From recycled roadkill to stuffed squirrels, taxidermy transforms animals into art 

The Art of Death

Kimberly Witham's works juxtapose man-made objects with the natural world in a way that even makes death beautiful

Kimberly Witham/courtesy of Redux Contemporary Art Center

Kimberly Witham's works juxtapose man-made objects with the natural world in a way that even makes death beautiful

If a cop were to pull over artist Kimberly Witham in her Honda for, say, a speeding violation, the officer's inner dialogue might go something like this. "Nice lady. Pretty, too." "Wow, that's a messy back seat." "Wait a minute, are those ... bones?"

Stepping back from the car and masking any trepidation, he would speak slowly, with monotone resolve, "Ma'am, I'm gonna need to take a look in your trunk."

Reluctantly, Witham would oblige, perhaps with a sigh, knowing she'd have some explaining to do. Her cargo: a pair of running shoes, 10 jars of pickles, a case of Leinenkugel's Red Lager, a dead mallard, stuffed fox, dead pheasant, bag of deer antlers, and a kit equipped for a serial killer.

Not the typical contents of a Honda. But Kimberly Witham is no typical artist.

A New Jersey resident, Witham is among a very exclusive and miniscule sorority of women certified in the art of taxidermy. The nylon bag in her trunk that would fill Dexter with envy (gloves, ropes, disinfectant, pliers) was gifted to her by her father-in-law as a handy road-kill pick-up kit. While most of us divert our eyes to a fallen deer on the side of the road, Witham screeches to a halt and gets to work, lovingly and respectfully collecting fallen creatures, turning tragedy into art, giving death a new life. Some of these creatures are photographed in artful settings back in her studio. Some are preserved, stuffed, and mounted as wall installations or sculptures.

When Witham visited Charleston to install her current exhibit, Wunderkammer, at Redux Contemporary Art Center, she was struck by two things: (1) that there is a magazine named Garden & Gun, and (2) that Charleston boasts its own resident female taxidermy artist named Becca Barnet. Few women enter the male-dominated field of taxidermy. Fewer still use taxidermy as artistic expression. The odds of two female taxidermy artists existing in the same town at any given moment surely causes a ripple in the space-time continuum.

The two artists have not met, but their worlds are in a current state of synergy. In conjunction with Witham's exhibit, which runs through March 8, Barnet will give a talk about the art of taxidermy at Redux on March 4, surrounded by Witham's work.

Parallels

I ask Barnet to meet me at Redux recently to learn more about her beginnings and to gauge her reactions to Witham's work. Barnet arrives in black jeans and a cotton tee, sporting metallic beetle earrings (apropos for someone who pins and preserves insects in little display cases).

Right off the bat, she insists, "I don't want to speak for this artist, though we have very similar interests." Then the parallels unfold.

Barnet's Charleston-based company, Sisal & Tow, is named for the two key elements used in vintage taxidermy: sisal being the natural fiber woven to create the structure of the animal, and tow being the finer threads used to stuff the animal. It's also a nod to her own family heritage. Her great-great-grandfather owned a textile mill in upstate New York that produced these very materials.

As a child, Barnet visited natural history museums and marveled at display cases. She enjoyed the forced organization: the rows of eggs, the lines of birds, each collection framed so perfectly, like a shadow box, or curiosity cabinet.

"It's fascinating to me why humans like to organize so much," says Barnet. "I think it's a way to deal with the chaos of the world."

Wunderkammer, the title of Witham's show, translates literally as "wonder rooms," a term dating to Renaissance Europe when curious minds would group natural items or relics in a collections to create miniature "cabinets of curiosity." Miniature theaters. A slice of life in a single frame.

KIMBERLY WITHAM/COURTESY OF REDUX CONTEMPORARY ART CENTER
  • Kimberly Witham/courtesy of Redux Contemporary Art Center

If you were to create your own "wunderkammer," you might start by grabbing a napkin or a page from today's paper to use as a backdrop, then selecting an item from your kitchen, then a piece of memorabilia from an old box, maybe pluck a live branch from your yard, arrange it artfully in a frame, then photograph it as a random cross-section of the world as you know it. In Witham's case, she does so with exquisite artistry, using bright and even light, vivid colors, clean lines. Her aesthetically pleasing compositions rival the seductive pages of Real Simple or Martha Stewart Living. Yet in place of a covetable vase you can't afford is a squirrel in rigor mortis. And in place of your next must-have kitchen gadget is a deer seemingly suspended in its final moments of breath.

