Women in taxidermy: Not just a big game

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The growing movement of women working in taxidermy has popularised names like Polly Morgan and Joanna Shears.

New York-based taxidermist, Divya Anantharaman, is a huge supporter: “Having a vagina has no effect on how well you do something, and shouldn’t deter anyone from trying something new. It’s funny how the biases, perceptions, and insecurities of others manifest themselves; throughout history women have traditionally been the caretakers of the deceased, processed meat from the hunts, and have prepared specimens for museums. For whatever reason, this has been forgotten or turned into a novelty. If everyone is re-discovering that now, that is fantastic!”

Whether you’re seeking out curious interior design ideas or looking to immortalise a beloved pet, London is peppered with taxidermy centres which cater to all mounting needs.

Before you start worrying about animal violence, the UK Guild of Taxidermists closely monitors the legitimacy of UK taxidermists, ensuring no animals are deliberately killed for the sole purpose of stuffing and mounting.

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A taxidermied goldcrest, the smallest bird in the UK [Mary Clarke]

The motivation to work in taxidermy differs from one individual to the next. Sammy’s childhood curiosity for biology as well as her upbringing on a farm in Bath paved the way to taxidermy.

“When my cat started bringing home little birds and mice, my mum asked me if I wanted to bury them and do a little ceremony. I refused and said I wanted to keep them and take the skin off. They were all so beautiful, it just seemed like a shame to let them go into the ground. My mum, being very open-minded, was all right with that and she gave me a pair of scissors and that’s how it started,” she said.

Taxidermy became such an integral part of Sammy’s life that it was entwined into her wedding.

She fashioned an eye-catching headpiece: a dove decorated with Swarovski crystals and her husband Joel even had a little mole nestled in his breast pocket, thus coining the name of her studio Mole & Dove.

The dove headpiece holds a prominent position in Sammy’s studio, among her other precious creations.

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    A selection of Sammy Cockhill's work

Unlike ethical taxidermists today, the Victorian-era practitioner, Walter Potter, infamously gassed countless small animals for his craft which mimicked human life, a well-known piece being Kittens’ Tea Party.

Divya explains the story behind taxidermists’ conduct: “Many people do not realise that ethics in taxidermy are nothing new, but that they are just evolving along with the art. In the Victorian Era, considered by many to be the ‘Golden Age’ of taxidermy, it was ‘ethical’ to go on expeditions with the mission to harvest one of every type of animal in order to dissect and mount them for museums and study, and ‘fashionable’ for women to adorn themselves with the pelts of exotic birds from all over the world – thankfully, that has changed. All that over-harvesting has lead to conservation laws (which are also constantly changing) and today taxidermists abide by those numerous and complex laws, and are extremely active in conservation and environmental awareness. In addition each taxidermist has their own set of ethics.”

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The mouse has been cut open ready to be cleaned [Mary Clarke]

She continues: “Regarding invasive species – most people have no problem stomping on a cockroach in their apartment, but then get really upset if someone decides to eliminate something like a groundhog that has been tearing up a small farm, and hasn’t been successfully relocated or deterred by non-lethal means. Yes, one is way cuter and furrier. But if that farmer is unable to grow enough veggies to sell at the market because of that groundhog eating half his profits, and your local organic kale, then what? This is just an example, but it is really surprising that people don’t make connections like these, or take the time to do a little bit of research and critical thinking.”

“Being human is full of grey areas, and I am not one to say what is right and wrong. More of us are moving to cities and have no connection to how many animals we kill to maintain a particular way of life. I’d rather face that and come to terms with it, and modify my habits based on what I feel is ok rather than turn a blind eye to it. It is an ever changing and evolving conversation, hopefully all for the better.”

Divya’s trademark style of fantasy taxidermy has also gotten her interviews with the likes of Vice: “I’m inspired by the intersection of science, art, mortality, and the positive and negative aspects of the human touch. My ethics mean using naturally deceased animals, by-products of the food industry, invasive species that are harvested for pest control, or ones that are harvested for meat. Where it is sensible, I make sure to utilise every part so nothing is wasted.”

Owner of Curious Menagerie, Sarah Keen, has a fan-girl moment over Londoner Polly Morgan: “She’s fantastic and I love her style because she has a very modern take on it. I think she makes things in such a way that people who might not necessarily like taxidermy or think they like taxidermy will look at her work and they can really see it being in their own homes and they can appreciate it.”

With her work, valued at up to £100,000, Morgan’s use of coiled pythons and clusters of crow wings all lure the attention of celebrities like Charles Saatchi and Courtney Love.

While stylistic inspiration of Morgan appealed to Sarah, it’s the technique of Stephanie Meyers which engages Sammy’s admiration: “She does this really interesting technique where she does like a whole cast of the animal’s body and then she mixes some unknown chemical– she doesn’t share it, it’s quite unique– and then all the fur sticks to the plaster-cast mould. She follows by putting this chemical that degrades everything apart from the fur and then adds a lightweight resin that she colours according to the animal’s colouring. There’s no skin which is amazing, and this means that, with the fur, which is keratin and this doesn’t break down as quickly, allows the whole thing to last a lifetime. There has been debate at the Guild whether that counts as taxidermy because it doesn’t have any skin– but that doesn’t sway me.”

'World's Sexiest Taxidermist' Divya Anantharaman at work in Brooklyn, New York [Taken by: TM Rives]

‘World’s Sexiest Taxidermist’ Divya Anantharaman at work in Brooklyn, New York [TM Rives]

Sarah admits that, at times, she does receive hate-mail: “I usually just email them back, explaining what it is to be an ethical taxidermist, and they wind up apologising and understanding in the end. Then I tell them I’m a vegetarian and they’re like ‘Oh!’.”

Another long-standing obstacle is the question of whether taxidermy is a women’s thing. Divya, who’s experienced a fair amount of dissent, explains: “It is unfortunate that people think being a woman or being brown is an indication of something that isn’t just skin deep. Same goes for judgements being made based on clothing, make-up, or taste in music. It is surprising where this ignorance comes from, and disappointing, but in no way unique to me.”

She says another source of frustration is incomplete media coverage. She recalls one instance of an in-depth interview she did with an experienced journalist, and Divya pointed her to the ‘ethical sourcing’ reference on her website.

“She wrote an article saying I get my animals from pet stores. Not only is this illegal for all parties, but the words ‘pet store’ never even came out of my mouth so I was completely shocked by this statement. When I wrote to point out this mistake, her reply was: ‘oops – I don’t even know who wrote that! Sorry’.

“I am also amazed that some media outlets are allowed to fabricate a story and use images without permission, but I don’t have the budget and legal team to fight some of these giants. I don’t know one artist, taxidermy or otherwise, that hasn’t gone through some variation of this. Although I understand everyone has a job to do, this leads to a lack of accuracy, adding to the existing misconceptions.

Divya posing with some of her work [Taken by: Justin Staple]

Divya posing with some of her work [Justin Staple]

“I truly care, and it hurts to have your authenticity and intentions questioned based on those bits. With hate-mail, and similar crap, it is a combination of ignorance and insecurity. As tempting as it is for me to be harsh, I’d rather use it as an opportunity to educate rather than start a flame war. I haven’t figured out why some feel the need to send dick-pics though, and hopefully that stops soon.”

These confident and skilled women effectively banish the notion that this thriving artistry needn’t be associated with morbidity but should be celebrated.

 

Featured image by Mary Clarke