By Drew Lazor
Taxidermy always has carried a bit of a good-old-boy connotation here on the East Coast - an expressionless moose watching over a bar, a largemouth bass swimming up an Elks Lodge wall, the head of a 12-point buck mounted in your rich uncle's den. But hunt-loving Pennsylvania, and Philadelphia in particular, is also home to a community of unconventional taxidermy experts, artisans who tug and pull at the boundaries of anatomical correctness with fancy and fantasy in mind.
Since the conventional understanding of taxidermy is relegated to the straight-ahead realms of trophy production, pet preservation and scientific study (think Academy of Natural Sciences dioramas), it's easy to forget that taxidermy is also a fine art, one that requires years of experience and an innate understanding of living creatures and their forms.
Artists who manipulate this understanding by stretching the limitations of the practice are known as "rogue" or "alternative" taxidermists.
"You're taking what nature has presented and putting a twist on it - anthropomorphizing, or putting in some kind of feature that would never occur in nature," said Beth Beverly, who owns and operates Kensington-based Diamond Tooth Taxidermy.
Although she does take on plenty of commissions to immortalize beloved family pets, Beverly's most inspired work involves the odd stuff. A guinea hen reimagined into a dreamcatcher. A rooster head holding a bejeweled breath-mint caddy in its clenched beak. Even wearables, like a top hat complete with a curious squirrel leaning on its brim.
"More and more people are becoming aware that there are different ways to employ it - not just a dusty old caribou in a cabin," said Beverly, a state- and federally licensed taxidermist who got her start working with dead birds she'd find on the sidewalk.
On Saturday, Beverly is hosting her second annual Philadelphia Alt-Taxidermy Competition, which will bring together as many as 20 like-minded taxidermists with a flair for the unconventional. Organized as a contest, the event, which will be held at Keystone Mini Golf, in Kensington, will see entrants introducing elaborate taxidermied works with accompanying presentations.
It will be judged by a diverse panel - Nicole Angemi, a Philly pathologist's assistant who builds her taxidermy and medical specimen collection when she is not performing autopsies; Evi Numen, exhibit designer for the Mutter Museum; and Mike Zohn, co-owner of Obscura Antiques, in New York City's East Village.
Zohn, whose shop is featured on the Discovery Channel's "Oddities," has recognized an increase in interest in all things off-kilter - good news for his business.
"The cabinet of curiosity - the odd aesthetic, weird animals, sideshow stuff, two-headed calves, animals with extra limbs - all that stuff is really popular right now," he said. (Last year, he entered Beverly's first-ever Philly contest as a competitor, impressing the crowd with a Victorian-era animatronic bird-in-a-cage he had restored himself.)
Alternative taxidermy plays an important part in this sphere, and it's helping to loosen the stigma of taxidermy as a skeevy or off-putting practice.
Influenced in the mainstream by the likes of Walter Potter, the turn-of-the-century English taxidermist famous for his anthropomorphic work, as well as more contemporary art-world figures, like Damien Hirst, alt-taxidermy is inching toward the mainstream, where it has been greeted by an audience of collectors and enthusiasts that's on the uptick.
"As you move toward more urban areas, you get away from natural history," said Zohn of the growing modern popularity of taxidermy. "Most city dwellers' idea of a wild animal is a squirrel. Most of the interest is with people trying to get back to the natural world." More....