Projects: Handpainted Taxidermy

Like nearly everyone else in my design demographic I have a fascination with taxidermy. The trend, like other symbols of hipsterdom, will probably run its course among the general population, so I can only speak for myself when I say that I think I will always find compelling the art of stuffing and mounting wildlife, trend or not. Taxidermy, when well-executed, is the perfect combination of natural history and the art of the diorama. And everyone likes a diorama. My grandfather took me to the Ohio Historical Society when I was a kid, and I remember taking in all the wealth of details found in the dioramas depicting natives of the region, crouched around an orange resin fire while just beyond the edge of the encampment stood a host of animals in various poses. The deer, bear, fox, rabbits et al. looked as though they were ready to rush in and jump the Native American family during dinner.

Of course the down side of taxidermy is all that killing. So, while a few pieces have come into my possession, I always sold them without too much regret, as it is one thing to appreciate taxidermy and another thing to live with it. With those cold, fake eyes staring at you. All the time. Another drawback is the terrible associations we have with collectors of taxidermy, thanks, in particular, to unforgettable characters like Norman Bates, or, more recently, the villainous uncle in Nicholas Nickleby. Collecting taxidermy is a sort of shorthand for being seriously disturbed or morally questionable. Or both. (I think Norman Bates qualifies as both.)

I bought a great vintage box, made of plywood in the 1950s, at the flea market a few summers ago thinking it would be great for some sort of shadowbox project. It’s so big, however, that the idea began to take hold that the case would be perfect for a preserved specimen of nature. Only I have no plans to take on taxidermy anytime soon. And then it occurred to me: I should paint a series of birds. Faux taxidermy! If the fashion-conscious can parade around in pleather and faux rabbit fur, why can’t I make up my own process for creating a victim-free form of taxidermy? Of course, my painted, stuffed birds don’t suffer scrutiny and the real wildlife expert would not be impressed. So that’s why I just made up the birds I painted – no way was I going to attempt to copy the perfection found only in the originals.

I was inspired in the design of the birds by an image I found on this great resource for antique taxidermy, the website of a dealer in the UK  (www.antique-taxidermy.com). You could spend a lot of time wandering around pages and pages of examples of taxidermy, some in perfect condition, some a little worse for the wear — all of it fascinating.

My faux taxidermy project will be finished this week. And after it’s done I plan on spending some time contemplating the diorama I’ve created, an approximation of the wonders of nature, if only nature were as bloodless.

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