The tricks of the taxidermy trade were once held tight by older, male enthusiasts. But today a new generation of young women are lending their artistic and scientific talents to preserving dead animals in the most lifelike manner.By Sarah Krasnostein.
The new taxidermy
There’s a condom wrapper at the taxidermy competition. It’s embedded in a circular pool of closely approximated water, along with cigarette butts, plastic bottles, an orphaned tyre and an upended shopping trolley on which a stuffed ibis balances like a ballerina. This is Timothy Wood’s entry in the 2019 Australian Association of Wildlife Artists championships.
“I knew people would either love it or hate it,” Wood explains during his set-up, his beard and dreadlocks dangling over a T-shirt paying homage to Sasquatch.
Bump-in is as harried as it would be for any theatrical production. Volunteers in high-vis vests register entrants who throng into the suburban function centre proudly clutching their pieces. A man holding a taxidermied skunk in one hand and a rabbit in the other delivers them to a young woman wearing a unicorn backpack. A woman walks as though on a tightrope, eyes locked on the cat skeleton in her hands, drawn up to its full height, half as tall as she is. A muscled young man in shorts strides in, casually clasping a deer head by its antlers. Timothy Wood kneels nearby, spraying the lacquered edge of his mounted scene with Mr Sheen and buffing it gently with a cloth.
Entries are placed around the room according to category: Junior & Novice, Open (“for the professional or competent taxidermist”), Masters (for the professional wanting more of a challenge), and Interpretive (where “a competitor can take his or her artistic talents and fertile imagination to a new level and see what happens. Some of the technical burdens of conventional competition are lifted because the display will not be scrutinised with torches and/or finger-probing.”).
By mid-morning, I am surrounded by a congress of foxes, deer and marine life; a feral goat, a domestic rabbit, a gang-gang cockatoo, a mud puppy and the 20-year-old head of the first stud bison to enter Australia. I admire some fox-head bookends, visit a deer’s upper-third, the part that would have sat flush against a wall inlaid instead with a photo of other deer grazing. With an hour until judging, contestants put finishing touches on their work.
Most entries were hunted or sourced from farms that bred the animals for meat. Many taxidermists are hunters or fishermen and will “harvest their own animals”, according to James Prodromou, the man in the shorts. He, however, buys his skins. There is no stigma in doing so, he says, taxidermy is “about the art”.
The taxidermists’ tools are many and varied. “I might grab the first thing on the bench, a stick or skewer, commercially available tools, but also things you make that just might work,” says Prodromou. “Pokers and prodders, drills, sandpaper, all sorts of stuff.” His entry – a fallow deer game head – will later go in his lounge room, but for now it emits a distinctive scraping sound as he brushes its neck for a good 45 minutes, pausing occasionally to peer into the hairs with transcendental attentiveness or to caress a particular patch into submission with his palms. Meanwhile, Brittany Porter, of the unicorn backpack, clips moss beneath her woodland tableau and, at the trolley, Wood rights a feather on his bin chicken using tweezers. Windex is sprayed into glass eyes, an air blower fluffs fur and everywhere is the whine of drilling as heads are hoisted and hung onto walls.
On show day, the doors open to a trickle of the public. In their midst, the wildlife artists association members interact with one another as though they are family. All contestants receive a ribbon.
Hannah, a bone-carver who brought her children along, comes to the championships every year. Concerned by “waste and consumerism and cruelty within the meat industry”, she sources her materials from farming offcuts and roadkill to make jewellery and shot glasses from femur bones. To clean her bones, Hannah maintains a tank of flesh-eating beetles, feeding them fox heads. “To clean a deer head,” she explains, “you need something like 70,000 beetles, but to clean a snake, you could do that with maybe 500.” If you run out of fox heads, a chicken carcass dried in front of a fan will suffice. “Chuck it in the tank and it’ll come out looking like that,” she says, pointing to a snow-white snake skeleton. “Pristine. That’s how museums do it.”
Founded in 2014 by Dennis and Dianne Grundy, president and treasurer, respectively, AUSAWA is unique in Australian taxidermy. Motivated to educate and create community, the Grundys, who own a taxidermy business, explain that taxidermy was “a closed book”. An individualistic autodidactic affair, no courses existed and approaching someone for advice was likely to result in a rude rebuff. Especially if you were young and/or female.
Brittany Porter says she encountered ageism and sexism when she was starting out. “When I discovered the association, all that changed,” she says. “The new generation is overwhelmingly young women with artistic and scientific backgrounds.” Inspired by an AUSAWA seminar on mounting fawns, which reminded her of Bambi, Porter worked on her fawn/rabbit/skunk scene for three years before entering it in the 2019 championships. The skunk was imported from American fur trappers, the fawn came from a meat doe, the rabbit is “from a family that raises them for dinner” and the butterfly on the fawn’s tail expired on a butterfly farm.
Deion Carr’s bison is the culmination of 25 years of practice. Carr came to taxidermy through hunting. He was two years old when his dad first taught him to shoot “bunny rabbits”. He couldn’t afford to have his trophies preserved so he learnt to do it himself. Regarding the bison, he was lucky to get the pelt before it was chucked for lack of storage. “He was in my mate’s freezer for 20 years after being put down because he got aggressive,” Carr explains. The largest animal he’s attempted, the bison presented logistical challenges, including finding a supplier for the foam mould under its skin.
“It’s all perfect,” Carr explains. “The eye sets are right, the lip sets right, the nostrils are generally in the right position, though you’ve gotta put the interior detail back.”
Carr offers a guide to the basic steps of taxidermy. First, the skin is turned into leather, which is oiled and stretched to its original shape – “it wants to go back so if you’ve got an anatomically correct mould, it’ll go straight on, tell you where it’s supposed to be”. Stitch it up, add eyes, ear liners, a tongue, a bit of clay round the mouth and you’re done. Carr’s kids assisted with shampooing and, right before judging, the bison was complete. Soon, it will go to a gun shop.
“It’s just relaxing, you don’t think about anything except what’s right in front of your face,” Carr says. “The nose took me five days.” His wife explains he’s never happy with his work, and the perfect gets in the way of the good. All of this suddenly feels strangely familiar. The harvesting of living material from the world, the crafting of a structure over which to drape it, the forensic negotiation to return it to truest form, the meticulous arrangement of every stitch, every feather…
President Grundy’s favourite entry surprises me in its quietude. A sambar deer, neck craned low to one side. “I’m a hunter. I naturally see that pose in the bush. The foreleg muscles, the rib cage, it’s all in there. The detail of the ear, the vein...”
The perception that taxidermy is about death is legitimate. But as far as taxidermists are concerned, it’s about life. All of the association’s members say they love animals, appreciate each creature in its smallest particulars, care about their habitats. “It’s a celebration of life,” Porter explains. “People who don’t like animals don’t have the understanding you need to re-create one.”
A consistent crowd nucleates around Wood’s trashscape. It will go on to win two blue ribbons in the championships. I read the article that inspired him, which explains how dumped shopping trolleys cost the retail industry up to $300 million a year. An accompanying photograph shows one bogged in a dirty creek as Wood has conjured here, like the one near my house, like waterways across the country. It’s a similar strain of the absurdly destructive behaviour that has killed extensive amounts of coral in the Great Barrier Reef since 2016 and which, if unabated, will destroy it completely one day.
Soon, the exhibition will close until tomorrow. The lights will go out. I think of this room at night, the animal assembly in the dark. Less a memory of themselves than of their makers, hardy relics-to-be of a species that was a study in contradiction and that contained all the brutality and love in the world.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 30, 2019 as "Keeping up appearances". Subscribe here.