You’ve arrived at an out-of-the-way industrial warehouse in Thomastown, Melbourne. It’s 8.30am; you’re still bleary-eyed and unsure of what you’ve gotten yourself into. But before you have a chance to dwell on that, you’re ushered into an unassuming glass door along with nine other strangers with whom, by the end of the day, you will have shared an experience that cannot be obtained anywhere else in Australia.
The first thing you see is the rows upon rows of deer heads, a forest of antlers jutting out as you walk into the bright, open warehouse. Then, just above eye-level, you see the iridescent gleam of a dozen or so brilliant male peacocks. Their heads are turned to one side so they can watch you as you arrive at the three-metre long table, so artfully styled you might think you’d arrived at some kind of epicurean banquet. The centrepiece is what’s called a wet sample – a foetus-like monkey in a glass apothecary jar, preserved in methylated spirits. His peaceful, meditative expression sets the tone for the day.
Korzeniowski plays dramatically in the background as Natalie Delaney-John, self-referred to as the Taxidermy Apprentice and the only person in Australia running taxidermy classes, introduces herself. You might get distracted by the two huge giraffe heads in the background, or the upright brown bear with a fierce growl on his face. Or maybe you’ve spotted the enormous sculpted rhino tucked behind a small gathering of deer. But Nat’s aptitude for magnetism reels your attention back to her.
“Everything is fixable,” she reassures you and your fellow students. “If you’re slower than someone else at one part of the process, I guarantee you will be faster than them at another. So don’t worry. And remember: we can fix almost anything.”
It’s very comforting to hear these words before you make your first incision. Especially if you’ve never done anything like this before.
Nat knows about that feeling firsthand, having started her taxidermy journey only a few years ago with little experience in the mechanics of the craft. But she’s a creative force to be reckoned with – once she has a vision, she’ll stop at nothing to pursue it. So it was in her early days when she, as she puts it, “stalked” Gary Pegg, Australia’s lead taxidermist and World Taxidermy Championships winner, for six months straight before finally convincing him to take her on as an apprentice.
On the first day of her mentorship he looked her up and down and declared: “You won’t last a day.” Two and a half years later she is still his apprentice, and has outdone herself in establishing the foundations of her own legacy. In 2013 she went to Spain and helped build a taxidermy museum, and in May 2014 she started running her introductory workshops in Melbourne. She has been invited to speak at the Linden Centre for Contemporary Arts in March next year, and 2015 will also see her adding an intermediate class to her repertoire, as well as the launch of her first major exhibition.
But let’s get back to where we left you. You’re now seated at the table, a cardboard box in front of you illuminated by amber candlelight. Inside the box is every tool you will need for today’s creation. You’ve donned a striped apron and a nametag with your name and one other’s – your soon-to-be companion for the rest of the day.
Who is, of course, the mouse you will be taxidermying.
Your mouse is yours from the very beginning. He or she comes christened with a unique name, so you immediately connect with an Edmund, Cecil, Speedy or Bernard. No name is ever given twice. As one of the students says of his own mouse: “If he’s got a name, he can be addressed.”
Nat constantly, and quite unconsciously, reinforces this identification with your new tiny friend throughout the entire workshop. She indicates on her own body where you need to make incisions, what part of the mouse you’re working with. She refers to their eyelids as “our” eyelids. Her preference, and what she encourages in you, is to work without wearing latex gloves, so that she can feel the texture and contours of the mouse’s body, and in turn achieve a more visceral understanding of the mouse itself.
She continually makes the foreign relatable. Polyurethane bodies are likened to banana lollies, and different stages of the taxidermy process are given titles like “Put A Ring On It”, “Skydiving”, “Conjoined Twins”, or “Trying Your Skin On For Size”. Her and her assistant (read: “French maid” you can call upon for a coffee or a cuppa at any point throughout the day) will offer to take photos on your phone of you and your little buddy’s process.
Then suddenly it’s time for:
“Brain removal!” Nat announces with a bright, cheeky smile. “My favourite bit. I don’t know why. But it’s really therapeutic.”
You might think this sounds a little mad, but the students – some of whom were understandably apprehensive about the ick factor at the beginning of the day – are all nodding in agreement as they have a go at it. There’s a strange kind of magic in learning about the animal’s anatomy, and how to preserve and revive how it might have been when it was alive.
It’s a long and demanding day of highly focused work (or as Nat exclaims excitedly at one point, “crafternoon!”). But you’re not learning how to taxidermy a mouse in three hours and taking shortcuts to do so, as many overseas classes would have you do. Nat insists on teaching the long route, the full comprehensive process, so that the skills you learn can be applied to any animal, big or small.
As the day progresses and you get to know your mouse – quite literally – inside and out, you start to understand how taxidermy as an art form can forge a connection between you and an animal. Ugly adjectives such as “creepy” or “gross” have been associated with taxidermy, but Nat’s workshop invalidates this surface-level perception that’s, primarily, the product of our modern-day disassociation from the natural world and how we as human beings harness it.
With Nat’s constant encouragement and attentiveness, Rest In Pieces gives you a tangible connection to animals we share this planet with.
And as for the end of this experience?
Your little buddy pleasantly gazes back at you over his or her little chunk of cheese. You’re sipping on a very well-earnt glass of bubbly. After a magnificent, engrossing and exhausting day, you have your very own mouse to take home, crafted with your very own hands, and walk away with a deepened understanding of a centuries-old art form that, with the right guidance and intention, honours the animals it seeks to bring back to life.
Photo credit: All images by Elly Freer.