Ah, where to start? Maybe (given the bloody fish head in the goblet) by noting that rogue taxidermists are fervent animal lovers. “As humans, we so rarely get to interact with animals on such an intimate level unless they’re dead,” said artist Scott Bibus. “You have to come to the work with a huge amount of respect.”
Or maybe (given the winged monkey wielding a martini glass) by noting that whimsy and reverence can coexist. Sarina Brewer took comfort as a child in the concept of reincarnation, “knowing the animals weren’t really entirely gone — they would live on in another form.”
Or maybe (given that there’s a new book, “Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture and How to Do It Yourself”) by noting that the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, or MART, has international cred.
“Yes. Oh, yes,” said Robert Marbury, with an edge of glee in his voice. “Everyone doing this around the world wants to be in the Minnesota chapter. That’s why it’s still the only chapter.”
Perhaps best now to explain rogue taxidermy.
Formally, it is “a genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy related materials used in an unconventional manner.” Thus, bionic fawns and bedazzled rabbits. Chicks suspended from tiny balloons. Ferrets detailed with gold leaf.
Marbury, the author of “Taxidermy Art” (Artisan, $18.95), is a founder with Brewer and Bibus of MART. Ten years ago, the trio’s artistic orbits intersected in the warehouses of northeast Minneapolis.
“We were doing very, very, very different things, but in the mind-set of animal art,” said Marbury, speaking from Baltimore, where he now lives. MART was formed with a code of ethics, its chief tenet being that no animal may be killed for the purposes of making art.
Which, yes, relegates them to roadkill, hunters’ donations, the odd bird-hits-window find, and so on.
Brewer, of Minneapolis (www.sarina-brewer.com) has gotten deceased hens and ferrets from neighbors, some of whom she’s never met. “Apparently my name came up at National Night Out,” she said. “It’s extremely meaningful to me when I receive an animal that was someone’s pet. They trust me to create a fitting tribute for a creature they cared deeply about.”
Greeks called it moving skin
Marbury’s work (www.robertmarbury.com) is on another spectrum, inspired by the plush animals he saw lashed to grilles of delivery trucks when he lived in New York City. (The New York Times once explored the trend, calling it “bumper fauna.” The truckers’ motivations were wide-ranging, inconclusive and pretty weird.)
At any rate, Marbury began creating fantastical creatures from the plush “pelts,” shaping them over traditional taxidermy forms. “Having the urban beasts in the mix allowed us to signal that we were not traditional taxidermy,” he said.
When the trio put together their first show in Minneapolis in 2004, the exhibition ended up on the cover of the New York Times’ Arts section. Artists’ reactions from around the world were so overwhelming, “it felt like we spent the first five years playing catch-up,” Marbury said.
The book delves into the centuries of history around taxidermy, from Pliny the Elder to Phineas T. Barnum to Alfred Hitchcock. (The word taxidermy is from the ancient Greek taxi, meaning to arrange, and dermis, or skin.)
“Taxidermy originated as a thing you did at home,” Marbury said. It was part of “a weird culture in America that developed with the closing of the frontier” in the late 1800s, after millions of families settled in. A nostalgia for frontier skills led to a youth program called the League of Woodcraft Indians, which grew into the Boy Scouts of America. “It was a return to the earth, teaching skills like brain tanning.”
(If you’re so inclined, the book includes instructions for using an animal’s brains, rich with oils, to “tan” a hide into suppleness. Marbury also includes DIY directions for other skills such as skinning a squirrel, degreasing a raven’s skin and whitening a skull.)
Making the dead look alive. Or not.
Bibus actually attended a taxidermy school, Pine Technical College in Pine City, Minn., but he always leaned toward more morbid images than, say, a lunker walleye.
“Working with dead animals got me to thinking how taxidermy is meant to make dead animals look alive,” he said. “But what if dead animals looked dead? It was a light-bulb moment, and so right for me.”
While taking the skill in a different direction, the professional training helped.
Taxidermy “is really difficult to do well,” Bibus said, requiring expertise in sculpting, painting and anatomy. “It’s a real Renaissance man’s craft. Patience is crucial.”
Bibus (www.deadanimalart.com) said he doesn’t make art with the intention of selling it. He supports himself with a day job making animated props for haunted houses.
Brewer, however, has a thriving community of collectors, with some of her pieces selling for thousands of dollars.
She said she learned anatomy as a child by nursing injured or orphaned animals back to health, and orchestrating elaborate funerals for those who couldn’t be saved.
“When we moved to a new house, we moved the pet graveyard with us,” she said. “When that would happen, inevitably we were just digging up their bones. … I secretly saved some bones and began incorporating them into little shrines in my bedroom.”
Eventually, she learned that “I could pick up a dead animal and make it look alive again. Sculptors often say a lump of clay ‘speaks’ to them when they touch it. It’s the same with me, only my medium was once alive, so it speaks even louder.”
Inevitably, some people are offended by some rogue taxidermists’ works. Flipping idly through Marbury’s book isn’t for the unprepared. That’s one reason that he’s only too willing to engage with animal rights’ activists who object to some works.
“I want to expand the conversation to, ‘How do I relate to this dead animal?,’ thinking about animal ethics in a different way.”
That being said, rogue taxidermy isn’t mainstream.
“We, the general public, tend to like the average. We tend to like things that everyone is going to react to and engage with in the same way. This is not that.”
Some of the reaction may be linked to how we feel about death, he said.
“When something close to you dies, we all have different instincts as to what to do,” he said. “Should it be buried, burned, picked at by birds, put on a boat and set ablaze, be pickled and lie in state?
“We work with remains of animals that are no longer living,” he said. “When something is dead, it doesn’t have any pain associated with it.”
Or, as Brewer said: “For me, death doesn’t stop an animal from being beautiful.”