A dead bird in the hand feels like a grenade: cold, compact, loaded. On a Saturday morning at Prey studio in downtown L.A., eight taxidermy students — a grab bag of artists and curious amateurs, all but three of them women — lower frozen European starlings into kitchen sink baptisms. They take scalpels to the specimens.
Image: HIDE Documentary Kickstarter to film the Ladies of Prey at the World Championship of Taxidermy
Serving as their guide: Allis Markham, 32. Porcelain skin, jet-black hair, and red lips belie dexterity with a scalpel rarely seen outside the surgery. Four years ago, Markham quit her job as director of digital strategy at Disney and opened the studio in the Spring Arts Tower, an office building-cum-artist enclave that houses The Last Bookstore on the ground floor. Now, she runs sold-out taxidermy classes two to three times each month between part-time shifts honing her craft at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Now Allis and nine women from her studio, ranging in age from 16 to 64, are traveling to Springfield, MO to compete in the World Taxidermy Championships. It’s their first time on the scene and they have no idea what to expect. Hundreds of taxidermists from all over the world will descend on the convention center with everything from big game to small birds.
An all-female film crew will follow them there and shoot a documentary about the whole thing.
The competition’s every two years, and last time around the buzz was all about a full-grown moose being attacked by six grey wolves. (It came in second.) Allis will be going up against a cadre of buttoned-up Europeans with a collection of spectacularly delicate small, exotic birds. She’s team USA in this fight, with her girls and her country rooting for her.
“I went from working towards ‘new, now,’ to something that was most popular in the Victorian Era,” Markham says of all this.
The digital space, where so much of Markham's work disappeared into “the cloud,” had been unsatisfying. With taxidermy, she loved that she was creating something tangible. The tactile work seems to speak to some primitive calling, satisfies a visceral urge. “It grounds people,” is how Markham sums it up.
And it’s keeping a dead art alive.
The Natural History Museum itself plays a crucial role in preserving taxidermy. It’s the only place where practitioners have the opportunity to work on most specimens; as employees of a public institution, museum taxidermists are exempt from laws restricting the sale, trade, and possession of endangered and protected species. The complex regulations include the Migratory Birds Treaty of 1918, which restricts the “taking” of wild birds, criminalizing the whole pursuit right on down to having a feather.
And because taxidermy is essentially an apprentice trade, the museum keeps the chain of transmission going.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles is unique amongst its peers in that it’s the only such museum in the country with a full-time taxidermist on its payroll. “No other institution that started building dioramas in the 20s has continuously had diorama people on staff,” notes Tim Bovard.
Bovard has been the head taxidermist at the museum for 30 years. As a kid in the mid-1960s, he found himself fascinated by the practice. His training was thorough: he completed an apprenticeship program in 1974, worked in a commercial studio, took an internship at the L.A. museum, and completed a degree with coursework in zoology, biology and museum studies at the University of Idaho before the Natural History Museum created a position for him in 1984.
Markham came on in 2009 — first as a volunteer and then in a part-time capacity once Bovard realized she wasn’t going anywhere.
“I just kept showing up, I wouldn’t leave,” she says.
Bovard and Markham are among just a few publicly employed taxidermists in the country. By their reckoning, the only other one is at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Even New York’s American Museum of Natural History dispensed with staff taxidermists when the last one retired in 1987.
Markham describes taxidermy as “a blend of art and science.” The job calls for skill in sculpting and painting, and a working knowledge of zoology, biology, and anatomy.
Yet, for all the skill required, the artist is forgotten: a taxidermist doesn’t sign her work.
Halfway through Markham’s class, students strip the birds’ skulls, bracing thumbs against the lower mandible to turn the thing inside out. The skin stays attached at the beak, giving the eerie impression that the bird is kissing itself. The maneuver reveals the ears and the eyelids, allows access to the eyeballs –they look like blueberries– and the back of the skull. This is an easy entry point for the brain scoop: purpose implied.
One student, who’d seen Markham blow-drying birds out the window from his office across the courtyard, remarks how quickly he’d gotten comfortable handling bird guts. The class murmurs in agreement.
Still, there are shudders as students push clay into the skulls and the last of the brain matter oozes out. And then, the crux of the transformation: glass eyes set into their orbitals, a new life in dead birds. The starlings, ethically sourced from an abatement project in Wisconsin targeting the invasive species that threatens local songbirds, look almost good as new.
Forget the macabre: taxidermy makes room for the notion not that animals are killed, but more that everything dies. Those that are preserved get a shot at life after death — and maybe, even, stardom.
Support HIDE, a documentary about the ladies of Prey and their trip to the taxidermy world championships by donating to their kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2113162122/hide-a-taxidermy-story-0
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