By Christine ColbyWhat do you think of when you think of taxidermy? A trophy deer head on the wall of a hunting lodge, maybe. How about a taxidermist? Probably a big, bearded guy in a plaid shirt and work boots, with a plug of chewing tobacco stuck in his lip. Meet Sarina Brewer of Custom Creature Taxidermy Arts and cofounder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART), with fellow artists Robert Marbury and Scott Bibus. She’s been challenging traditional notions of taxidermy, art, and femininity since 1997. She defines “rogue taxidermy” as “a genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed-media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy materials that are used in an unconventional manner.” In other words, she uses taxidermy to create kinda freaky and kinda cool art. Her most notorious work features parts from different animals grafted together to create cryptozoological chimeras, such as a cat with wings or a goat with a fish tail—more sophisticated takes on the kitschy jackalope. Or she dyes them unrealistic colors, as with her whimsical green “Franken-Pussy.”
Another thing that sets Brewer apart from the sportsmen type taxidermists is that she uses only animals that were road kill, discarded livestock, destroyed nuisance animals, casualties of the pet trade, or animals that died of natural causes. None were killed for her art, and she uses as much of the remains as possible. Most rogues follow the same guidelines.
The popularly of taxidermy in urban areas is rising. It’s featured in high-priced department-store windows, exclusive Manhattan restaurants, and hipster bars (one in Brooklyn even hosts an annual taxidermy contest). The artists of MART were showcased at a prestigious 2010 gallery show in Los Angeles. The event included a squirrel taxidermy demo, followed by a “gamefeed”—a chili feast made from the squirrel in question. This past summer, Marbury lectured at New York’s Coney Island Museum on taxidermy in fine art. Public interest in the art is only growing, and a glance at the MART website shows there to be many members, including a surprising number of women, all of whom seem to be, like Brewer, very attractive.
How was MART founded?
Scott Bibus, a classically trained taxidermist gone rogue, invited me to an art crawl. Robert Marbury happened to be showing his work in one of the other spaces. Bibus already knew him and wanted to introduce us and show me Marbury’s work. When I walked into the space and saw his creatures made from polystyrene taxidermy armatures and faux fur, I immediately saw a relation between what he did and what I did. I thought the three of us would make a cool, offbeat theme for an exhibition. I approached Marbury and casually suggested a group show. At this point in the evening it was mostly the beer talking—and the flask of vodka in my purse—but he contacted me immediately after the show to pursue the idea. We named the event “Rogue Taxidermy,” and the name stuck. We got amazing press because of Marbury’s efforts, which soon led to our names splashed across the Arts section of The New York Times.
Other artists working with similar materials started to come out of the woodwork, and all were ecstatic to find others working in the same vein. It was clear to us that we needed to form a group where like-minded artists could come together. We came up with the name “The Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists” over drinks at a local tiki bar, but, in actuality, we’re an international guild and have members from all over the world.
There are a lot of women listed on the Rogue Association website. Are women more likely to be rogues than traditionalists?
I receive the majority of my emails from other women artists. They’re excited to have found another woman working with the same materials they do. They identify with my work and understand where it’s coming from. Women have an instinct to nurture—I think the love of animals is an extension of this. Animal parts are not a random medium when used in art—they’re not a neutral medium like clay or steel. They were once living creatures, and the art people create with them is in commemoration of that. I think most women who have a deep love of animals also believe animals have a soul, so there is spiritual meaning on some level when incorporating their remains into art. I think women are drawn to rogue taxidermy for that reason— it’s an avenue to express their love of animals.
What is so shocking about the idea of a woman wrist-deep in animal innards?
I don’t know, but I suspect it may be a variation of the Madonna/whore complex [laughs]. Any artist working with animal materials takes a lot of shit for it from the general public, but women are judged far more harshly than men because it appears to defile our societal role as nurturer.
Do you find anything in common with most taxidermists?
Nothing, other than that we both work with animal materials. The animals mounted by a sportsman taxidermist were killed for fun and sport. No animals are killed for the purpose of creating my art. I recycle animal parts that would otherwise go to waste. Hunting trophies are just that—a trophy, something that pays tribute to a human for killing an animal, and proof of that achievement. My work is the complete opposite. My work is an homage to the animal.