This might sound jarring, yet somehow it's ... beautiful. There's no blood or trauma. The animals are peaceful, graceful, almost revered.

"That's one thing I noticed right away," says Barnet. "She's positioned them almost the way that they were found when they died, which can be visceral and uncomfortable, yet she's made it beautiful. The way that the animals are placed makes it easier for us to deal with death. I think taxidermy does the same thing. It makes death approachable."

There's an artistic term called vanitas, an old tradition juxtaposing earthly goods (food, wine, silver, possessions) with symbols of mortality (skulls, clocks, dead animals). Flemish painter Adriaen van Utrecht's still-lifes are so beautiful that at first you don't notice the dead rabbit or rotting fruit worked into the gorgeous spread. And when you do, it's the little slap in the face that you needed to remind you of your own transience, to rattle your vanity.

Witham's work has the same effect, blending ornate and man-made objects with the natural world in all of its forms: beauty, wilt, rot, death, and making it cohesively gorgeous.

click to enlarge Charleston taxidermy artist Becca Barnet will discuss her craft surrounded by Kimberly Witham's provocative animal art - LANDON NEIL PHILLIPS
  • Landon Neil Phillips
  • Charleston taxidermy artist Becca Barnet will discuss her craft surrounded by Kimberly Witham's provocative animal art

Initiation and Preservation

Witham trained in Wisconsin, Barnet in Missouri, yet both faced similar scenarios, outnumbered 10-to-one by men. Undaunted and focused, they rolled up their sleeves, grabbed scalpels, learned how to skin and de-fat a dead animal, to treat and preserve the hide and fur, to study and mimic the inner musculature and movement and expression of a given creature. It is a skill requiring great patience, technique, and intuition.

Their classmates, for the most part, were older men wanting to learn how to mount a buck or a friend's mallard, construction workers seeking a side profession to get them through the winter months when work is sparse.

But Witham and Barnet each had something else in mind. They don't hunt their animals. Witham uses animals found literally in her path. Barnet refurbishes existing pieces (she once tackled a walrus from the early 1900s) or creates them from scratch, such as a set of camels she once helped construct for the Museum of Natural History in New York City. The emphasis is on preservation — respect for the natural world.

That's an ethical leap from the moral quicksand of taxidermy's past. Egyptians thought nothing of killing the family pet, mummifying it, and placing it in tombs to accompany its master to the afterlife. Scientific explorers such as Carl Akeley, the "father of modern taxidermy," accompanied Teddy Roosevelt on extended African expeditions to "collect" (i.e. kill) elephants, tigers, and mountain gorillas for educational display (though Akeley did have a change of heart later in life and worked to protect those very gorillas until he died). Then there was British artist Walter Potter, whose dioramas featured stuffed kittens having tea or playing croquet, stuffed bunnies in a schoolhouse hunkered over their studies, or guinea pigs playing cricket. Victorians traipsed to his Museum of Curiosities by the thousands to gawk at these anthropomorphic oddities. Let's not even think about where Potter sourced hundreds of baby kittens.

click to enlarge Not everything in Wunderkammer is dead ... well, not yet anyway - (DETAIL) KIMBERLY WITHAM/COURTESY OF REDUX CONTEMPORARY ART CENTER
  • (Detail) Kimberly Witham/courtesy of Redux Contemporary Art Center
  • Not everything in Wunderkammer is dead ... well, not yet anyway

Modern taxidermy does not seek to kill. It seeks to recycle, with purpose.

"Taxidermy is getting really popular right now," says Barnet. "I think there are a lot of people interested in it. When I do taxidermy, I'm giving animals a new life. I'm giving them another chance to be beautiful and get people close to them, and [Witham] is doing the same thing in a really cool way because she's making these animals approachable. You almost come in feeling that you have to be peaceful because of the way that the art's presented."

I don't know what Barnet will cover in her talk on March 4, but I do know I'd like to be there, to see Witham's show before it closes, to hear about Barnet's inspirations, to hear her talk about the history of taxidermy and other taxidermy artists, to see examples of her installations. Witham's "wonder rooms" have jolted my curiosity.

Becca Barnet will talk about the art of taxidermy and her own work, with slides and a Q&A on March 4 at 6 p.m. at Redux.

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