In the mid-2000’s I taught myself the basics of small bird and mammal taxidermy. I had been exploring the website of Polly Morgan around that time and had been thinking of trying my hand at the skill. Upon discovering a very freshly deceased duck on a lawn while walking home from a graveyard shift baking job as the sun rose, I thought, well, now is as good a time as any.
My taxidermy tools, a DIY pigeon body form,
preparing the pigeon, and sewing the form into the pigeon.
In addition to online research, I had a copy of The Complete Guide to Upland Bird Taxidermy. The duck went in the deep freeze and I never got around to him, but once friends found out I was interested in the practice, everyone had some beloved deceased pet in their freezer to donate.
I was walking miles a day after the graveyard shift and keeping my eyes open, and by and by, I found a perfectly intact pigeon. She was incorporated into my installation piece for the Free Sheep Foundation (see above). This included an enormous quilt of a dissected pigeon, complete with red velvet heart, with a mid-section that could be delicately snapped shut to form a lovely breast.
I titled the piece after Luke 9:58. I was feeling particularly insecure in my living conditions, as they had been frequently transient and I was in an unstable and abusive relationship, and so that passage spoke to me.
For Christmas of the same year, with careful study, I prepared some pigeon and parakeet wings and feet, as well as some other natural specimens such as crab leg parts, blown-out eggs, stamps, plant specimens, tiny paintings, and the like. I made these into painted Wunderkammer for close friends and family.
(Chopin, Nocturne n.1 op.27 in c-sharp)
It was mostly birds and the occasional small mammal I was working with. Dissection is one thing; taxidermy is another. Both have their challenges. There is a certain clinical distance that is necessary to do this type of work. I don’t know what it is to practice vivisection, or surgery on a living animal or human, but I have witnessed autopsies. Maybe I have a sensitive disposition, but my brief experience in a morgue had a great effect on me. It isn’t a problem with blood or gore, and as far as the living, I am reasonably certain I could tie a tourniquet or deliver a baby in an emergency. But I have a hard time manifesting the necessary distance required to do the job in the stillness and quiet on a dead body, and find myself rapidly oscillating between imagining the previous life of the parts I am handling and their strange inseparable yet somehow separated nature from the person who animated them. My morgue experience was recalled, albeit in a less extreme way, when it came to the taxidermy of these creatures.
In dissection and autopsy, one can distance themselves in certain ways: it is an exploration of inner anatomy, a cold scientific exercise in locations and labels once initial incisions are made. With taxidermy, it isn’t the inside of the individual parts or main core that is explored, where disassociation from the greater whole might come more easily. Instead, it is every inch of the skin explored as it is peeled away. Bones are broken apart, almost every part of the skin is cut away from the body delicately, often the brain is cleaned out of the skull, and every fiber that attaches skin to muscle has to be delicately severed and the skin peeled away painstakingly. This includes the face, the eyelids, the beak or lips. The point is that there is a difference in intimacy when it comes to a dissection and a taxidermy, and that is where the soundtrack comes in.
(Maria Callas, Norma: Casta Diva)
In order to create the necessary feeling of distance, I found classical music to be helpful, especially Chopin. This was good for the preparatory phase. Music with lyrics seemed obscene when I was making initial incisions. Once I had passed the initial difficult phase of opening up the animal and needed to focus and concentrate on individual parts, sweet music like Maria Callas or Joanna Newsom helped me to maintain a gentle feeling toward the work instead of any sort of revulsion. Aggressive music would have been totally inappropriate.
(As an aside: I was recently informed that an old roommate- one completely un-involved in my practice, and whom I haven’t spoken to in years- is writing on social media about my specific experiences of taxidermy in general, as well as the emotional effect of the practice and a desire for a certain soundtrack in particular, as being their own skill, practice, and experience. This is strange, but after all, it is a pretty good story.)
Two goat heads, who I received from a friend of a chef. The goats were slaughtered at a farm outside of Seattle for sale to local restaurants, and he retained the heads. Unfortunately, I went on tour before I could taxidermy the heads, which would have been great specimens.
Self-taught taxidermy was an interesting experience, but ultimately, dead animal parts aren’t my medium. With a delicate constitution, the lengths I have to go to in order to facilitate what was essentially disassociation don’t seem healthy. Furthermore, the modern Wunderkammer and more “whimsical” pieces skirt the line of taste when it comes to working with taxidermied creatures, and I definitely find “rogue taxidermy” projects outside the context of actual Victoriana to be totally repulsive. Good work can be done in the medium and people like Morgan manage it, but once it was time to leave on tour, I was glad to give up my kit.
“Polly Morgan.” Polly Morgan, pollymorgan.co.uk/. Accessed 15 Aug. 2017.
Citing this page (as all photographs and information are, indeed, my own):
Solomon, Alana. “Things That Seem Incredible.” Ortolana Studio. Ortolana Studio, 13 August 2017.