Taxidermists may not have skeletons in their closet, but they do keep them in the freezer. Mike Zohn has a dog there. His wife doesn’t know about it.
“When we first got together, I said, I have this little fridge, and I told her, don’t go in that little fridge. And when she was at work I would lay paper down and work on some specimens. At this point, as long as it’s not wet or messy, she’s okay with the work. She doesn’t know what’s in the fridge, though. At this point I have a dog in our freezer. But I wrapped it in a few layers, and I put it all the way in the back. I think a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy works best. She knows if there’s something of mine in there, just leave it alone.”
There was once a boy in college who danced with a skeleton. He was very shy. I don’t think he ever had a date. The dance started off awkwardly enough. He bumped into a skeleton when he was in the science lab and it turned into a sort of jerky half-step. People laughed, and he looked delighted, until one girl said, “Do you realize how disturbing that is? Do you realize it used to be alive? You should stay away from it. That’s not normal.” This reaction would perhaps have been valid if we were, say, in the jungles of Vietnam using human skulls to re-enact Punch and Judy skits. We weren’t. As it was I remember thinking “I sort of hate that girl.” She was the kind who would have worn a velvet headband, had they been in style. She was very good at lacrosse.
Mike reminds me of that boy. I wonder about his wife’s hairstyle.
“Taxidermy – It’s not really my wife’s thing,” Mike explains. “But she knows about it. In our house I have a collection in one of the rooms. She’s okay with that,” Mike reassures me. “I’m allowed to decorate there any way I want – and that’s where I keep most of my collection. Then I have a few pieces on the mantle, but she doesn’t really enjoy those. She’s not a taxidermist. She thinks it’s interesting and she lets me indulge my hobby. She has her own collections and hobbies. Like, shoes, and what have you.”
I begin imagining Mike’s wife as Carrie Bradshaw, and a very special episode of Sex and the City where Carrie gets a furry surprise when she fishes around in the night for some Chunky Monkey ice cream. It is not the stuff materialist middle-class fantasies are made of.
The members attending the World Championship of Taxidermists in Brooklyn are not people you’d necessarily want to get a stuffed animal from. At least, not if your idea of a stuffed animal is a bear clutching a heart a la FAO Schwartz. Nevertheless Melissa Milgrom, author of Still Life, says that “shops like Build-a-Bear (where children dress up stuffed bears in clothing of their choice) are bringing taxidermy back into vogue”. Some people might say that Melissa Milgrom has perhaps never been to Build-a-Bear. Respectfully, I think the difference may be that the shop is called Build-a-Bear, not Find-a-bear-kill-it-rip-its-guts-out-and-then-embalm-and-stuff- it. Children just don’t have the hand-eye coordination for the latter.
Yes, they might be a little unorthodox, the taxidermists. But they’re not heartless.
Then again, how do you have a relationship with someone who loves the smell of embalming fluid in the morning?
Most of the taxidermists’ spouses have chosen not to attend the Championship. And the crowd is comprised of a very different sort of people than you might have found at Walter Potter’s Museum of Curiosities in the 1890’s. Then Potter created dioramas of cats dressed up in wedding attire and mice playing poker. People praised him for his whimsy and attention to detail. (“The kittens even wear frilly knickers under their formal attire!”) Children went to that museum for a treat.
Children would not want to go there now. People who shave their moustaches into decorative patterns and sport ironic mullets, they might go, but even that might be an overstatement. Damien Hearst offered £1 million for Potter’s collection in 2003, but then, he is Damien Hearst.
Today people just find taxidermy creepy. There’s one website that declares Potter’s creations “the stuff of nightmares.” Another collection of “Weird Taxidermy” is titled, “You know, Joe, that hobby we told you to get? Drop it.” And then there is:
“If there’s one career we never considered taking up, it’s taxidermy. Not that we have anything against dead animals. It’s that we don’t understand why the hell anyone would want to spend their life making the dead animals look alive again.”
It’s a fair question. But I can’t help feeling that the taxidermists don’t do what they do because they want to glory in death. They’re too precise for that. If they wanted to enjoy dead things they’d chop the animals up, turn them into something else, revel in their lifelessness. We’ve seen Silence of the Lambs. We know how to piece together a girl suit.
But there’s too much attention to detail for that. The taxidermists take such pains to recreate the animals exactly as they might have been in the wild. In poses, too, where they might have been happy. Sometimes those are human-like scenes – Potter’s cats at the wedding – but just as often you see eagles about to soar and cats curled up, dreaming on cushions. They’ve placed them in their happiest moments. I don’t think that would be done by someone who had a morbid fascination with death.
Instead I think Mike and his friends wish that the animals could live forever. And if they can’t, then at least some image of them can, the way the scent of disposed flowers lingers in a room long after the blooms are gone. Taxidermists don’t rip the dead apart. They put life back. They are so tender with their creations. They cradle them like infants.
The spectators who show up in Brooklyn are more creative with their derisive comments than anyone on the websites. They all make Norman Bates jokes.
And the taxidermists – they know that. There’s even a Norman Bates prize for Excellence in Taxidermy. Melissa Dixon, this year’s winner, says that she once gave a speech where she was asked to comment on Bates. She had no idea what to say.
