More Than Skin Deep
From Greek táxis "arrangement" + dérma "skin"
Taxidermy is the art of preserving an animal's outer form for the purpose of display or study
By Jason Laurenzano | September, 2023
You’re writing about taxidermy?
Yeah, a bit about taxidermy but more about the taxidermists.
Taxidermy is creepy. It’s weird.
Well, yeah but really, no!
I did a 180° turnaround on this. My understanding of taxidermy was limited, my vision of it myopic. I associated taxidermy with big game trophy hunters, the heads of their kills boastfully mounted on wood-paneled walls. Or with museum displays that are simultaneously fake and real. Melissa Milgrom posed the paradox well in her wonderful book Still Life, Adventures in Taxidermy .
“. . . Nothing seems as ludicrous as taking an animal and transforming it into a replica of itself. Why kill it in the first place? Taxidermy makes you laugh and feel uneasy and inspired all at the same time, a powerful clash.”
While visiting watercolor artist-in-residence Peggy Macnamara at the Chicago Field Museum [see the Profile-in-Passion, “Water-colored Nature”] I was introduced to Thomas Gnoske, staff taxidermist. We chatted in the hallway just outside the “bird room”. I had been watching ornithologists catalog dead birds in the name of science. So, when Tom said “If you’re interested, come back and I’ll show you around” I immediately knew that I would. I was intrigued. I wanted to peek behind the fir and hide, literally and figuratively.
As I walked through the museum the dioramas caught my attention in a way that they hadn’t previously. I wasn’t just looking at a stuffed animal, made to appear alive and moving. There was more to understand about it. Before that December 2021 day I hadn’t considered the underlying accomplishment. How are they created? By whom and why? What is the passion behind it? Is it art and science or a theater of the absurd? What is the human commitment to that process?
What? There are international taxidermy competitions? There are multiple genres of taxidermy? Who knew? I didn’t .
I ask you: When did you first see taxidermy? Was it at a museum during an elementary school “field trip” with a ho-hum diorama displaying a pride of lions resting under a shade tree? Or maybe the head of an elk, deer, moose, lion or some other once alive animal on a wall somewhere?
While traveling in Africa I was awestruck by big game and amazing birds. As a result, the “wild kingdom” now means more to me than it did decades ago (although as a child I often watched Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom hosted by Marlin Perkins).
1. © 2010 by Melissa Milgrom; First Mariner Books edition 2011.
2. If this PIP piques your interest there are many good books about taxidermists and taxidermy, its history, its contribution to the natural sciences and methods. For the casual reader I recommend “Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy” by Melissa Milgrom. And, do watch “Stuffed – A Documentary on the Art of Taxidermy”, available on Amazon Prime.
"The Father of Taxidermy"
During the late 19th century and the early 20th century, taxidermy was a primary means by which the public could get a close look at exotic animals and come to visually understand their habitats and social behaviors.
It was during that time that Carl Akeley became a renowned nature explorer, sculptor, museum curator, and conservationist. He is widely considered to be the single most important figure in the development of the art and science of taxidermy. The "father of modern taxidermy” is also celebrated as the inventor of a motion picture camera that made filming animals in their natural habitats more effective than it had been.
Rocke Wildlife Studio
I visited a taxidermy studio for the first time on a beautiful late October day. Eureka, Illinois is a small farming town surrounded by corn and soybean fields. Robyn Rocke is the owner-operator of Rocke Wildlife Studio. He is a cousin of dear friends. While we waited for him to finish talking to a client we looked through his showroom, filled with an array of taxidermy specimens and related artifacts.
Robyn showed us his workspace behind the showroom. This was fascinating. Tools of the trade (fleshing tools, hide scrapers, sewing needles and hooks among many others) and materials were laid out at workstations. Well organized, labeled containers are filled with glass eyes, reproduction noses, cured hooves, dew claws, bird feet, etc. There were several varieties of prefabricated mannequins, the armatures around which the animal hides are sewn. Animal hides were in various stages of processing.
We watched Robyn scrape the underside of a hide as he explained the steps that prevent decomposition. After thinning the hide he applies salt to dehydrate it. It is then re-hydrated by soaking in a chemical bath. The hide becomes pliable enough to be draped over the armature and sewn into place. Next comes the finishing work, a detailed and meticulous process of manipulating the fur, the eyes, nose, paw pads or hooves to bring about that nearly alive appearance.