Can you describe your work with museums and other institutions?
I’ve been volunteering my skills in the biology department of the Science Museum of Minnesota for eight years. My duties include cleaning skeletons and preparing study skins. I think most people have seen a study skin in a museum but they didn’t know what it was called; mammals are skinned just like they are for a regular taxidermy mount, but instead of mounting the skin to an animal-shaped armature, the skin is simply filled with cotton and sewn up. The finished specimens lie on their bellies so they can be stored side-by-side in flat file drawers. The birds are mounted flat on their backs, corn-dog style, with a thin wooden dowel up their rump. Since study skins are used only for scientific purposes, they are a no-frills affair and have cotton in the eyeholes. We catalog information on each animal—measurements, date and location where the animal was found, its sex, etc.—then save the data along with the study skin for scientific use by the museum and by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Your early art has a very memorial feel—homages to passed pets, and giving resting places to found carcasses. Do you feel your current work serves the same purpose?
The circle of life has always fascinated me, even as a very young child. My parents told me not to play with dead animals, but I couldn’t leave them to the elements—they all needed a funeral. As early as second grade, I had already devised very specific rituals that I felt were necessary to venerate dead animals. Those old plastic canisters for 35-millimeter film were my coffins of choice for anything that would fit. As I got older, the funerals and burial receptacles got more complex. I started to bury small objects like beads and plastic farm animals along with them. Naturally, a pet required even more accoutrements and an elaborate ceremony. Much of my work in college had a very shrinelike feel to it. I started gold-leafing animal remains, often encasing them in cigar boxes. The method I use to commemorate the animals has evolved since my college years, but my intentions have remained the same; I’m creating something beautiful in their honor … and beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Can you describe what it was like the first time you worked with an animal carcass? Were you afraid or squeamish?
I had a huge knot in my stomach and a quivering hand when the scalpel hit the skin of my first dead squirrel. It was so long ago now that it’s hard to remember working through those initial stages, but I do remember it took several months to overcome. Skinning an animal actually isn’t as gross as people think. If you do it correctly, you never see any entrails or blood. Taxidermy is basically just peeling off the skin. After you remove the skin, you’re left with a carcass that doesn’t look much different than what you would see hanging in a butcher shop—just a skeleton with all the meat still covering it. However, my esodermy sculptures do necessitate removing the entrails, and I still find that exceedingly unpleasant. Fortunately that’s the only aspect of my work that I don’t care for. My gross-out meter has become somewhat desensitized over the years. About the only things that turn my stomach anymore are bad eye boogers.
How is esodermy different from taxidermy?
When you create a modern taxidermy mount, the skeleton of the animal is generally not used. You remove the skin and the carcass is discarded. After the skin has been tanned, it’s positioned over a rigid armature that replicates the animal’s body. The skin is then teased into place before it’s sewn together around the armature. The literal translation of the word “taxidermy” accurately describes the process: “taxi” means to move, “dermy” refers to the dermis, or the layer of the skin. So taxidermy means “to move skin”—this describes exactly what you’re doing.
Correct terminology for the finished product is a “mount,” because the skin is mounted over the armature, not stuffed as some people think. The term “stuffed animal” is a misnomer. Esodermy is anti-taxidermy; it utilizes the animal components not used in standard taxidermy, yet presents them in lifelike poses that mimic taxidermy. Apart from the somewhat obvious play on words—“eso” referring to “esoteric”—I created the word “esodermy” because it mirrors the way the word “taxidermy” translates—“eso” means within and “dermy” refers to the dermis. The literal translation of esodermy is “within skin.”
After I’ve taken the skin off an animal for a taxidermy mount, I’m left with the carcass. I think the intentional wasting of animal materials is unethical, so I recycle as much as possible and adhere to a strict “waste-not, want-not” policy in my studio.
