skin & bones

a conversation with taxidermist Becca Barnet

by by Gillian Brassil

illustration by by Gillian Brassil

Becca Barnet is an artist, museum exhibit maker, and taxidermist currently based in Charleston. The Independent spoke to her on the phone this week while watching two rats play with each other in a Chinatown park.

The Independent: How did you first get into taxidermy?

Becca Barnet: I went to RISD from 2005 to 2009—I have a BFA in illustration. In illustration, you can kind of make your own curriculum in a way; you can choose what avenues you want to go down and what subject material you want to do. I basically started collecting images and video and drawings and things that excited me, and then my goal was to try to figure out why those things excited me, like what about those things really pushed my buttons. One of the things was taxidermy.

Indy: What were some of the other things that interested you at the time?

BB: I was looking at medical illustrations a lot. I love the fact that people in the 1500s only had these corpses for a few days before they rotted, and they were trying to quickly describe them through drawings and then make an etching that would be really laborious and take forever and ever. I was looking at anatomical wax studies; I was looking at historic preservation: people preserving houses, people fixing things and keeping things from basically biodegrading. X-rays. Photographs. Tintypes and spirit photography—you know, photos of things that didn’t ever really exist, but they kind of forced it to exist. I like that a lot too.

Indy: At what point did you decide you actually wanted to work with animal materials?

BB: Taxidermy had always kind of
fascinated me and I was always really interested in it, and then as a junior, I took a class with 3D puppet-making. I made some little puppets with feathers, and I thought to myself, “How amazing would it be to be able to make more puppets and use animal skins as another medium?”

During the Wintersession of my senior year, I ended up going to the Missouri Taxidermy Institute, where I lived for a month in an RV park by myself. Every day, I walked over to the taxidermy school and spent 14-hour days with about 20 people, mostly off-duty construction workers and wives of husbands that already knew how to do taxidermy. It was very bizarre. I was definitely the only 20-something-year-old in the class. Everybody else was going to go and be a taxidermist on the side; they were going to mount their buddies’ deer, that kind of thing. And I was the only one there that wanted to do it for art, so it was a really interesting experience. Totally life-changing, totally worth it.

Indy: Could you walk me through the basic process of taxidermy?

BB: So, the modern way of taxidermy involves using polyurethane forms. They’re foam. Kind of like insulation foam that you would see on a house—not the pink stuff, but the hard, yellow kind. Companies that make forms will skin out an animal and put them in a really nice position, and then they’ll freeze the muscles of the animal. They’ll make a mold of it, cast it in foam, and sell it as a taxidermy form.

The first thing you do when you have a dead animal is measure all the aspects of your animal—how wide it is from nose to tail, eye to eye, eye to nose, and overall length—and then you order your form. You can choose from a variety of positions: looking left, looking right, looking up, snarling, head down. Your form usually comes a little bit wrong, because the measurements are hard to get on a dead animal. So you have to reshape it a little bit, but it generally looks like the animal.

Then you take your dead animal and remove all the skin and throw away the carcass. On the inside of the skin, there’s all this fat and blood and gross stuff that isn’t skin; it’s basically left over from the muscle. So you have to scrape all of that away with a knife, trying to get it down to just some skin with hair on the other side. I’ve been told that really good taxidermists can get it to be paper-thin without cutting holes in it—you want it as thin as possible, because it dries better and it looks better on your mount.

Once you’ve removed all the fat and muscle from the skin, you have two options. You can send it to a tannery to get a dry tan, or you can do a wet tan: you put your skin in chemicals, and then you have to stir it every 30 minutes for 48 hours. When that skin comes out, it’s tanned, but it’s wet and really stretchy. It’s a little bit cheaper and more low-maintenance than sending it off to a tannery; when you get it back from the tannery, it’s dry, and it looks like a purse. You could wear it as a vest if you wanted to. So you have to rehydrate it by soaking it in water, and then you put it in the freezer overnight to get rid of any mold.

Now the skin is supple and stretchy, so you start to measure it over your forms: you put it over your form; you see if it fits. You have to take it off about a million times and put it back on a million times. Once you’ve stretched the skin into place, you set the eyes, nose, and mouth, and tuck the lips inside of the form. Before your final fitting, you put down the rub, almost like a water-paper paste, and then you just put on the skin, pin it, and sew it up.

There’s a three or four week waiting period to let it dry completely; you always want to keep a bag over the head of whatever you’re doing, because if the face dries too quickly, it’ll stretch. Then you do your detail work, which is my favorite. Sometimes you have to sculpt a brand-new nose on your animal, because the noses will dry really weird, so you’ll let them dry, cut them off, and then sculpt a brand-new nose. I love sculpting nictating membranes, which are right in the corner of your eye. You might want to richen up your animal’s fur with an airbrush, and then you hit them with a blowdryer and send them to wherever they need to go.

Indy: How do you deal with something like a turkey wattle? I understand how deer skin could be cured and treated so that it doesn’t decay, but what about softer, weirder tissues?

BB: There’s a couple ways to go about it. One way is to get a false head from a catalogue, which is actually molded from a real, freshly dead turkey; they’re cast in a nice rubbery plastic and then painted to look realistic. The other thing you can do is freeze-drying, which is a process that takes out all the moisture in the animal that you’re working with. You can’t really do anything bigger than a turkey head or a small squirrel or a rabbit, because you still have all the meat inside: even if you left it in the freeze-dryer for a month, you still have those guts in there and you still have some moisture. So people do freeze-dry turkey heads and then place them onto their mounted turkeys and then paint it so you can’t really tell, but the eyes would be fake too.

