Meet the Nieratkos

Nicola Jayne Hebson: Vegan Taxidermist Extraordinaire

By Chris Nieratko

As a young lady in the countryside of Blackburn, England, Nicola Jayne Hebson gravitated more toward the carcasses of dead animals than Barbie dolls. Later in life, while attending art school for painting, she’d walk the fields of Lancashire, saddened by all the furry little fellows lying still and cold, wasting away. One day she decided to pick up one of the critters she’d found and breathe new life into it through some home-schooled taxidermy. Years later the 23-year-old spends her days creating some of the most beautiful (and funny) taxidermy the world has seen since the late, great Walter Potter. I’m sure her fellow vegans are all quite proud of her. Well, you'd hope so.

VICE: How did you get into taxidermy in the first place?
Nicola:
I've always collected bones, animal remains, feathers, and shells. One time I found two squashed frogs stuck together and I thought to myself, aww, it's a mother and child, and I peeled it off the ground, took it home, and framed it. Turned out they were actually having sex! Good way to go. Naturally, all this kind of behaviour led to teaching myself how to do taxidermy. I started seeing dead stuff everywhere – in England in the country lanes you see it all the time. I thought it was such a shame that the beautiful feathers and fur would just be left to rot at the roadside. Have you ever seen magpie feathers up close? They have a beautiful green and blue sheen that glows in the light. I’m basically just recycling. I always carry plastic bags and a little knife with me everywhere I go in case I stumble upon something interesting.

I found a dead squirrel in India with a beautiful tail, so I cut off the tail and brought it home wrapped in newspaper, salt, and incense sticks. There are no better materials than those from nature. But I mainly find my animals on the roadside, victims of road traffic accidents. People ring me up all the time and say, “Hey, I’ve seen a badger on the A59.” One time a man from my local pet shop brought me a ten-foot Burmese python named Jake. He died of old age! It took me two hours to get him in the freezer; I had to coil him round like a giant black pudding. Someone found me a road kill owl a while back, and when I cut him open there was a little vole inside its belly, so I taxidermied that as well. It was so trippy.

Do people ever ring your bell and run off leaving dead animals at your door?
Most people I know are too freaked out to pick up dead stuff, so I usually get calls and emails saying where they have spotted dead things. I often get funny things in the mail: dead hares, pheasant parts, and one time an old man I do not know called me up to say his cat “malts” its whole coat every year like one giant dreadlock, and could he send it to me. I gave him my address, wondering what the hell this thing was going to look like. It arrived and it was like, a big gray matted dreadlocked mass of cat, in the shape of a cat. It would make a great wig.

Since you were self-taught what kind of mistakes did you make early on? Any accidental severing of limbs?
In the beginning I made a lot of mistakes. In my head it was like I was the first person to ever do taxidermy because I was not taught and didn’t know any other taxidermists. I once stuffed a fox named Mr. Todd, dressed in a lovely gray waistcoat with glasses and a walking stick. I didm't clean out the flesh from his toes properly and he got infested with maggots. I didn’t mind too much, they where only finishing off the job! Some of the resident flies in my shed grew old and tired after buzzing around Mr. Todd and eventually died, so I put them inside resin jewelry. I recycle everything!

Are there many female taxidermists?
Since I’ve been involved in this art and joined the guild of taxidermists, I’ve come to realise there are actually quite a few. It’s strange; taxidermy is mostly popular with young women and men over 50. My friends think it’s fascinating. I sent my friend Sonia a taxidermy mouse in the mail, but her cat ate it.

What’s your philosophy about being a vegetarian who stuffs animals?
I’m a vegan. Although that has not always been the case – I changed my eating habits around the same time I started practicing taxidermy. I would never kill or harm another animal for the purpose of my art. My only intentions are to preserve the beauty of animals that would otherwise be discarded and labeled as waste.

How do other vegetarians react when they find out you put your hands inside bunnies for a living?
People either get my work or they don’t, simple as that. I think society at large has a schizophrenic and often hypocritical relationship with our fellow creatures here on earth; I often reference these issues in my work. I think if my work creates debate, if it stimulates critical thought, and questions the so-called “norms” of society, then I can only see that as being a good thing.

When you’re alone with the animals, do they ever speak to you?
Every sentient being has an energy or an aura; this has been proved by science, but known by mystics since the beginning of time. Do fragments of the aura linger on beyond death in what remains of the animal? I like to think so, if only in fleeting glimpses of cognition. For me every animal that comes to me has its own individual character and personality and I certainly pick up on that. For me that's natural and it’s part of the anthropomorphic nature of my work. I do think I have a sort of telepathic connection with my favorite white rabbit in a dress with bright red glowing eyes. I can’t really explain it. He’s like my guardian angel. When I’m sad sometimes I look at him and I just burst out laughing. He has that effect on me.

What do you say back?
I say, “Oh, you’re such a joker.”

Do you ever get freaked out by all the dead stuff?
I find it hard to feel disturbed. Things like wars disturb me, but not nature, nature is beautiful in life and death, birth and decay. I come from a semi-rural town on the edge of the Ribble Valley in northwest England, with nature in abundance. I always felt connected with nature, but I was by all accounts an unconventional child. I used to try and dig up dead pets my neighbors had buried… stuff like that. So in many ways this is just a natural progression.

