Taxidermy finds a new following

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13 Feb 2019

Wild life: Images from the n Taxidermy Championships at Lilydale. Picture: Simon Schluter“YOU can’t have teddy bear eyes ona fish. It’s just weird.”
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If you stareddown the barrel of its pea-greensnout,Andrew Xanthoulakis’s trout had red eyes thatdomed out sideways. They’d beenshippedfrom the US.The fish’s demise, months ago, had triggered countless inventories and deadlines.

There were the fins to consider,the spinydorsals and the tail,ruffled chips ofbrown translucence. ThoseAmerican eyes.The faintly submarine-ishbody,shrunken, warped,restored from months of drying.

“And the thing aboutscales is they’reout everywhere,”Xanthoulakis, from Bacchus Marsh, said.

“Unlike fur, you’ve got nowhere to hide. Get the scales wrong and you’ve got two options:throw it outor fix it.”

The third n Taxidermy Championships were held atthe York on Lilydale, a one-storeypokiepalace inMelbourne’s Yarra Valleyoutskirts, wherethecars are flecked with mudand leisure timeis built around animals and recreational machinery.

New breed: Taxidermist Natalie Delaney-John with her common sparrow on a tiny twig at the n Taxidermy Championships this month. Picture: Simon Schluter

On the same weekendafunction centre up the road was hostinga whippet breeders’summit.

Lilydale isone of the fewplacesin with ataxidermy supplies shopand,with a sudden rush of those who might requireaflexiblerabbit ear-lineror a pig jaw-and-tongue set (no tusks), it wasin grand final mode.

In the early afternoon, the n Association of Wildlife Artists opened the doors ofthefunction room tothe public, who fell into a quiet reverence.

The animals, or mounts, had been assembled after painstaking journeys.

Deer had arrived in cargo hold herds,ducks stackedin truckshad nodded through roundabouts, glass-eyedboarhad quiveredatintersections.

Inside, a red fox balanced on a sheet of ironbark in the halogen glow,paw raised in fangy calculation, andtwo more locked sharp,white teeth in silent combat.

Families in matching camouflage inspectedhalf-deer, whole deer,a camel branching upwardin full-throated mid-bray.

There was a marmosetina bonzai tree;aReeve’s pheasant withtailfeathers down to the floor; a brushtail possum in the cleft of a branch, a red berry in its tiny left paw.

There was a fallowdeer withdappled hide somehow suggestive of water;a tawny frogmouth clutchingamouse; alionfish with spines fanned open; a replica orangutan frozen in furrowed resignation.

Xanthoulakis –stubbled, 40s, white Star Wars tee – quietlyagonised over hisfish’s puckeredleftunderfin, but lethimselfbe chuffed with its pale, dimpledunderbellyhe’d donewith terry towelling.

The trout was a full-skin mount, which meant after it dried–“most of this is drying” –Xanthoulakissculpted the plumpness back into its flesh and airbrushed its colours.

The airbrushhad requireda lacquer-based paint, so the fish’s dotty complexionwould “pop”. A water-based paint wouldn’t do.Such are the economies of scale.

Xanthoulakis mentally frisked histrout, suspended from a glass and wooden backdropmid-wriggle,with the air of a mechanic.

Which he was. Alove of fishing lured him outfrom beneath carsandinto the wild,to return withgreatscaly slabs for his freezer.

“The first piece I ever did looked like a sardine out ofa can, but I was absolutely rapt.”

Proud anglers come toXanthoulakis, one of thefew fish taxidermists in , with instructions forkitschyBig Mouth Billy Bass-style wall-mounts, which he tries to talk them out of. He can makesomething better, he tells them. His taxidermy colleaguesare “doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, ditch diggers”.

Through the championship aisles–Novice, Masters, Small Mammal, Reptile –amblednuggety dudes in gun club polos, mud-caked desert boots andtrucker caps.

There were hipsters in busy shirts and black jeans up from Melbourne; some were the competitors.

“See what he’s done with the fins? Must’ve taken f ––– ing ages”.

Natalie Delaney-John –33, blonde-fringed, sleeveless plaid–had won divisional prizes for hermyna bird skeleton (described as a work of “skeletal articulation”)and her sparrow on a twig over a tiny reflectivepond.

“To be completely honest, I finished itlast night,” she said. “It was an all-nighter. Wine and tears got me through.”

