Dead Mouse Walking: New Yorkers Revive the Creepy Art of Taxidermy
Urbanites are rediscovering the Victorian pastime of stuffing animal carcasses. What's behind this morbid fascination?
Proteus Gowanus, an artists' complex in Brooklyn, hides amid the former factories and warehouses of the Gowanus shipping district. The way in, says a weather beaten chalkboard resting out front, is through the crusty brick alley around back. There aren't many windows, but the inside is clean and fluorescent and shut off from the surrounding streets. It is, in many ways, the perfect place to teach taxidermy.
A class meets here every other week, put on by Morbid Anatomy, a blog dedicated to all things old and odd. It's taught by Sue Jeiven, a tattoo artist from Greenpoint who serves as an ad hoc instructor. The classes last four hours and cost $60 -- materials and mice included -- and are booked solid three months in advance, with more than 75 people on the waiting list.
For most of us, stuffed trophies still inspire images of paneled basements decked out in hunting lodge décor: shag carpet cut through with Marlboro smoke, sightless whitetails assessing the humans below. But the Morbid Anatomy class is at the forefront of a larger taxidermy trend in New York City.
Lifelike dead animals can now be found far outside the exacting dioramas that populate the American Museum of Natural History along Central Park. Since 2010, at least three full-length books have documented the growing taxidermy subculture. New York Magazine took notice even earlier, writing in 2007 about the increased intrusion of mounted wildlife into the city's high-end eateries: "Once an art confined to frat houses, Upper West Side beer bars, and New Yorker cartoons, taxidermy has made its way into restaurants all over town."
A mounted animal crosses boundaries of all sorts: domestic vs. feral, human vs. animal, life vs. death.
According to a 2009 Times style section piece, taxidermy is also popping up in homes all over town. The article called this a "hip-yet-comforting decorating trend," and offered an increasingly common explanation: "For many, the smooth surfaces of modern design have lost their allure." (For those on a budget, New York's 10 Urban Outfitters offer cardboard cutout deer trophies for $30. You can upgrade to the larger, 14-point buck for $50.)
Even high-brow, mustache-and-monocle galleries have picked up the growing taxidermy trend. Damien Hirst -- the world's richest living artist, according to The Sunday Times -- deals extensively in taxidermy. His 14-foot tiger shark preserved in clear formaldehyde sold for a reported $8 million in 2004, though some claim it went for $12 million. Over the new year, the Guggenheim Museum featured a retrospective of Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, including his signature taxidermized animals hanging from the ceiling. "Although an ironic humor threads much of his work, a profound meditation on mortality forms the core of Cattelan's practice," curators wrote in the exhibit's program.
That weird conflation -- the mapping of life onto death -- is unavoidable in the face of, say, someone's freeze-dried pet dog (pet-preservation is a growing niche within the taxidermy industry). For modern city folks, especially, it can be a lot like seeing a corpse. And that feeling is probably a big reason why taxidermy has earned itself a macabre reputation over the better part of the 20th century. Hitchcock's Norman Bates, in addition to being a psycho and an innkeeper, was also a taxidermist.
At the Morbid Anatomy class, the room was set up as though for a picnic: four tables are draped in vinyl cloth, surrounded by five folding chairs. In the middle of each were all the implements necessary to turn a dead mouse into a somewhat lifelike mouse: wire, clay, needles and thread, white mounds of Borax, a versatile detergent, and improvised desiccant. Next to that was a box of folded latex gloves for the squeamish.
At the front of the class stood Sue Jeiven, an inch or two over five feet and pale, with lips painted the color of a Coke can, and impossibly black hair. Everything from her neck down was a mural, etched with monochromatic, blue-grey tattoos so densely packed that her body appeared to have a different tone than her face. Jeiven, a Brooklyn native, has a bachelor's in art education from the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. ("I mostly taught special-ed kids," she tells the class, "so forgive me if I get too supportive.")
While her assistant defrosted the mice in a sink one room over, Jeiven addressed the group. "In my experience there are different types of taxidermy," she said. "There's the traditional type -- hunters and trophies. Museums fall into another category. Then there's rogue taxidermy, which is more using the animal in an art piece. Wet is a type I'm just hearing about, when you preserve the animal in a jar. And then there's anthropomorphic, which is what I do. What we're making here tonight is a Victorian-era tableau."
She paused, and began passing around a stack of pictures. "Kitten's Wedding," "Rabbit School," "Prairie Dog Band": the work of Walter Potter, a pioneer of anthropomorphic taxidermy and master of Victorian whimsy. The pictures get chuckles and awwws and some altogether serious analytic gazes as they circulate through the room.
When we think of Victorian England, we tend to imagine corsets, geometric hedges -- images of containment and propriety. But having a mounted animal -- a dead, feral thing that looks very much alive -- crosses boundaries of all sorts: domestic vs. wild, human vs. animal, life vs. death. It seems odd that Victorians proved to be such enthusiasts of taxidermy. But in the long history of the craft -- which, some claim, dates back to the prehistoric practice of stretching hides over mounds of mud -- perhaps no other era greeted the stuffed animal with such warmth.