Turkey feet, however, are real. Bird feet in taxidermy are usually real. You can inject them with this liquid that kind of hardens and keeps them looking plump, and then you paint them the right color. As animals die, their colors change drastically—so, for example, mallard feet are usually bright orange, and they’ll be brown by the time you finish doing your taxidermy piece; you have to paint them orange again.

Indy: What are the easiest kinds of taxidermy projects?

BB: The first thing we did in the school was skin out birds. Birds are very forgiving, because they have so many feathers on them: if you lose some feathers, it’s not a big deal. The other thing about birds is they’re kind of like lumps. You know, they’re kind of circular, and they don’t have a lot of muscle definition. I think the hardest part about taxidermy is just getting the eyes to look right and getting the muscle definition to look correct, because on a short-haired animal it’s very obvious. So the birds are easy, because they’re fluffy, and you can fluff them back up.

That being said, a very small, delicate bird is extremely hard to do, because the skin is really easily torn, and it’s hard to get your hands in there; it’s hard to handle them without kind of ripping the skin. That’s the worst part—breaking bones is not a big deal. Small, delicate things are very difficult to do, which is a lot of times why people just freeze-dry anything smaller than a squirrel.

Indy: You said that using forms was the modern way of doing taxidermy—what was different about older methods?

BB: So, the inside of taxidermied animals today is all foam. What they used to do is take wire, form a body shape, wrap it with string, and then literally stuff the animal. The other thing they used to do was actually take the bones and rearticulate the skeleton and then use clay to form all the muscles right on top of the skeleton; they’d make a mold of that and do a plaster cast, so you’d basically get a sculpted version of your dead animal. So the bones aren’t inside the final product, but they were used to create the shape of the animal that the skin is stretched over. That’s actually how most of the animals in the Museum of Natural History in New York were done.

Indy: Is that method considered better but just too time-consuming, in the same way that people are really into vinyl over CDs or MP3s? Or is the modern way of doing taxidermy generally considered to produce similar results?

BB: The old method is very time-consuming, and you probably end up spending a lot more money. Modern taxidermy is completely accepted in the World Taxidermy Championship and in museums, and I kind of think it’s like the MP3 thing you’re talking about: it’s a welcomed and exciting new form of technology, which I don’t think is shunned in any way. And actually, I don’t know of anyone who does it the old way anymore. I mean, unless that was kind of part of your process and you wanted to do it, but most people just buy forms.

Indy: Do you identify as a taxidermist—and if so, do you feel connected to other taxidermists? How much of a community is there?

BB: There’s actually a huge community. Right now I’m doing fabrication of exhibits for animals, so I’m not doing a lot of taxidermy at the moment, but I guess I identify with taxidermists because I worked at taxidermy shops and I love, love, love those guys. You know, their passion is incredible, and they love to recreate nature, and it’s just amazing. I think there’s a lot of people that do it because they know they can make money and they do it quick, but I’m really a fan of the ones that are like, “I want to reproduce this animal’s majesty in full-blown force.” I think that’s really awesome.

Indy: Does taxidermy feel like art to you in the same way that making a puppet or doing an illustration does?

BB: Yes. Absolutely. I think taxidermy’s a huge art form. If you can do it well, you’re just a master sculptor. It’s almost like a whole different ball game, because when you do a sculpture that’s from your brain, like an abstract sculpture or even a created animal, you’re asking people to believe in what you’re doing to a certain extent, because it’s coming from your brain. You’re saying, “This is my sculpture, but it came from my brain, so anything is correct.” But with taxidermy, if you’re wrong, everybody knows.

Indy: How do you feel about the stigma associated with taxidermy? What do you think of people finding it creepy?

BB: My whole thing when I got back from taxidermy school was: “I need to make art that challenges what people think is appropriate.” So one thing I did when I got back was sculpt these human teeth that were really, really screwed up—we’re talking malformation of the teeth and gums. I mounted them on different plaques, and I hung them on the wall. I wanted to kind of challenge people: what is acceptable to put on your wall? Why wouldn’t it be acceptable to have human parts on your wall? Like, what’s up with that?

So I think there is a stigma; I think there are a lot of people that think taxidermy is just the weirdest thing. But I like the idea of placing things that are real with things that are not real, and I like the idea of presenting things as: “Is this acceptable?” I’m really drawn to that part of it, but I definitely think that there are people that just don’t understand it, and they never will. And that’s fine—I mean, I think that’s what makes it special, and that’s what kind of makes it a niche for people to get into. Or for people not to get into.

When I was spending a lot of time thinking about what I loved and why I loved it, I figured out that I love when humans go to all these crazy lengths to try to preserve things. Carving something in stone takes forever: why do we have the desire to do it? Why do we take photos? Why do we need to record stories? Why do we need to do an oil painting of someone’s face? And what is lost in our interpretation of things, or what is gained in our interpretation of things?

What I really love about taxidermy is that you’re capturing this moment that never existed. It’s just the artist’s interpretation. But I also like how final it is; I like how definite it needs to be. That part really excites me. So to go back to your original question: it all started with puppets, combined with a desire to figure out why people need to hang onto things that nature is just trying to take.