Taxidermy is perhaps one of the weirdest things that we as a society have created, but yet there it is in every shop, home, and restaurant mounted on the wall, the beautiful and strange juxtaposition of life and death, organic and inorganic matter staring us directly in the face. And yet somehow we’re still drawn to it, the intrinsic beauty at the intersection of science and art calling to us from beyond the pelt.
Amber Maykut of Brooklyn’s Hoardaculture has been practicing the art of taxidermy since 2011. She initially began reading up on how to fix incredibly fragile specimens, an art form that she says has since made her step outside her comfort zone and question her own beliefs as to what makes something beautiful. “Taxidermy is more than a portrait, and does more than a portrait can do. It's like a statue except more authentic because the materials used to re-create the body used to be the body,” explains Maykut. “There are many contradictions that make taxidermy so curious. It's dead, but looks alive. It's cute, but morbid. It's real, but fake. There's a lot of life and death and light and dark happening with it.”
Maykut has made a living reanimating various specimens and endowing them with distinct personas, a subsect of the craft called anthropomorphic taxidermy whose roots date back to the Victorian era. “A lot of the anthropomorphic taxidermy I make is a throwback or homage to [Walter Potter] or stuff from [the Victorian] era,” she explains. “I also take a lot of requests and commissions for custom pieces. I recently did a commission to make three mice into the black metal band Venom, complete with leather, wigs, cuffs, chains, weaponry and mouse skulls. I've done everything from David Bowie mice, to mice made to look like someone's boyfriend, to bride and groom wedding cake toppers, to a Divine mouse for John Waters.”
As we’ve all learned from countless resurrection stories, when bringing the dead back to life, you run the risk of something going horribly awry, and instead of giving “life” to a beautiful specimen who perfectly mimics their real life counterpart, you’ve created the lopsided spawn of Satan. While she’s created her fair share of monsters, the key to creating specimens of non-zombie like origins is practice. “I am by no means a naturally talented artist. There's a lot of horrible pieces I've made out there somewhere. I have put tons of time and energy into taxidermy,” she explains. “You can read all the books and watch all the videos and look over your mentor's shoulder all you want, but like playing guitar or drawing, nothing compares to hands-on practice and putting in the hours.”
After six years of stuffing mice, pinning butterflies, and reanimating ferrets it comes as no surprise that Maykut has seen just about everything under the sun, but the most interesting specimen she’s come across was the wild boar one of her friends brought back from a hunting trip. “He brought the boar to the butcher and brought me the remains — the head. It was one of my first big projects, the first open mouth mount using an artificial jaw set, and the first tough looking piece I ever did, with artificial drool around the mouth and torn up ears from fighting.”
The history of taxidermy is a long one, dating all the way back to the 18th century France. In that time it’s seen its fair share of naysayers and those that question the legitimacy of the art form, but Maykut argues that it’s an art form just like any other. “Good art stirs feelings inside the viewer and makes them think, ask questions, step outside their comfort zone, and question their own existing ideas or beliefs,” she protests. “Taxidermy does all of that, especially ethically sourced taxidermy that has a conscious and challenges antiquated beliefs that animals are harmed or killed for the sake of it. Taking animal remains that would otherwise be thrown away, and recycling or up-cycling them is beautiful.”
Whether you’re an art aficionado, zoologist, or perhaps a purveyor of curiosities, there’s no denying that there’s a bit of magic to be found in taking an organic object and restoring it to its former glory, and with a wave of her hand, and a smidge or two of stuffing, Maykut’s Horadaculture does just that.