‘Fowl Play: Portraits of Isabella Rossellini’s Heritage Chickens’
WHEN | WHERE 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, noon-4
p.m. Sundays through July 31, Bellport-Brookhaven Historical Society, 31 Bellport Lane, Bellport
INFO 631-776-7640, bbhsmuseum.com
ADMISSION Free (donations accepted)
Isabella Rossellini — actress, filmmaker, model, chicken farmer. What!? It’s not what you think. None of her birds will wind up on your dinner table, or anyone else’s, though she does share their eggs with friends and neighbors in Bellport.
In a way, Rossellini’s heritage-breed chickens have become models, too, starring in an exhibit by fashion photographer Patrice Casanova. “Fowl Play,” an exhibit of his poultry portraits, is on display at the Bellport-Brookhaven Historical Society.
“When Isabella asked me to take photos of her chickens, it was a bit of a challenge,” says Casanova, a former Glamour magazine photographer. “They don’t pose for you, so you get what you can get. But then I thought, ‘I’m used to shooting chicks.’ And these kind are just as temperamental,” he adds with a laugh.
Rossellini purchased a 20.8-acre farm four years ago with the help of Peconic Land Trust, saving the property just east of Gateway Playhouse on South Country Road from residential development.
After beginning classes at Hunter College toward a master’s in animal behavior, Rossellini decided to expand beyond heirloom vegetables on her community-supported agriculture (CSA) farm to heritage-breed chickens. Many are from endangered breeds.
“I never raised chickens before,” Rossellini says, just after presenting a comic film short, “The Chicken,” starring her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and directed by her father, Roberto Rossellini, at “Fowl Play’s” opening reception. Part of the 1953 “We, the Women” homage to five actresses, “The Chicken” was shot before Isabella was born.
“I was surprised to find that chickens have personalities,” Rossellini says, citing her Polish crested birds, a breed not from Poland but named for plumes resembling feathered caps historically worn by Polish soldiers. “One sits on my lap and lets me pet it, the other I can’t touch.”
The photo project began as a way to record the birds’ growth from the first 28 baby chicks delivered to her farm to adulthood 16 weeks later. “When I noticed how different they were as individuals, not just from breed to breed, we thought of taking portraits,” she says.
“Not only is the exhibit great fun for all ages, but it reminds us to treasure our agricultural history, from farmland to livestock,” says Kate Carmel, president of the historical society hosting “Fowl Play.”
At the reception, Rossellini let the audience glimpse what she’s been studying at Hunter and exploring in her “Green Porno” video shorts series about animal reproduction (available on YouTube).
“Domestication doesn’t mean an animal is tamed,” she says. “It’s a long process of selective breeding that results in animals genetically different from their ancestors.” Wild boars become pigs. Wolves become dogs. “Survival of the fittest turns into survival of the friendliest as these breeds get less threatening,” Rossellini says.
In chickens, commercial breeds known as broilers (you buy their breasts, thighs and wings in supermarkets) have lost the ability to mate and are artificially inseminated to be raised in chicken houses for six weeks. They’re bred to grow so fast and so fat that their bones could not sustain their weight if allowed to live longer.
“I don’t have broilers on my farm,” Rossellini says.
Instead, she raises endangered heritage breeds, such as the Campine, a Northern European chicken Julius Caesar is said to have brought back to Rome after looting Belgium. The foraging fowl with distinctive red combs is in “critical” danger of extinction.
Other breeds in Rossellini’s flock are watch-listed as “under scrutiny” or “recovering,” among them the classic Rhode Island Red and the Cochin, a Chinese breed known for its appearance as a ball of fluff and feathers, and the Egyptian Fayoumi, an ancient breed thought to have been a jungle-fowl pet of King Tutankhamen.
Currently filming the Hulu series “Shut Eye” in Vancouver (it starts streaming in August), Rossellini has lived in Bellport since being introduced to the village by fashion photographer Bruce Weber in 1982. Last year, she hosted the inaugural gala at the Plaza Cinema & Media Arts Center in Patchogue, introducing the documentary “Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words” weeks after the centennial of her mother’s birth.
With her acting career, Rossellini can’t be a hands-on farmer. She leaves the cultivation to Patty Gentry, who makes produce available to local restaurants and markets through her business, Early Girl Farm.
But whenever she gets back home, Rossellini says she likes to check in on her personable chickens.