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Meet the Ladies Who Turn Animal Corpses into Art

Women are dominating the rogue taxidermy scene.

Divya Anantharaman at the Rogue Taxidermy Fair. Photo by the author.

When taxidermy became popular during the Victorian era, it was mostly men who hunted, skinned, fleshed, and stuffed the animals. History’s roster of well-known taxidermists include guys like John Hancock (not the American revolutionary), Charles Waterton, Carl Akeley, William Hornaday, and John James Audubon. Few women make the list, the most famous being Martha Ann Maxwell, who is generally recognized as the first female field naturalist.


Unsurprisingly, if you enter your local traditional taxidermy shop today, chances are it’s run by a professionally trained old dude whose family has been in the business for generations. But taxidermy really isn’t the boys’ club it used to be. The number of ladies embracing the art are increasing thanks to the growing genre of alternative—or “rogue”—taxidermy in the past decade.

The term was coined in 2004 by artists Sarina Brewer and Scott Bibus, co-founders of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART), the only official organization of its kind. “Rogue taxidermy is a pop-surrealist genre of sculpture that uses taxidermy materials, traditional materials, in an unconventional manner,” Robert Marbury, MART’s third co-founder told me. “The attempt is to be as ethical, to reduce and reuse as much as we can of the animal so there’s no waste, feeding back to stewardship and conservation.”

Instead of focusing on pure, perfect mimesis of specimens, rogue taxidermists create abstract works that deliver a more emotional narrative than the true-to-life trophies displayed in hunting lodges or the mounts found in natural history museums. (Some prefer to identify as artists working with taxidermy-related material rather than taxidermists.) Using ethically-sourced materials—i.e., they don't hunt—the genre has adopted a creative, DIY-esque aesthetic. Its methods are easily self-taught or demonstrated in classroom settings, exemplified by the emergence of taxidermy lessons in places like Brooklyn, London, Los Angeles, and Baltimore. Rogue taxidermy is highly accessible to the public—and curiously, it is dominated by women.


“Alternative taxidermy is very female-oriented,” Marbury said. “It tends to be 80/20 in classes.” Marbury has spoken with many international artists working with taxidermy for his new book, Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself. I met Marbury at his book's release party, which was held in conjunction with the Rogue Taxidermy Fair in Brooklyn. Most of the taxidermists selling their hand-made pieces at the fair were women, including Divya Anantharaman, who was previously featured in VICE's documentary Taxidermy Babe.

Amber Maykut, a self-taught taxidermy artist who was selling her work at the fair, told me she converted her Williamsburg apartment’s second bedroom into her “taxidermying room.” A former taxidermy instructor at the Morbid Anatomy Library (now Museum), she recalls having “20 students in the class, and maybe one would be a man.” The Museum’s current teachers, Katie Innamorato and Anantharaman (both also at the Fair), report similar numbers. Innamorato describes welcoming more and more women to her workshops each year and Anantharaman places her average class gender distribution at “95 to 99 percent women.”

Meanwhile, in classic taxidermy the gender makeup remains static. I asked Richard Santomauro, who’s owned a traditional taxidermy shop in New Jersey for 48 years, how many male taxidermists he knows. “Hundreds and hundreds,” he responded. And what about females?


“I know a girl in Philadelphia,” he said. “That’s about the only one I really know of.”

It’s tough to pinpoint the reasons why rogue taxidermy in particular draws more women than men, but its participants have their theories. “It’s probably that there’s no hunting involved, and it’s crafty,” Maykut said. “It’s more like an Etsy-store phenomenon than it is a manly, hunting thing.”

Others attribute the disparity to gender-specific behavioral tendencies: “If you talk to these traditional guys, they all say women have a better attention for detail,” Innamorato said. “And you have to have a lot of patience, and women tend to have a lot more patience than guys.”

Brewer, the co-founder of MART, posits that the reason lies in human evolution carving out established roles rooted in our biological makeup. “Nature has programmed females with the drive to nurture, and programmed males with the drive to kill,” she said. “I believe that’s why we see an overwhelming female demographic within the genre of rogue taxidermy, and mostly men in the world of sportsman’s mounts.”