Consider Potter, easily the most notable taxidermist of that era working outside of a museum. He pioneered the anthropomorphic dioramas ("tableaus") that Jeiven's class emulates. Think nursery rhymes in 3D: everyday scenes, but where the people might be are kittens, rabbits, birds. His work is amateurish. His mounts are hunched and misshapen and almost entirely without musculature. Yet, to many, they are also endearing, dripping with kitschy sentimentality. They tell children's stories through figures easily remembered from childhood. Not to mention they are often huge: "The Original Death and Burial of Cock Robin," based on a Mother Goose nursery rhyme from the era, consisted of 98 specimens mourning (appropriately) the death of a song bird. At an auction of Potter's estate in 2003, it reportedly sold for £20,000.
Creations like these are the specialty of antiques dealer Mike Zohn. His shop, Obscura Antiques and Oddities on the Lower East Side, sells everything from postcards to antiquated medical devices, kidney stones to dead animals.
You may recognize Zohn from TV. The hulking, middle-aged man with an increasingly exposed forehead and wholesome, ruddy cheeks, stars on the Science Channel's Oddities with Obscura co-owner Evan Michelson. Zohn's presence on the show -- and at flea markets along the eastern seaboard -- has garnered him something of celebrity status amongst those so interested in Obscura's wares.
I first met Zohn last December at the Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest, an annual exhibition hosted by the Secret Science Club, a Brooklyn-based group that hosts a series of events in Gowanus. That night, the Bell House was stuffed to capacity, around 350 people at $7 a ticket. Many men looked like people who might kill their own trophies: heavy flannel, calf-length boots, facial hair ranging from rustic to creative. A lot of the women wore feathers.
In the contest's seven-year history, Zohn has been a prominent presence. His first victory came three years ago when he reconstructed a 19th century bird automaton. Last year's entry featured a coyote (salvaged from a 1930s Philadelphia department store), perched, mid-howl, on a wooden crate. On its back sat a capuchin monkey about the size of the coyote's head, holding a bottle opener. The mount had function as much as flair: in the crate was a pump -- fill the tank inside, press a button, and your drink would shoot through a tube and be, well, excreted into your glass. It won top prize.
"In Victorian times, taxidermy was thought of as bringing nature into the home," Zohn says. "You know, it's odd, it's exotic, it's a little bit strange. People have really strong reactions to it -- it really creeps some people out. But others are fascinated."
Zohn thinks our current fascination rises from similar impulses. The Victorian era was a period of rapid modernization. England was transitioning into the Industrial Age, its residents migrating from farms to factories. It isn't hard to see this 19th century obsession as an attempt to hold onto something in nature. For city dwellers, Zohn says, taxidermy creates "a bubble of nature" -- an attenuated, non-threatening reminder of the wilderness they left behind.
Many modern-day purveyors see something similar happening now. Over the past two decades, the world has gone digital. Things we could once feel -- handwritten letters, photo albums, the grooves on vinyl records -- have become incorporeal. "The personal computer is the new wunderkammer,"says Robert Marbury, a Baltimore-based artist, referring to the "cabinets of curiosities" popular in the 19th century. "Ultimately, we're collecting more and more for the computer -- mp3s, images, all kinds of stuff. What used to be on display in your house has been compressed into an iPhone." Taxidermy, he points out, may be a tactile response to modernity's 1s and 0s.
Next: How to stuff a rodent, and when taxidermy becomes illegal
At the Morbid Anatomy class, the mice were distributed, thin white cylinders about the length of a candy bar and slightly thicker. Their presence spiked a buzz in the room, and Jeiven raised her voice to carry over the chatter.
"I want you to think about telling a story," she continued in the background. "When I go to the breeder, it's sad. It's a huge warehouse, no windows. Air is pumped in from outside. They're just bred there. And they have such tiny brains -- well, you'll see it. But here we can give them a little personality. It's really satisfying."
"When it's warm, it's just way gushier. It's easier when they're frozen."
The class ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s, but the majority were Gen Xers, falling somewhere in between. Although there were only six men alongside the 14 women, this group was unusually heavy on men, said Joanna Ebenstein, who curates Morbid Anatomy and organizes the class with Jeiven. It's usually over 80 percent women, though, she adds, "Our Valentine's Day class was mostly couples."
When Jeiven opened up for questions, the 30-somethings became third graders:
"Is it illegal to just go to a pet shop here and buy an animal and use it?" asked a Brazilian woman.
"Oh, no," Jeiven answered, nodding patiently. "I used to do it -- actually, I let my cat kill it because it enjoyed it. But I will say that it's way grosser, and a little tedious. When it's warm, it's just way...gushier. It's easier when they're frozen."
After the New York Post ran an article on her class in February of last year, Jeiven received "500-something" emails denouncing her use of the mice. In the days that followed, it turned into thousands. A group put together an online petition, and flooded her inbox. The experience turned Jeiven off from email more than it did from taxidermy. The mice, she insists, were raised to be food for carnivorous animals just as chickens are raised to be food for carnivorous humans. And the purpose they serve in her class is, more or less, the same.