“You have to have respect the intuition for the animals to bring out their best characteristics. You have to have the delicate finesse of a watchmaker and the brute strength of a blacksmith. You have to be able to mount a hummingbird and an elephant”
Still Life; Adventures in Taxidermy. Melissa Milgrom.
We heard the crunching sound of tires coming to a stop on a gravel patch next to the studio. Another client-to-be had arrived in a black pick-up truck. He strained to lift the head of a mature elk from the truck bed. It was wrapped in a large plastic trash bag, the long antlers sticking out.
The man's demeanor became animated as he proudly described the hunt and kill.
I was a bit repelled, as this was once a magnificent animal. But I was also conflicted. After all, ours is a nation with frontier beginnings, and staunch self-reliance. As an adolescent I often watched the Sunday television series The American Sportsman. I vicariously hunted and fished with Curt Gowdy and his celebrity guests and guides. It felt like I was in the duck blind or on a fishing boat awaiting an unsuspecting animal or fish to present itself. These were not activities that I had experienced – it was not part of the culture that I knew in the NY/NJ Metropolitan Area. But I yearned to experience the ritual of it, the activity of it, except for the killing part.
Los Angeles, California
It has been my pleasure to meet and profile Allis Markham and Paloma Strong of the Prey Taxidermy studio in L.A. They share a passion for the art and science of high-end taxidermy, and for the birds and mammals that they honor through their work.
Being with them in their attractive studio, and seeing their creations in various phases of production, brought taxidermy to life (so to speak).
Allis Markham is a highly respected, multiple award winner. Her protégé Paloma Strong recently completed her undergraduate studies in biology and has been creating taxidermy for nine years. I encourage you to learn about them and view their creations at www.preytaxidermy.com and on their Facebook page.
Allis is one of a small handful of international taxidermists who are profiled and celebrated in the excellent documentary, “Stuffed” (directed by Erin Derham). Allis’ enthusiasm, and the aesthetics and style that she brings to her work, jump off the screen. I wanted to meet her to gain an understanding of her passion, and to introduce her and taxidermy to readers of www.passionsillustrated.com.
Through correspondence Allis detailed her path into taxidermy and the development of her passion and her business.
She grew up in Indiana on a property adjacent to a forest preserve. As a child she loved birding with her dad, especially when doing a Christmas Bird Count. "I'd spend hours in that forest, watching, listening, and feeling it. Breathing it."
It's no wonder that Allis became intrigued by the museums of natural history and the dioramas depicting animal life.
A pivot point was her meeting Tim Bovard, Chief Taxidermist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. He opened the door into taxidermy, and exposed her to its art, science, techniques and intangibles. Before long she left her corporate job to build a career in this intriguing passion. “Tim remains a dear friend as well as my mentor. His work ethic and vision inspire my creative process and we love to talk all things taxidermy.”
I asked Allis how her family and friends reacted. “They were concerned about what they saw as the instability of a career in a relatively obscure field. I started giving Christmas gifts in the form of my work and their concern turned into support.”
I imagine that those Christmas mornings were very . . . uh . . . wild!
In this male dominated field respect from the taxidermy community was a bit slow in coming. Over time her dedication, skill and thirst for learning brought respect and admiration. “Winning a few world titles helped establish my credibility.”
Allis' notoriety has attracted young taxidermists, female and male, into a profession that had been shrinking.
Ian Maddox for the Washington Post
Perhaps because of my being a newbie birder I was curious about her acute interest in small bird taxidermy. “Small birds, especially hummingbirds, are some of the most challenging specimens. Apart from that, birds are windows into the health of the habitat. They are critical to the food chain."
Observing an avian species in its habitat is imperative. "Nothing beats seeing a bird in its natural habitat, watching their movements through the canopy or on the ground. Seeing its color and markings. Hearing the birdcalls, birdsongs. One can get a sense of the species’ personality.”
Where does she get the birds? Many are from museums or nature centers or other conservation organizations having salvage permits, allowing them to collect, study and display birds who have died (for example, from window strikes).
