Robert Marbury‘s Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How To Do It Yourself (Artisan Books, 2014) could easily be divided into a couple of books, both larger than this volume. One would be a practical guide to doing taxidermy, the other an art book surveying the best practitioners from history and working today. Integrated, as they are in Taxidermy Art, these subjects make for a disjointed but nevertheless visually and intellectually stimulating read.
The book opens with “A Taxidermy Primer,” wherein Marbury discusses the tedious legal and ethical issues related to taxidermy. He reviews laws that protect everything from migratory birds to sea creatures and endangered animals.
The section dubbed “The Cannon” touches on some of the historical figures in taxidermy from antiquity up to the present. This survey spans from Pliny the Elder, whose depictions of animals in Natural History remain influential, and Rudolf II, who had the most impressive stuffed animal collection of the 16th Century, up through conservationist John Audubon and circus impresario Phineas Barnum, and ends with modern luminaries including Alfred Hitchcock — not because of The Birds, but for his creation of the taxidermist ghoul character of Norman Bates in Psycho — and Argentinian author Jorge Luis Borges, whose writings about fantasy animals informed the work of a generation of taxidermy artists.
The fiery glass eyes that really give this tome an inner life, however, are the works by 21 leading taxidermy artists to whom the book’s middle section is devoted. (Marbury himself is the last taxidermy artist profiled.) The artworks range from tongue-in-cheek and Gothic pieces — such as those by Jessica Joslin, Elizabeth McGrath, and Les Deux Garçons — to gallows playfulness — as in the sculptures of Julia deVille and Mirmy Winn — to works by artists who seem to live on the sunny side of the Island of Doctor Moreau — namely Peter Gronquist, Scott Bibus, and, most of all, Kate Clark, whose transmogrified and hooved creatures with sweet, human faces might make a deer hunter think twice about ever pulling a trigger again. The works included are sometimes a bit abstract, frequently satiric, occasionally political, but always original. Many of the featured sculptors follow strict ethical guidelines, since their particular marble once drew breath. One artist, Katie Innamorato, confines herself largely to working with roadkill.
The final section of Taxidermy Art is the how-to portion, giving readers the basics on pursuing taxidermy themselves. If I doubted Marbury’s earnestness for even a moment, I’d think that this section — with its explicit details about preserving and preparing small animal corpses — was some kind of Halloween joke.
Some of the more squeamish art appreciators might detour around this playful pet cemetery, but for the most part Taxidermy Art is an engaging collection that will draw you deeper into this increasingly popular art form. The book’s moral and ethical rigor is admirable, and visually it has enough élan to make that dusty mount above your grandfather’s fireplace look fierce again.
Robert Marbury’s Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How To Do It Yourself is available from Amazon and other booksellers.