The actual procedure of taxidermy varies from animal to animal, but it always starts the same: with a longitudinal incision down the animal's midline -- a great big cut from neck to nethers. If you can bring yourself to do that, you can do the rest, a series of concretely named processes that free skin from body: fleshing, de-braining, de-tailing. If done properly, you'll be left with a little sack of innards that feels much like a smooth, fine-grained bean bag, and the hide.
Once the skin is off, the art starts to creep in. The mouse must be rebuilt -- a new skeleton, 20-gauge wire limbs, a pipe cleaner to support the tail's worm-like husk. The frame is made out of self-hardening potter's clay. "You don't want to pack it too full," Jeiven warned. A lot do, and they can't stitch up the gash along the back, leaving a grisly clay scar in the fur.
The mice turn out oblong, cylindrical. Too flat in some spots, too round in others. All have the same tight-eyed stare. When the newly minted taxidermists try to seal up the backs, the skin tightens on the head, and the animal's black eyes look to bulge.
Next, the eyes themselves are replaced by dark, round-headed pins sunk behind the lids. The final steps are cosmetic: clear nail polish to harden the ears in place, a soft-bristled hairbrush to smooth the remaining fur.
"I can't wait to do a guinea pig when I get home to Brazil," the woman said to her table. "This is like the best thing I've done since I moved to America."
In Teddy Roosevelt's day, a dozen taxidermists worked out of Brooklyn alone. Roosevelt himself kept a taxidermy studio in his home during his time as New York Police Commissioner. Practitioners would get skins from exotic pets stores, even the Bronx Zoo.
Now, though, there are no commercial taxidermy shops anywhere in New York City. Traditional mounts have given way to "rogue taxidermy." the umbrella term given to the arty, sometimes surreal offshoots of the traditional practice. Robert Marbury, the Baltimore-based artist, heads the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART), a group of alternative taxidermists who tend to produce more conceptual, abstract mounts. Marbury for instance, practices "vegan taxidermy." The big safari for his "Urban Beast" project? A sizable donation of stuffed animals.
"A lot of art is inherently wasteful," says Marbury. When he does work with an actual corpse, it's more often been killed by a car than a bullet. "There's been a big push in road kill," he says, "I just made a squirrel rug. A traditional taxidermist would discourage that." One MART member, an Oregon transplant living in East New York, works with discarded fur garments -- coats, hats, stoles. Others use insects or found bones. Plants, even. It's not for lack of skins: soon after Marbury first launched MART's website, he requested that "donors" stop mailing artists animals -- citing, amongst the generally questionable nature of the practice, legal and health issues.
In fact, legal penalties can be harsh. One reason taxidermy's popularity sank in the 20th century was the enactment of new conservation measures such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a deal to curb feather collection. Enrique Gomez De Molina, a rogue taxidermist and peer of Marbury's, has recently become a cautionary tale within the community. He creates surreal swirls of species, blending animals into irradiated mutations -- at once recognizable and frightfully alien. His pieces command high-end prices: at a sale in his native Miami, two were sold for a reported $100,000, combined.
His tastes, though, tend towards the exotic. De Molina imported animal parts and skins without obtaining permits, reportedly asking instead for the seller to wrap items in carbon paper, hiding the contents. Cobras, hornbills, birds of paradise. According to Marbury, he was caught for items bought last year on eBay that were eventually combined and sold to a buyer in Canada. De Molina was arrested last November, and pled guilty a month later to charges that amount to poaching, the illegal smuggling of protected species. On March 2, he was sentenced to ten months in federal prison and fined $10,000. Even with that, De Molina got off light: he faced a maximum of five years, and $250,000.
"We're really careful about the legal stuff," says Zohn. "Everything has to be way above board. You have to be so careful -- Fish and Wildlife doesn't mess around. It's worth knowing what you're dealing in."
Beyond the law, though, taxidermists -- particularly practitioners in urban areas -- continue to face a negative stigma. "We are taking dead animals and doing things with them," Marbury says. "Mice, people are O.K. with, but once you get to cats and dogs people get riled up. It's 'Survival of the Cutest': that's why we can eat sharks but save dolphins."
As Jeiven's class drew to a close, the finished products were posed and mounted and decorated with her collected ephemera: books stolen from Barbie, jewelry, clothes so well sized it's hard to imagine they had any other purpose in the minds of their makers. iPhones came out. Portraits were taken.
By 11:30 at night, the work was done, and students filed out past Jeiven. She chuckled proudly at the parade. There was the mouse up on its hind legs, leaning full bore into a boulder the size of an apricot like a miniature Sisyphus. There was the pole-dancing one, frozen mid-swing on the hollow shaft of a ballpoint pen. There was the graying and largely hairless carcass entombed in a palm-sized sarcophagus. It was peculiar to see a dead mouse transformed, after four hours, into another dead mouse.
As the students spilled through the alley and onto Nevins Street, their conversations lingered on the topic of the night. At least one man seemed inspired by Jeiven's example. "So next weekend we should get some rats," he said, trophy in hand. "We'll have ourselves a taxidermy party."