You could never tell it from his body of work, but artist Tom Keller says he's "surprisingly afraid of death." He seems to relish the macabre. Keller's gruesome creations depict Darwinian, Lovecraftian, and Kafkian creatures, like stillborn kittens, monkey skull lanterns, and an articulated muskrat holding flowers.
"I've always been interested in collecting bones since I was little," Keller tells Creators. "Mostly what I found out in the forest. When I got older I thought I'd try my hand at articulations, just as a hobby to add to my personal collection."
The more creatures Keller reanimated, the more he realized he could do the whole process himself — cleaning the flesh off the bones, sculpting skeletons, and preserving corpses — and turn what was once a hobby into a career.
But cleaning corpses is messy business so he hired some some help. "My beetles certainly make my business what it is," Keller says. He has two 20 gallon terrariums, each with up to 10,000 dermestid beetles, a species renowned for their ability to strip flesh from bones. "I see them more as my live-in workers," he says, "but I definitely appreciate all the work they do even with their short lifespan."
To make the beetles' feast easier, Keller de-feathers, de-skins, and dissects the corpses before feeding. At least once that meant him reaching his forearm halfway down a tortoise shell to remove its innards.
It's a grim process that Keller calls "cruelty free." Each animal is dead upon arrival and died of natural causes in a presumably humane environment. Some were stillborn, some were just old, but few died in car accidents. The corpses come from farms, pet shops, hunters, and zoos.
"Choosing to say cruelty free…shows others that I am compassionate towards these animals," he says. "Although I would never ask for an animal to be purposely killed for my work, the words 'cruelty free' is a quick way to shut down backlash from ignorant people that don't understand that death is a natural, recurring, and sometimes beneficial process."
Keller's sculptures range from realistic to fantastic, from perfectly preserved fawns to dueling raccoons. Chameleons are his favorite critter to work with. But composing a dragon was the most difficult. He borrowed bones from five different animals and had to break them "many times […] to make it look more natural," he says.
Despite death, Keller sees his sculptures as a celebration of life. "I am not forcing my work on anyone," he says. "I do this as a way to bring beauty and life back to these poor souls. I work with quite a bit of stillborn [animals] and, to me, I give them a form of life they otherwise would never have had."