins $25,000 Sondheim prize

Artist Neil Feather, who builds mechanized musical instruments from bowling balls, film projectors and cigar boxes, among other objects, received this year's $25,000 Janet & Walter Sondheim Artscape Prize on Saturday evening.

Trained as a ceramicist, Feather said he draws inspiration from antique machinery and "strange technology that didn't make it to the mainstream."

"I like listening to all the matter around me vibrating," Feather, 58, said in a phone interview after the award ceremony at the Walters Art Museum.

The Waverly resident is a founding member of the Red Room Collective and the High Zero Foundation, groups that have pushed Baltimore to a vanguard of the international experimental music movement.

He has created music with his sculptures in more than 200 concerts, including performances at the American Visionary Art Museum and Baltimore Museum of Art, the Knitting Factory in New York and the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, according to a news release.

Feather said he plans to travel to Philadelphia on Sunday to catch the closing night of a performance by BalletX that features two of his works — "Anaplumb" and "Magnapooter."

Feather, who holds a master's degree in fine arts from the University of Montana and a bachelor's degree in fine arts from Pennsylvania State University, said his background in ceramics gives him an affinity for functional creations.

"When you make an object, it has a life," Feather said of his instruments. "When people use it and live with it, you're creating something beyond that object."

This is the ninth year that the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts has awarded the Sondheim prize. It is named for the late civic leader Walter Sondheim, who helped lead the desegregation of Baltimore's public schools, and his late wife, a dancer and teacher. Three New York-based artists and curators served as judges in this year's competition.

The finalists, Lauren Adams, Kyle Bauer, Shannon Collis, Kyle Tata and Stewart Watson, all of Baltimore, and Marley Dawson of Washington were awarded $2,500 honorariums.

Their works, as well as Feathers' musical sculptures, will remain on display at the Walters through Aug. 17.

Feather said creating his pieces for the exhibit, which includes an elaborate contraption that pays homage to artist and inventor Rube Goldberg, has inspired new work.

"The ideas that come about in putting a show together always just expand into more ideas," he said. "I'm always searching for different context, looking at the objects that want to be made."

He plans to use his winnings to create those pieces and take a sabbatical from his day job, which, most recently, has been fitting hearing aids.

"It's a penance for some musical crimes I've committed over the years," he said, laughing.

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