It is important to Allis that she “pay it forward”. “My mission in taxidermy is to educate, to excite people about conservation and protecting habitats. I do that through my pieces and through the classes, workshops, symposiums and competitions that I participate in. I'm happy when I see the reaction to my creations. It is the highest of compliments to be told that my work contributes to education and to the scientific community.”
Perhaps because of the clientele that she has, taxidermy is always challenging. “Even after doing this for over 10 years, I have to continue to be highly focused. The smallest of details can make a difference. Any misstep in the process can ruin a specimen's viability.”
It is apparent from the Stuffed documentary that the multi-national community of taxidermists is closely knit. “We speak the same language and have a deep appreciation and respect for one another’s work. We seek and give comfort to one another as we strive to do right by the specimens that we work on."
I asked Allis to describe her business and studio at Prey Taxidermy. “We operate a very professional business in a great studio space. I like a clean space. I probably have one of the more organized taxidermy studios. When my space is clean, I can focus on doing my work and my mind can hone in on the specimen in front of me.”
In the context of passionsillustrated.com, I like to explore how my subjects experience passion while engaging in it and, also, if/how it lingers while going about daily life. I asked how her immersion in taxidermy affects her overall life experience, or how it affects her world view and emotions. Of course, it has heightened her sensitivity and appreciation for the natural world. But it also shapes her social sensibilities: “I have met many who are obsessed with status and materiality. I have no room in my life for them.” In contrast are the incredible people, naturalists, scientists, artists, conservationists and fellow taxidermists. “There are lots of wonderful nerds like us out there.”
Allis Markham is a celebrated star in her field . Check out the science podcast “Nassology with Allis Markham", an Ologies podcast by Alie Ward, April 28, 2020. And, if that wasn’t enough, she was made into a character on an episode of the Simpsons!
3. Allis Markham was trained at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. She was named 'Third in the World' at the 2017 World Taxidermy Championships for her African Jacana. Allis is also the 2018 California Champion receiving Judges Choice Best of Show, People's Choice and the Artisan Award from the United Taxidermist Association. She was a seminar instructor on '3D technology in Taxidermy' at the 2019 World Taxidermy Competition. More recently, Allis has focused on museum work and public education. She has served as an adjunct professor during the 2019 semester at Occidental College teaching taxidermy on behalf of the Biology Department.
Her clients include the Natural History Museum of Santa Barbara, Moore Lab of Zoology, The Huntington Library, The Frost Museum of Science, Colorado State University and The Getty. Additionally, she has created commissions for Gucci, The Nomad Hotel, EB Florals and television shows such as Bates Motel. Allis has also been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, the cover of LA Weekly and more.
I was happy to have been invited to visit with Allis at Prey Taxidermy. It is located within a small complex of artist studios, behind a door with no signage other than the loft number. I knocked. The door opened and there stood Paloma Strong who flashed a warm open smile. [Paloma, “dove” in Spanish; a great name for a birding enthusiast, which she is.]
She enthusiastically waved me in. I felt a positive vibe instantly, from both Paloma and the space. It is airy, with a lofted ceiling and lots of natural light. It is, like Allis stated, very organized, clean and clutter free. The open display of tools, the tool chests, the spacious polished concrete floor and ample work surfaces were attractive. I felt a bit of workshop envy!
I noticed several trunk-style freezers. They are strategically placed in order to both maximize space and store specimens in categorical fashion. There is a wide variety of mammals that they receive for taxidermy services. Prey Taxidermy does not promote hunting for sport, but Allis will occasionally accept specimens when animals are lawfully culled from the population (as needed to avoid damage to the habitat).
On this very day they were expecting a shipment of tanned skins for use in an upcoming taxidermy class. They are closely inspected to ensure that the facial details are intact and that the hides are free from major flaws. [Author’s Note: I can appreciate what she said, thanks to the visit with Robyn Locke and also to the Mountain Men television series where skinning and tanning hides is occasionally featured].
While Allis was busy upstairs in the loft, working on a specimen for the Pasadena Audubon Society, Paloma showed me around. Some of her finished pieces were set out on a table.
The first piece to catch my eye was a spotted skunk, positioned bottom’s up. The workmanship is so precise that I had a bit of a reflexive reaction. What immediately came to mind were memories of bathing our dog, Penny, after she lost her confrontation with "Pepe le Pew".