But even as a few women working within taxidermy gain prominence, their broader contribution to the art form has yet to garner the respect it deserves. According to Marbury, women who share their taxidermy online sometimes receive “rape-y responses” while “men traditionally don’t.”

“Even Scott [Bibus], who does bloody and zombie-type stuff, does not get disregarded in the same way that some of the women are,” Marbury said.


'Mother's Little Helper Monkey' by Sarina Brewer

That stigma against women, however, doesn’t really exist within the real-world business of taxidermy, as competitive as it is. Many female rogue taxidermists who reached out to traditional male taxidermists to learn their skills describe their experiences with them as very positive.

“I think they’re more interested than anything,” Anantharaman told me. “For the most part, people I know who are traditionalists love it because they see it as a new generation of people interpreting this age-old art form in a different way.”

Below, meet some of the women working in alternative taxidermy. For more of their work, check out Marbury’s Taxidermy Art.

Photo by Adam Murphy, Deep Grey Photography

Lisa Black, 32, Brisbane, Australia

VICE: Can you tell me about your work?
It's a reflection of our undeniable technological progression. Seeing animals with carefully integrated mechanical additions encourages us to reassess how we define "natural." By creating beauty within this supposed paradox, I aim to challenge the concept of a world separated into the "sacrosanct" natural and "vulgar" industrial.

What's the coolest thing you've made?
I created a mechanical crocodile some years back and incorporated an antique clock movement inside the body. You could wind the movement up and watch the gears turn, giving it a lifelike quality. It also apparently reminded a lot of people of the crocodile in Peter Pan.


What's it like working in taxidermy as a woman?
I've had my fair share of negative and sexist comments and emails over the years, although it was definitely more at the start of my career. Really early on, I remember someone sent me a photo of my face photoshopped onto this weird baby mechanical body, using the mechanical parts of my sculptures. Although it was intended to be aggressive, it was so badly photoshopped and ridiculous that it made me laugh.

Photo by Charles Howells

Sarina Brewer, Minneapolis, Minnesota

Can you tell me about your work?
Sarina Brewer: When creating my taxidermy sculptures, folklore, mythology, and anomalies of nature are all an influence. Cryptozoology and even urban myths creep into these works. Since my animal materials are recycled, they generally have some sort of imperfection. Often the skins can't be used in one piece because a section is damaged, so I end up with a variety of mismatched leftover bits. This forces me to come up with all sorts of unlikely animal combinations drawn from my own imagination—these are among my favorite works. My materials include discarded livestock remnants, pet trade casualties, naturally deceased animals, donated nuisance animals, and legally collected roadkill.

What's the coolest thing you've ever made?
That would be Mother's Little Helper Monkey [below]: A tongue-in-cheek, autobiographical piece that consists of a winged monkey wearing a fez and guarding a martini. The title is a play on words, a combination of The Rolling Stones’ song "Mother's Little Helper" (about mama needing a little something to relax) and service animals called "helper monkeys," which are trained to be live-in care providers for quadriplegic people. People always ask me if it has anything to do with The Wizard of Oz… No, I just really like monkeys, and I really like vodka.


What's it like working in taxidermy as a woman?
It's true that men working in this realm don’t experience a reaction to their work in the same manner a woman does. Woman are expected to nurture. A woman doing something "disrespectful" to the dead body of some poor, innocent animal flies in the face of social expectations and people (usually other women) blow a gasket. I have received enough hate mail over the years that at one point I joked I would turn them into a book… My all-time favorite was "I'm gonna hang you from a meat hook you shit-bitch." Someone else threatened to run over me and my entire family with her Harley.

But in all seriousness, pioneers like myself who have been at this for many years have taken the brunt of this type of abuse and paved the way for the younger women who are only recently entering the field. It's not anywhere as bad as it used to be, and it's on a noticeable decrease… I think I might be going for a world record right now; I haven’t had any hate mail in almost a year.

Katie Innamorato, 24, New Jersey

Can you tell me about your work?
Katie Innamorato: My work focuses a lot on the cyclical connection between life and death, and growth and decomposition. I have been fascinated by decomposition for a while now. I also look at the idea of remembrance and different ways of creating homage to fallen animals. Right now my work is becoming more story- or fairy tale–like, more narrative than my past works.

