Becca Barnet's Harleston Village apartment is a celebration of death. On her walls hang the busts of a deer and a bear, as well as pictures of people long since deceased. A cabinet is filled with skulls and other bones. Insects are meticulously pinned and framed, and one corner is dedicated to fabricated rotting teeth. In the windowless room she uses as a studio, there's a picture of a pack of taxidermied foxes, haphazardly arranged frozen animals that Barnet finds alluring. "They kind of look like they're dancing, and it reminds me that there's a beauty in that, but it's also really scary and it's also really sad," she explains. "Something's really poetic about it to me."
A real-live animal resides here too: Barnet's bull terrier Bruce. A living work of art himself, Bruce is also represented in sculpted figurines and drawings that his owner lovingly created and placed around their home. But her stuffed fox, appropriately named Mr. Fox, is on vacation, the centerpiece of a holiday window display at Rebekah Jacob Gallery. This isn't his first time away from home; he was also a star figure of Barnet's contribution to the A Long Time Ago... exhibit installed at the City Gallery during Piccolo Spoleto earlier this year.
As a trained taxidermist and natural history artist, Barnet is putting her skills to use both in personal work and in commercial projects with her new fabrication studio, Sisal & Tow. Whether it's producing a museum display or a piece of one-of-a-kind furniture, Barnet wants to create what the average person cannot.
"Taxidermy's a fine line, and I don't really have a desire to do anything that is shocking," she says. "I like to make people think and I like to make people feel a tiny bit uncomfortable and out of their comfort zone with my personal pieces, but I think where I'm heading is, 'Wow, how is that made by somebody?' Not 'Ah, that's scary and uncomfortable.'"
While Barnet has been attracted to fabrication since childhood, it took her some time to realize it could be her career. "I think a lot of kids don't realize that they could be an artist when they grow up or be a sculptor," she says. "You go to Disney World or theme parks and you see all these fake rocks and fake trees. As somebody who was 10 and going to Disney World, I saw that stuff and went, 'Somebody made that.'"
Still, she spent much of her adolescence focusing on illustration, majoring in the medium at the Rhode Island School of Design. It wasn't until Barnet made a pair of owl puppets for a stop-motion animation class at RISD that she started researching taxidermy programs. Barnet spent six weeks in an intensive program at the Missouri Taxidermy Institute and loved it so much that she took a job at the American Museum of Natural History immediately after graduating in 2009.
Obviously, taxidermy is one of the more bizarre skill sets a person can develop, and yes, the skinning part can be gross. There's this thing called a flesher, a tool with a wheel that spins really quickly and removes the fat from the inside of the skin of a bird. "There's fat flying everywhere, but honestly what you're working on just looks like a chicken," Barnet says. "And if your animal's properly frozen and it's not freezer burned or not too fresh, you don't even deal with blood." And once the skin is tanned (or preserved), it's just a matter of wrapping it around a form until everything fits properly.
Because her studio is small, Barnet doesn't spend too much time splattering fat around her apartment. She hasn't done anything big here besides birds, and when she's done, Barnet double-bags the leftovers and throws them in the trash. Barnet has a certificate of completion from the Missouri Taxidermy Institute, and currently her work is centered on repair and reappropriation, finding old parts of things and putting them back together.
Barnet is content to focus on the preservation part of taxidermy for now. She thinks it's important, especially when considering the environment and animal rights. It's also a challenge. "I love trying to replicate textures and fur," she says. "I love the idea of fixing somebody's grampa's old deer that he shot when he was 10 or taking an piece of old taxidermy and turning into another object or art piece."
Not surprisingly, some of her commissions have been a bit peculiar. At her job at the natural history museum, Barnet was tasked with some Styrofoam bananas. She sculpted their ends, used special paints, and airbrushed them until they looked more realistic. "I was like: Wait, I can recreate nature, and that's the coolest thing in the world," she says.
Another time, she repaired the peeling, scabbing, and smelly skin of a walrus head from the early 1900s. She tackled it with silicon caulking, made a mold of some of the good skin and replicated that on the weaker spots, then airbrushed the whole thing. "I think each piece, like with every art piece, each animal is really different," she says. "When you go to start repairing an animal, testing different materials is extremely important. And the coolest thing is every time you use a different material, you can put that in your tool belt."
Heck, she even likes making fake rocks, like when she worked as an exhibit technician for the S.C. Aquarium's Madagascar display. "People need rocks for their ponds," Barnet says. "It's true. Sometimes you can't just go get a rock, and sometimes you need a generator to be inside of the rock, so you need somebody to make you a fake rock that will house your equipment or your tools."
But there is an ethical line that Barnet won't cross. It would be one thing if someone handed her a legally obtained elephant foot in need of repair and asked her to fix it. For her, that's a challenging new material she hasn't dealt with before. "But if somebody was like, 'Last week I killed an elephant and here's the foot. Will you taxidermy it?' I would be like, 'Ew, no, you're disgusting. The earth is dying. Why are you here?'" she says. "And I think as a taxidermist and a natural history artist, you have to have so much respect for animals and the environment."
It's the same when she's pinning bugs. Barnet is not some mass insect murderer. She won't pick up a junebug that looks healthy and happy, especially when there are plenty of sluggish ones out there for her to collect, and there's no violence involved. Instead, she puts them in a jar and waits for nature to take its course. Barnet considers insect preservation a less gut-churning gateway into taxidermy. She finds the experience of preserving them really zen, because it's about being patient, nimble, and quiet.
For a recent installation at the Halsey, Barnet created an "apiary" using recycled and found materials and hundreds and hundreds of preserved bees. A third of the piece will soon be installed at Butcher and Bee, giving some truth to half of the restaurant's name, but maybe not the actual bees themselves — Barnet doesn't want dead, preserved bugs falling into delicious gourmet sandwiches.
This month, Barnet is also creating a taxidermy case for the Ordinary, as well as four reproduction saltwater fish for the restaurant. Next year, Barnet will put her skills to use for a multi-lobby installation at MUSC to coincide with the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition and Earth Day.
"It's exciting that this art is getting this attention, because I think it's well deserved and I think it's had this weird stigma for a while and I don't think it should have a stigma," Barnet says. "I don't think it's as gross and creepy and weird as everybody thinks it is. I think it's beautiful and can be really honorable to nature if you do it in a tasteful way and if you do it with a lot of grace and respect."