Perhaps seeing my reaction, Paloma explained; “It was a gift to my mom”. Her mother, a nature photographer, was aware that spotted skunks do handstands when they defensively spray. That put Paloma on the lookout for a skunk specimen which took a fairly long time to acquire. “It was mom’s gift last Christmas”. “Okay” I said to myself. Family members of taxidermists are uniquely gifted!
Over there, on another table, was a West Coast Coyote (or, I should say, “what once was”). There are several straight pins stuck into its face. Granted, it isn’t alive and can’t feel a thing but “that’s gotta hurt”. Paloma explained that the pins stabilize the dermis as it dries. Washing and finish work then follows.
On the back table were four finished works of birds: American Kestrel, Red Tailed Hawk, Coopers Hawk and a species of Hornbill. Some of those were destined for display in her university’s bird lab collections room.
Paloma works multiple pieces at a time in different stages of the process. She pre-grooms body parts of the bird or animal before putting them together. Proper sequencing results in the specimen appearing as it would in the wild. To make that happen, to represent the species properly through taxidermy, it is important to know the species, to learn and be able to represent its physical movements in order to pose it properly, and to know the habitat in nature and the design of the display where the piece will ultimately be placed for viewing.
Early on in her career she took meticulous notes on each element, but now her experience and close observation of accomplished taxidermists allows her to proceed “by feel” and with precision and accuracy. “The prep and assembly I can do in my sleep, so other aspects, like the posing or ‘attitude’ is a challenge because it has to mimic the live animal or bird to the point that a naturalist or other scientist will find it acceptable. We have very high standards because our clients are mostly museums and nature centers.”
I asked if she had a favorite phase of the process. “Finishing work. Allis will often give me something to ‘finish’. The works often look dry and not all that life-like. The finish work gives it that living, breathing look and feel.”
It can be exhausting, physically and mentally. Paloma often works 12 hours on a given day on a larger piece. It involves a lot of physical movement and concentration. Her handling of the specimen, the long hours on her feet, and the need to pay close attention to detail are taxing particularly when she works several long days in succession.
We heard Allis’ voice from the upstairs work loft inviting us up for a visit. I couldn’t climb the stairs fast enough! Allis stood to greet me, adorned in a fire red-colored jump suit that matches her leather workstation chair. I don't know that her gray rubber boots matched anything but Allis makes any outfit work.
It’s another visually pleasing studio space. There is an attractive workbench with multiple drawers of tools and materials, under good lighting. She calls it her “Slay Station”. It’s actually a repurposed cosmetic make-up vanity. “It’s like the one I have at home” (containing cosmetics, not taxidermy eyeballs). I smiled at that.
On the bench was a Song Sparrow and a gorgeous Western Tanager, reminders of one of Allis’ specialties – birds. Nearby is the small bird freezer.
Also on private display is her Frankenbird - it fuses the anatomies of two different species of birds. Known by some in the industry as “rogue taxidermy”, it is not generally what Allis, Paloma and Prey Taxidermy are about (see Appendix, below). “We sometimes get calls from some ‘Good Ole Boys’ who offer up some specimens like raccoons and skunks so we’ll sometimes arrange a class around those.” [Among the several classes taught by Allis and staff at Prey is this form of non-traditional taxidermy.]
Alongside her Slay Station is a “vintage” full-bodied brown bear, a gift from Tim Bovard.
I asked Allis if she did marine taxidermy. She does not, because it involves toxic formaldehyde, something that neither she nor her staff want to be exposed to. Nor has she experimented with “erosion casting”, an expensive and time-consuming method that also involves formaldehyde. That said, she acknowledges that if done properly, the results are stunning .
At Prey Taxidermy there is considerable administrative work that takes time away from the hands-on science/art of taxidermy. Commercial taxidermy is regulated. Government permits are often required, and the handling and commerce of animals and birds has to be done in compliance with wildlife laws. Paloma helps with some of the admin tasks in addition to her taxidermy work.
Prey is a serious operation but a fun one: “It’s a family atmosphere, very supportive of one another”. The business model has growth potential. Merchandizing of tools and materials, developing technical manuals, expanding the already popular instructional classes both in-studio and online, live streaming (she prefers Twitch) and also overseas workshops and classes.