Ever make hand puppets from real animals?
No. Good idea!

Would you consider making a pair for my two sons? If so what would that cost?
Absolutely! I could easily do that. I often get asked about times and costs, but I have to emphasize that my work is the antithesis of a Chinese sweatshop scenario. Every piece is individually made and totally unique.I have a studio in an old abandoned factory and there is only me there, doing everything by hand. In that way my work harks back to another time.Also because the taxidermy process can be so variable I can only price things retrospectively, in terms of how much time it actually took.

How long does each piece take to make, roughly?
Again, it's variable. Birds take the least amount of time. It would take a few days if I worked quickly.

I ask that mainly because you sell your items so cheap. Why? I’d think your time would be worth more, and, honestly, something so unique should be valued higher.
You say cheap, but my rat purse is on Etsy for £545 ($860). I've had loads of people saying they want it, but that they can't afford it. It's not going to get any cheaper though, it's only going to go up in price. It's an art piece, as well as being a usable purse. 

A friend of mine is a great outdoorsman – if it breathes, he hunts it. He goes on safaris with Ted Nugent and has quite a collection of taxidermy, but it’s all in very boring and uninteresting positions. Why don’t more taxidermists have fun with it and get creative like you?
The culture of trophy taxidermy is a totally different thing to my art. Traditional taxidermy is all about skill and creating the most lifelike mount – I see it as a creative outlet for men with OCD. They create a perfect immaculate mount that is ultra lifelike and then go to taxidermy conventions and show off to other men and talk about the geometric patterns of bird feathers for three hours. For me, it’s not about that. I come from a fine art background – my main craft is painting – taxidermy is just an extension of my art, another medium to explore. I’m sort of like Beatrix Potter, only slightly more macabre and surreal.

What do traditional taxidermists think of your work? Are you embraced or hated on?
I went to some of the UK guild of taxidermists seminars and they were the nicest people! They knew what my taxidermy was like and even though it is unconventional they accepted me as part of the group.They were so helpful and gave me loads of hints and tips. I’m sometimes the only girl in the seminar, the rest are older men.

What’s the most comical position you’ve ever stuffed an animal into?
I have a degu for sale who is proudly displaying his erect penis while wearing a Christmas jumper! He is an excitable little fellow. Don't get too hot under the collar though, degus are not renowned for their large manhood!

What’s the biggest thing you’ve ever stuffed, and what’s your dream animal to stuff?
The biggest thing I’ve skinned is a ten-foot Burmese python. The biggest animal I’ve stuffed is a fox. I recently completed a huge seven-piece rat king. That is classed as one animal now, so I guess that is the biggest animal I’ve stuffed! I would love to stuff Boris Johnson, he reminds me of Mr. Toad.

I have always wanted to get some fun taxidermy done for my home. I’m going to throw some of my ideas out there, and tell me what you think of each and how hard it would be to execute. First a nativity set (with the three kings).
Haha! Taxidermy is controversial enough as it is, without instigating the furore of religious extremists! It’s a good idea, though. It would take some time working out what animals to choose for each role.

Dogs playing poker.
This is a good idea, if not slightly cliché. I’m not sure that road kill dogs are that easy to come by, unless I lived somewhere like India, and even then the risk of rabies is too much of a gamble.

Toonces the Driving Cat.
I’m not sure I know who this is, sorry.

Did your panties moisten after seeing Steve Carell’s cleaver taxidermy character in Dinner for Schmucks?
That’s a very personal question. The answer is no. But I did when I saw a taxidermy piece of a bulldog giving birth to a pig!

What type of man is your type? Must he wear a deer pelt?
Someone that hardly ever washes and doesn’t mind discussing bowel movements. I love a man that smells of the Earth!

What do new suitors think when you bring them back to your place and there are dead and drying carcasses everywhere?
I have a boyfriend and he doesn’t mind. On one of our first dates he took me out at 6am to look for road kill. I thought that was so sweet! He even helped me skin the huge snake.

Ever have a fellow get too creeped out and run away whilst in the throes of passion?
Well, it’s OK as long as the taxidermy stays out of it! That would be too weird. Given that it’s dead animals, it would be like necrophilia and bestiality rolled into one. I can't believe there isn’t a term for having sex with taxidermy. The world isn’t as sick as I thought.

Would you stuff a human?
I probably would stuff a human if it were legal. Not on my own, though. I might get a little bit freaked out. I’d probably do a toe for sure.

Finally, would you consider stuffing me when I die? I think that would be a nice gift to leave my children.
I would be honoured to stuff you, Chris. You seem like a lovely man. Your children will never know you had gone. We could put you on a remote control skateboard and roll you around New Jersey.

And how much would you charge for that?
Let’s put it this way: you better start saving up now!

For more on Nicola visit her YouTube page. Buy her stuffed animals and other art at Etsy and Saatchi.

More stupid can be found at Chrisnieratko.com or twitter.com/Nieratko

More about taxidermy on VICE:

Fringes: Taxidermy Babe

Some People Don't Like it When you Make a Dead Fox Dance in their Face

The Smelly Decaying World of Polly Morgan

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