Delaney-John hasdevouredtaxidermy lore since the Sunday shefound the skull of a bullat Melbourne’s Camberwell markets.

Finding a mass extinction ofTAFE and universitycourses in taxidermy sincethe 1970s, she started teaching her own.

Delaney-John has scarcely had a vacancy inthree years, and most of her students arewomen older than 50.

“They’re great. Taxidermygets pigeonholed as weird, or all about hunting –and a lot of people do come to it from hunting –but it’s not weird, it’s fucking great,” she said.

“Please don’t make it out to be weird. I can see the humourin, say,a photo of a cat helicopter.But when you see people really doing this, you think, this is the best. And it’s going to keep getting better.”

No one’s pet was mounted in the York onLilydale, but it wasclear thattaxidermy demandsa certain kind of love.

If you’re a taxidermy person you love animals, it was explained, an arguably more honest dutyof care that can meanhunting them, photographing them, perhaps raising them, all while noting the tilt of an ear or thecurl of a lip for the day youskin them.

That doesn’t mesh witha clean, Japanese-garden idea of an animalworld that’s chaotic andsubject to death, sure, but free ofthe sightof skinpeelingfrom flesh, thanks very much.

“Inspiration on a Saturday is wet preserving these amazing deformed baby piglets!” the Facebook page forDelaney-John’s taxidermy school posted.

“It looks like this guy’s brain has grown outside of his [skull emoji].”

In the video, astillborn piglet’s pinkbrain-sac fluttered gently, tissue-thin.

“I need it!” someone wrote.

Before the VictoriantaxidermistDennis Grundy heldthe firstnational titles in the Lilydale Scout Hall in2015, thosewith a use for Critter Clay oralbino mouse eyes had less opportunityto discuss them at length.

Permanentlydisplayed, three dimensionalanimals –oryx andantelopeshotabroad,made rigid for the house guestswith cotton and rags –were items offashioninVictorian England.

But they nevercarried the same currencyinthe n colonies.

There was aworking class sense to keepingpelts andhides, and a trip to themuseummight offer a glimpse ofatiger, orthe mounted headof agreat white shark. But preserving a pet? That was the realm of eccentrics.

Hitherto,most of ’s taxidermyhas splitbetweendisplays innatural history museums and a kind of post-1960s,stuffed-owl kitsch;thestag’sheadin abar draped in theteamcolours.

Taxidermy’s niche-ness as an art, perhaps, explains its reputation as animal“stuffing”. That’s not what it is.

It actually involvesskinning an animal, stretching its hide over a model –mass-produced from polyurethane, or one you’ve sculpted–and sewing it together.

Then it becomes a makeover from the inside out, often demanding the skills of a seamstress, a hairdresser and a sculptor.

Feathers and scales are trickier than fur, it’s widely agreed, but a lumpy moose head still looks funny. No one wants funny.

Handmade or store-boughtparts substitutefor whatcan’t be preserved, such as lips, ears,tongues ortheeyes ofatrout.

Tom Sloane –38, bespectacled,a bit frazzledon the day of the titles–has perhaps set the jaws and shaped the snarls of more native animals than most ns have laid eyes on.

The formerTasmanian Museum and Art Gallery taxidermist, whoworks for himself, is knownfor hisowls, hawks, Tasmanian devils and, in a gaping market gap, platypuses.

“Imake their bills myself. No one sells them.”

Some taxidermists hunt their animals, while othersuse frozen rodentsbred forpet storepythons.

Sloane’s partner Nicole Zehntner –taxidermy’s Tom and Nicole met workingat the museum in Hobart –won atthis year’s titles with hermount of a baby saltwater crocodilefrom a farm in the Northern Territory.

Working on commission for educational displays has madeSloane ago-to taxidermist these days. Among his blue-chip clients: he does work forthe National Parks and Wildlife Service.

His vast taxidermy dominionranges fromoceantosky, his subjects, octopuses to sea eagles.

Themarmoset and its bonzaiwere Sloane’s –both won awards –as was thepheasant, another winner.

Last year, the providence ofalonely deathon a beach in Tasmaniagiftedhim the lithe corpse ofa leopard seal.

When restored,the sealwassnake-likewithsharp whiteteeth, eyes wet and livelyas your own, if only inthe moment you remembered it had been alive.

Wild life: Images from the n Taxidermy Championships at Lilydale. Picture: Tim Connell

Wild life: Images from the n Taxidermy Championships at Lilydale. Picture: Tom Sloane

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