Not Your Weird Uncle’s Taxidermy

Erin Derham’s Stuffed Breathes New Life into a (Literally) Dead Art

Stylish taxidermist Allis Markham adds detail to a perched bird.

Picture a taxidermist. 

Odds are you imagine a bearded man in hunting gear in a spooky cabin way out in the woods, or maybe a Norman Bates-ish character — pale, creepy, and skulking around dead things in dim-lit spaces.

You probably don’t picture a lively, fashionable young woman like Allis Markham of Los Angeles, whose stuffed birds and vignettes have been featured in fashion magazines and couture campaigns. You don’t imagine soft-spoken South African Travis C. de Villiers, with his naturalist’s intensity and reverence for all living things. And it would take you a while to get to anyone like Ferry Van Tongeren and Jaap Sinke, two Dutch artists whose exquisite museum-bound tableaux mimic the brilliant colors and high drama of Baroque painting. 

These contemporary taxidermists, and dozens more, are the focus of local filmmaker Erin Derham’s Stuffed, a beautifully shot and surprisingly cuddly documentary about a subject long associated with the highly macabre.

Derham’s contemporary taxidermists defy the ghoulish stereotype that has long fogged practitioners of their craft. They consider themselves artists and naturalists. They are animal lovers and conservationists, who approach their craft with passion and wit. They know what you think about taxidermy and they have a sense of humor about it. “I tell dates I’m a 3-D animal artist,” says Daniel Meng, a baby-faced interviewee.  

Stuffed shows its artists at work, in studios in museums, at conventions, where they compete and socialize, and allows them to narrate the various paths they took to their unconventional vocation, via mentorships or lifelong fascination. One devotee wryly describes the art as landing “somewhere between a hobby and an addiction.”

The film also delves into the history of contemporary taxidermy, with considerable time spent on figures like Carl Akeley, whose pioneering works in New York’s Museum of Natural History served as an inspiration for generations of animal lovers and taxidermists alike. Subjects also discuss the changing culture of taxidermy, from early courses by mail to the growing popularity of so-called “rogue taxidermy,” whose mostly young practitioners create chimeras, whimsical creatures, and improbable vignettes. 

“It is not our goal to reproduce animals,” says Ferry Van Tongeren, “but to make cool stuff.”

And it is cool stuff indeed. The artists of Stuffed imbue their creations with personality, character, and beauty. It is not life, exactly, but an often-exciting collision of nature and technique.

“Taxidermists do what they do not because they see death but because they see life,” says Van Tongeren. 

That life is plainly evident in their work — and in the animated the way these “addicts” discuss their passion.

The Gallery at Flat Rock (2702-A Greenville Hwy.) will screen Stuffed at 4pm on Sunday, Feb. 23, with the director present, and again at 4pm on Monday, Feb. 24. For more information, call 828-698-7000 or see galleryflatrock.com

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