By Richard Chin
Autumn, Keats informs us, is the "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness."
It's also a good time for taxidermy art, according to Robert Marbury.
Which, according to Marbury, could include a kitten wearing a saddle, a two-headed chick or a cereal bowl containing the bloody-mouthed head of a raccoon.
"The fall is really the point where this art rings truest to me," Marbury said.
For one thing, it's hunting season, when we're killing a lot of the stuff that traditionally gets preserved by taxidermy.
Cooler weather also means road kill animals favored by some taxidermy artists are less likely to have decayed too much.
And there's Halloween just around the corner, that time of year when we think about death, creepiness, the macabre and all things squirm-inducing.
Which pretty much sums up what Marbury is talking about when he talks about taxidermy art. Marbury describes himself as a rogue taxidermist. Ten years ago he helped start a consortium with Twin Cities artists Sarina Brewer and Scott Bibus called the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists.
Now he's the author of a new book, "Taxidermy Art: A Rogue's Guide To The Work, The Culture, And How To Do It Yourself."
Rogue taxidermy, according to Marbury, is "a genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed-media sculptures containing traditional taxidermy materials used in an unconventional manner."
His book illustrates what that means with examples from artists around the world creating works you'd never see in a hunting lodge or a natural history museum.
Advertisement Like a bear with a person's face, a crucified parrot or a fox being tormented by a swarm of fairies with insect wings. Often dark and disturbing, sometimes monstrous, it's taxidermy with a message and an ethos.
For example, none of the artists in the book hunted the animals they used, according to Marbury.
Their works include animals that died accidentally or from natural causes. They're road kill, animals that died in zoos, deceased pets, discarded or repurposed taxidermy mounts, livestock remnants or food animal parts rescued from dumpsters.
"Every piece is the artist's expression of his or her love and wonder of animals, and none of the artists involved in this book contributed to the death of any animals for their work," according to Marbury.
"I'm really asking everybody to craft a sense of ethics in what they're doing," he said. "We think of it as a genre of art, not a bad version of taxidermy."
Marbury has been described as a "vegan" taxidermist, using discarded stuffed animals that once were tied to the grills of delivery and garbage trucks in his "Anthology of Imaginary Urban Beasts."
The artists in Marbury's book create works that are commentaries on animal stewardship, the environment, pop culture or the nature of death.
A sculpture titled "Crying Out Loud in the Age of Stupid," for example, features a polar bear perched on top of a sinking refrigerator, a possible commentary on the threat of extinction due to global warming.
Bibus is a 35-year-old rogue taxidermist and haunted house prop creator from Minneapolis. In his works, he explores themes of death and vulnerability and how humans rank in the food chain.
A road kill squirrel, for example, appears to be literally holding out its heart, freshly torn from its furry chest. Bibus made it as an anniversary gift for his fiance.
"The first gift I gave her was a dead octopus in a jar," he said.
When the Minnesota group was created 10 years ago, rogue taxidermy received some criticism from traditional taxidermists who primarily were concerned with making dead animals look alive, not grotesque or provocative.
"People thought we were not taxidermists," said Bibus, who actually trained in a traditional taxidermy course at a technical college in Pine City in 2003.
When Bibus made a diorama with a beaver appearing to eat a human thumb, "The guys in class, they were like, 'Scott, beavers don't eat thumbs.' "
Marbury said he isn't in opposition to hunting or traditional taxidermy. He's been invited to be a judge at taxidermy competitions. He was scheduled to give a book signing at a showplace of conventional taxidermy, the University of Minnesota's Bell Museum on Thursday. But the event had to be canceled because Marbury's wife went into labor early and he had to rush home for the birth of his first child.
Marbury, 43, lives in Baltimore where he has a day job with an ad agency. When he helped start the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, he lived in Minneapolis where he was a student and an instructor at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
Preserving dead animals as an urban art form is experiencing new life, according to Marbury, with workshops springing up in cities from London to Los Angeles.
"Not since the Victorian era has taxidermy been so popular," Marbury said.
Marbury said taxidermy's current hipness is part of the renewal of traditional handmade crafts ranging from knitting to pickling.
In addition to being a photo-filled coffee-table volume for the strong of stomach, Marbury's book is also a how-to for the aspiring rogue taxidermist, with step-by-step instructions on beginner projects like mounting a squirrel. (Modern taxidermists say the correct term for what they do is mounting an animal, not stuffing it.)
There are also primers on how to mount a bird, how to clean a skull using a flesh-eating beetle colony and how to use "brain soup" to tan a hide.
Marbury also offers suggestions on where nonhunting taxidermy artists get animals. Pet stores sell frozen mice, guinea pigs and rabbits intended as snake food, for example. Ethnic food markets are another possibility.
He has a list of suppliers for glass eyes, squirrel forms and lab equipment and has advice on safe practices and legal and ethical considerations: Endangered animals can't be collected or sold. Certain jurisdictions forbid collecting road kill. And a mounted pet might arouse some sensibilities.
"Nothing turns a community against a taxidermist faster than the suspicion that he had murdered someone's pet for a mount," Marbury said.
Marbury also includes a section on important figures in the history of taxidermy, like showman P.T. Barnum, who had the celebrity elephant Jumbo mounted, and John James Audubon, avid bird illustrator and taxidermist.
Marbury also explains why movie director Alfred Hitchcock is the bÃªte noire of taxidermists thanks to his 1960 film "Psycho," which featured the character of Norman Bates, a homicidal hobby taxidermist.
Since then, "people who spend a lot of quiet time with dead animals" have been unfairly compared to Norman Bates, Marbury said.
"If you're a chef, you spend a lot of time with dead animals, too," he said.