What's the coolest thing you've made, or your favorite work?
My favorite piece is my most well known one, my Moss Fox. I have a lot of visions of pieces in my head, and that one seems to have set my mind in motion. I visualized a dead fox seemingly growing mosses and lichen from the inside-out. Everyone says the eyes in that piece really speaks to them and stays in their minds.


What's it like working as a woman in taxidermy?
I have only had one case of harassment and it was actually when I was working on my thesis in college. Some jackass school cop had a stick up his ass about me doing this kind of work at school and actually cornered me in my studio one day, talking down to me about how he did not think I should be doing any of that. He then called in the [Department of Environmental Conservation] and Health and Safety, who all cleared what I was doing as legal and safe… I reported him for harassment, and so did a few other students who overheard the whole thing. Besides that one idiot, I have been lucky.

'Moss Fox' by Katie Innamorato

Kate Clark, Brooklyn, New York

Can you tell me about your work?
Kate Clark: I make conceptual sculptures, fusing the human face and animal body in a lifelike way. My work uses taxidermy as a stepping-stone to start a conversation, but instead of presenting the "hierarchy" of man over animal, as traditional taxidermy does, the viewer sees a balance between man and animal, causing a primal reaction, and forcing the viewer to reconsider our relationship.

What's the coolest thing you've made?
One of my favorite pieces is a black bear I made for a solo gallery show in New York. My sister was the model. I was under the gun to finish the piece. The bear was on a tall pedestal looking down, and when I put the final pin in and looked up at her, it was a magical moment—she had a life-like presence beyond any I’d made before. I wasn’t sure I’d even made her. That piece was a turning point in my confidence and my goals as an artist. It sold, before the show even opened, to a great collection in Switzerland.


What's it like working as a woman in taxidermy?
To be honest, I am a woman working in the field of contemporary art—museums, galleries, and collectors. This field is exceptionally male-dominated also. When I present my work in a museum or gallery I commonly hear viewers talking about the artist as a "he" even though my name is plastered on the wall. But I don’t mind the element of surprise I see when a collector meets me. It’s just one more layer of the "rethinking" that’s part of appreciating my work.

Kate Clark, 'Black Bear,' from 'Taxidermy Art 'by Robert Marbury (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2014. Photo courtesy of the artist

Photo by Jared Joslin

Jessica Joslin, 43, Chicago, Illinois

Can you tell me about your work?
Jessica Joslin: I make hybrid species, integrating skulls and bones with metalwork.

What's the coolest thing you've made?
I'm a huge David Lynch fan. A few years ago, I was invited to participate in an art exhibition to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Twin Peaks. David Lynch and an extraordinary group of other contemporary artists were represented. For that show, I made a great horned owl named Cooper… It has huge silver wings, with brass feathers and menacing cast metal talons. He's crowned with a silver filigree helmet, wrought in the distinctive shape of the great horned owl's ear tufts, which give it its name. His gaze is intense, and it looks as if he is swooping in to capture his prey… if you are the viewer, that would be you.


What's it like working as a woman in taxidermy?
I guess I've been lucky. I do encounter the occasional troll, but for the most part, my interactions have been positive. I'm very grateful for that.

Photo by the author.

Amber Maykut, 33, Brooklyn, New York

Can you tell me about your work?
Amber Maykut: I make anthropomorphic taxidermy—particularly mice and butterfly mounts. I use repurposed vintage pieces, roadkill, discarded livestock, nuisance animals, feeder animals, pet trade casualties, and donations.

What's the coolest thing you've made? 
I made an anthropomorphic taxidermy piece of a ferret wearing a military outfit, complete with combat boots, beret, and weaponry. The ferret was donated to me as a deceased pet. I’m not sure why I, and many others, are obsessed with him. I guess he just has that certain je ne se quoi. He weaseled his way into my heart.

What's it like working as a woman in taxidermy?
My work has been called cute, adorable, and whimsical just as much as it’s been called sick, immoral, and wrong. Often people assume that I killed the animals, which is where I believe most of the backlash comes from. For me, I always try to take it with a grain of salt. It’s part of the territory of being a female: getting unsolicited praise and criticism. I think a big part of my personal development over the years has stemmed from learning to be brave enough to do whatever the hell I want because I’ll be criticized either way. At least then I know that one person is happy.

Photo by Del Almeida