The three of us had a relaxing and lively chat in an anteroom adjacent to the Slay Table area. It is tastefully appointed with a comfortable couch and chair. On one wall is a portrait of Allis. We talked about ideas for future symposiums. I encouraged her to take her cutting-edge knowledge, style and personality to international audiences (she had already imagined that; she and her team will be in Italy this autumn). We discussed the decaying state of aging taxidermy still on display in museums, but which are cherished because they represent the works of the pioneers, including Carl Akeley. She described some of the new technologies and techniques, and the movement to attract youth and women into the profession.
She described an unfortunate experience at a big game farm in South Africa where she observed Afrikaner racism and sexism firsthand. A white man tried to forbid an African skinner from "talking shop" with her. Needless to say, she did not tolerate that!
She spoke of her enjoyment of spear fishing, playing dungeons and dragons, birding and much more. A very interesting person is she!
Finally, knowing that she has appeared on magazine covers, been profiled in numerous media platforms and was a key subject in "Stuffed", I asked Allis how she has handled the notoriety. She is proud of her work, of course, but seems humble and down-to-earth. "I've met many celebrities in and out of the art world", she said, "but I'm only interested in the work and joining other taxidermists in educating people and protecting the health of nature."
We spoke of getting together and visiting the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and she is welcome to stay in our home when she does.
Thank you, Allis and Paloma for inviting me and my readers into your inner and outer space.
4. Erosion casting involves placing a mold on the corpse of an animal and then leaving the body to decompose. When the process is complete a resin cast is taken which produces a precise impression of the skin with every wrinkle and hair preserved. Reference: www.mentalfloss.com/article/53029/11-historically-important-works-taxidermy
I asked her to share what the activity of creating taxidermy is like, how she experiences it. “It’s extremely gratifying. Challenging. I get laser focused on the accuracy of it. The anatomical accuracy of the bird or animal. Grooming the feathers, for example. Then the authenticity in the presentation is important. I study the species, its natural habitat and signature behaviors. The piece has to capture the essence of the habitat without necessarily having to build a diorama around it. I immerse myself in their history and movements, breathing in a bit of their life into my work.”
Not surprisingly, she loves being in a zone: "I love working on my own piece. If it is a project that takes several days, nothing else is on my mind. Just that piece. I can’t wait to get back to the studio to check on it. There isn’t enough time in the day, it seems. The time flies."
Rogue Taxidermy and Novelty Mounts
Rogue Taxidermy is an entirely separate genre of taxidermy that is non-traditional. This “pop surrealist art form” uses conventional taxidermy materials in an unconventional manner. Imagined creatures are created by morphing completely different species.
Take for example, the “Jackalope”, such as this excellent taxidermy mount from SafariWorks Decor.
I learned from Milgrum’s great book, Still Life, that Jackalopes were first created in 1932 by Douglas Herrick, a Wyoming taxidermist who, as the story goes, tossed a dead jackrabbit onto the floor of his workshop, landing under some deer antlers, giving him the idea.
Sarina Brewer of Minneapolis, a talented “art pioneer” is accomplished in this particular art form and has taken Rogue Taxidermy to new heights and popularity. You might find her website very informative and entertaining. www.sarina-brewer.com. I did. As Sarina points out on her Facebook page, Rogue Taxidermy is not always taxidermy. It can be made out of completely synthetic materials, it can be abstract, and sometimes it doesn't even take the form of an animal.”
And then, there is “Crap Taxidermy” – that being the title of a humorous book by Kat Su. Kat explains his interest in collecting images from a variety of contributors that fit any of the following categories: “bad taxidermy, weird-as-hell good taxidermy, and “weird-as-hell bad taxidermy”. His book “is a celebration of crappy taxidermy and the eccentric and amazing people who create it.” It is quite funny and weird. Check it out. Ten Speed Press, Berkeley. ©2014 by Kat Su.
Novelty Taxidermy (AKA Anthropomorphic Taxidermy) is yet another genre. Animals are shown engaging in human activity, playing instruments, playing cards, dining at a table with China, etc. In that genre, Victorian era is big now, with the animals dressed as aristocrats and royalty.
Author's note: Due diligence was exercised to determine the identities of the creators of the images used that I did not myself create. I invite contact relevant to incorporating the credits.