I’ve always been fascinated with internal anatomy for its intricacy and beauty, and greatly admire the work of French anatomist Honoré Fragonard, who preserved and displayed skinned human cadavers in lifelike poses. Like him, I believe all organisms are an engineering marvel. I think animals are just
as wondrous and awe-inspiring on the inside as they are on the outside. Many people think my esodermy pieces are for shock value, but in actuality that couldn’t be further from the truth. I create them to showcase the underappreciated beauty within, and as a form of complete recycling.
Can you explain what a sideshow gaff is?
Fooling the public with make-believe oddities of nature is a long-standing sideshow tradition. A sideshow gaff is a display that isn’t real, such as P. T. Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid [a part-mammal, part-fish creation, passed off as an authentic mermaid], or a two-headed goat that has been faked. I get a fair number of commis sions for sideshow gaffs. Some are bought by art collectors, but those that I’ve sold to actual sideshow operators are exhibited and presented to the public by their owners as the real McCoy.
Ever gotten a date or laid because the person was interested in or aroused by what you do?
I’d say my profession earns me bonus points rather than demerits with the male company I keep, but I don’t discuss what I do for a living with strangers in casual social situations. I’m not going to waste my time trying to explain my philosophy and what I do to some knuckle-dragger I’m never going to see again. I’m not sure if anyone has ever tried to score with me because they dug my art, but on the flip side I’ve screwed guys for their offbeat professions: A funeral-home gig and three Cosmos (okay, five) got a certain someone to home plate at a party. Squirrel blood under my fingernails didn’t seem to have any impact on the quality of his erection.
You are an uncommonly attractive woman. For some reason, one doesn’t expect that of a taxidermist. Any idea why not? How have your looks helped or hindered you in your art?
There is a stereotypical physical appearance for every job. When people hear the word “taxidermist,” they’re picturing that guy. When they see me instead, it throws them for a loop. Whenever you’re the polar opposite of your assigned stereotype, people take notice because of the novelty appeal. Does it help biz being a hot redhead instead of that dude in the woods? Of course.
Do you get creepy fan letters?
Fuck, yes. I’ll start saving them for you guys.
Can you disclose any celebrity clients?
I can’t name names, but they all wear a lot of black.
How was the recent rogue-taxidermy exhibit at the alterna-cool La Luz de Jesus gallery in Los Angeles?
The gallery said the opening was one of the most packed they’d ever had, and it got the most press of any show. That was our first event that made local TV news. Half the pieces in the show sold, including two of mine. Each opening we do gets more and more attention. The one at La Luz was validation that rogue taxidermy is an actual art form and is now being recognized by the mainstream art world. Creating a new genre, in music, fashion, or art, is an exciting thing that doesn’t happen very often.
What response does your jewelry get?
I do get the occasional negative response from people who think wearing animal parts as ornamentation is disrespectful. It’s always the same old boring bandwagon rhetoric. I have to wonder if they get bent out of shape when they see someone wearing leather shoes. Using an animal’s remains to create a sentimental remembrance is a hell of a lot more respectful than shitting out a hamburger.
Would these people also impose their Anglo-Christian death rites on other cultures and decide how they should honor the loss of a loved one? Some religions consider burying or burning a body sacrilege. Some cultures preserve the remains of their relatives and house them where the family eats and sleeps. For people who think only “savages” would practice such things, I tell them about the mummified remains of saints on display in Catholic churches all over Europe, or about the Victorian practice of creating mourning jewelry—jewelry that incorporated the hair and teeth of the deceased and was worn by family members.
The point of all this is that reverence is relative; how a person shows respect varies from culture to culture and person to person. Reverence and respect are about intention. Nature and animals have played key roles in my life since I was a child. Pets were considered part of the family, and still are in my adult life. In keeping with the tradition of Victorian mourning jewelry, I have kept remains from several of my pets to create remembrances and shrines. My artwork and jewelry is merely an extension of this form of veneration; it’s an homage to the animal I use.
The desirable lifelike quality of mounts—the ineffable spark of life—is called “jizz,” particularly for birds. Since this is for Penthouse, can you help me come up with a “jizz” joke?
Can’t help you there, but try asking a taxidermist—I hear they’ll mount anything (be-dump-bump).