She wouldn’t. These taxidermists are all too gentle to form snappy retorts about Alfred Hitchcock movies. When they were kids, they were all told that one day mean bullies would work for them. They probably smiled a little sadly, politely, knowing in some deep part of themselves that they would never run the Fortune 500 companies adults wanted to promise. Instead they would all retreat to a delicate world where everything could live forever. They touch their animal creations with the tips of their fingers. At first it seems the way you would pet a dog or cat. But there’s something about the tapping motion, hands half cupped, and suddenly you realize that it’s like watching a child with a beloved teddy bear.
Melissa Milgrom remarks that when she first visited the home of a local taxidermist she expected him to be “a creepy animal killer. But he wasn’t. He was just this really gentle naturalist. I felt as if I had fallen into Darwin’s study with all the skeletons and birds, the beauty and the strange tools. He was in his mid-80’s and, like a boy, his eyes were always following the birds and the squirrels.”
One of Melissa’s Dixon’s pieces shows two foxes wrestling. One’s body is half raised and looks almost as though he’s smiling, his mouth eternally frozen in a toothy grin, nuzzling the other fox. The second fox has its paw raised, half pressing against the other’s chest, the way you would if you were in bed with your lover in some sort of post-coital conversation. There’s a quote from Dante that says hell is proximity to one’s beloved without intimacy. Intimacy – those foxes have it. It’s the humans you have to worry about.
Take Big Ange’s work. No, first take Big Ange herself. Big Ange is a six foot tall red-headed huntress. Watching her is like seeing someone step from the pages of Greek mythology. She’s an Amazon. She’s Diana. She can’t figure out why she’s not in a relationship. She remarks, “I think a lot of people come over to my house and they like me, because I’m a really friendly person and then they see my oddities and they’re shocked. But then they get it. And they think, ‘Oh, Big Ange, she’s an eccentric. This is part of what makes her interesting.’ But it’s bizarre, because if you tell anybody you first meet, they don’t get it. For me, it’s a first date topic, but maybe that’s why I don’t get a third date.”
It might also be the fact that she is carrying a stuffed baby deer, whose hoofs have been turned into candlesticks. They light up, and cast a lovely glow. She calls it Bambi. It’s cute. I wonder how it looks perched like candelabra on the table where she’s serving a romantic dinner.
But that’s nothing compared to Nick Ratner, who has 54 separate animals in his tiny Manhattan apartment. Nick Ratner has trouble getting a second date. “I started my collection 12 years ago – it was actually due to a relationship that I had. I had 2 pieces. I had a girlfriend who didn’t like them, so I got rid of them. Then I got rid of the girlfriend. Then I found one of the pieces again, and it just went nuts from there. [Seeing my apartment] is a bit of an acid test. It’s not morbid. I think if Morticia Adams walked in, she’d say, ‘I love what you did with the place.’ I am always waiting for Morticia Adams.”
How does he explain the collection to women who walk into his apartment? Does he pretend that the animals are not there? I do massive puzzles – 5000 piece epics – and whenever someone comes over I’d whisk a tablecloth over the work in progress. I was always afraid. How do you throw a tablecloth over a dead menagerie?
Would a bear be enough to impress Morticia? Would she be satisfied to sit with an eternally silent stuffed raven on her shoulder? Come on, Morticia would want an imp with the feet of a monkey. That’s why the most exciting works are by the rogue taxidermists. Instead of the standard grizzly bears and deer, they create mystical animals. Because sure, it’s exciting (horrifying) when you see ten eagles looking as though they were alive on your beloved’s wall, but what about when you see a griffin? MAGIC.
It’s the oddest creations that people love the most. Today – the turtle with the head of the snake. Yesterday – the mice in elaborate costumes. These seem to straddle the line between what is, and what might be. Perhaps there is a world where these creatures are possible, and in that world, taxidermists are understood perfectly.
But best of all, the people love Takeshi Yamada. Because Takeshi doesn’t recreate forest creatures. He doesn’t dress mice up as gentlemen playing poker. He doesn’t even make unicorns. He has published eleven books and shown at over 500 exhibitions. Takeshi is one of the very few who makes babies.
He shows them with a sign that reads “freaks.” He refers to them as his freak babies. The taxidermists cheer the minute he walks onstage.
His works are exquisitely well made, ugly little things. They are not cute to look at, and they are certainly not natural. They seem snaky, and frightening. Their skins are like a mass of welts. They’re more reptilian than human. Takeshi holds one up. He shows it off like an ancient royal displaying the Dauphin to the masses. Next to me someone whispers, “I think we’re all freak babies.”
“To make them, I dry my skin,” Takeshi clinically explains. “I just peel my skin off. I like to do it in the summer. Then I press it until it is dry. It is slightly less juicy than carpaccio. I use any materials that can be supplied. I use the hair from my lady friend now. She was happy to have her hair used. Otherwise, she just throws it out. When she cut her hair, I asked her, ‘What are you going to do with it?’ And she said, ‘I’ll just throw it away.’ So I said ‘May I keep it?’ She likes it. She’s happy about it. They share our DNA.”
I hope Nick finds his Morticia Adams. I hope Big Ange roams the fields, candlesticks in hand, with someone by her side. I want Mike Zohn’s wife to rearrange the fridge to house eggs on one side, dead dogs to the other. We all have a little fridge where our soul’s secrets take up space. We are all baby freaks, and have skeletons with which dancing seems joyous and foolish and unavoidable.
Perhaps, every once in a while we encounter someone in front of whom we lay our freakishness bare. Mostly they run, or they tell you that the hobby they once recommended is no good. They make Norman Bates jokes. But maybe they say, “Here. Have a lock of my hair. It’s yours.”