Chris Styles speaks to ethical taxidermist, Krysten Newby, about the truth behind the art of taxidermy and how she turned her passion for art and nature into a business.
There is something about seeing an animal in the flesh; something you cannot get from an image. It is tangible, you can understand its weight, its height, its literal embodiment. In a previous life, I studied Zoology and Ecology, and I remember reading books of animal keys (imagine a pick-your-own adventure but in the end, you always end up being an animal of some sort) or books on animal mechanics, where the technical illustrations always looked a little…. off. Even the best illustrations or videos cannot do the real creature justice. Then, I would step into the University’s Zoology Museum, a lifeless menagerie, full of beasts great and small, and some now extinct. Even if some of these specimens had seen better days, they took up physical space, instilled with a quasi-potential for life.
I think that if you study any form of life, you must have at least a small amount of fascination with death as sometimes this is the only way to learn how the trick is done. When dissecting a frog, you learn a lot in the process, but sadly, in the end, you are left with a dead frog.
So here lies the importance of a skilled taxidermist, an illusionist who can seem to bring the dead back to life. And although not the real thing… we can sometimes learn far more from a good approximation. We speak to artist and taxidermist Krysten Newby, about how she sees her craft and selling these ideas to the world around her.
How did you get into taxidermy? Art/science/business? Did you have an interest in animals/anatomy before you started training?
My love and total admiration for nature and wildlife from a very young age definitely played a part in my journey to becoming a taxidermist. As a little girl and young naturalist, I never had any idea that I would become one – but all I did know that I wanted to work with animals. Marine biologist, veterinary nurse and an equine physiotherapist were all on the cards, but I never wanted to give up on my dream of becoming a traditional artist and my friends and family always told me it was a talent I should never give up.
So in the end, it has worked out perfectly! I’d say getting into taxidermy was a natural progression. It’s birds, in particular, I’ve always had an extreme fondness for. I was never a child who liked to play with dolls or watched cartoons much, I was always glued to the windows watching birds in the garden, then looking them up in bird books to see what they were. I did daily walks around the garden to collect dropped feathers as a very young child, followed by collecting other bits of natural history such as skulls and entomology in my teens. Then, I started collecting a bit of old, antique taxidermy for drawing reference.
‘Dead stuff’ is something I have always had a morbid fascination with though – the opportunity to see animals up close in all of their glory, seeing how each piece of anatomy works, learning with every observation. I remember dissecting fish in a biology lesson once and that afternoon after school, my best friend and I ordered her parents to drive us to the supermarket so we could get some fish from the deli counter. We revisited our biology lesson earlier on in the day, in the summerhouse in the heat of summer, which wasn’t the wisest of ideas…but we had so much fun and those memories certainly sparked something within me and possibly fuelled my hunger to explore the world of taxidermy.
What is the usual response you get when you tell people about what you do?
When I tell people that I’m a taxidermist, I watch their eyebrows rise and fall as they’re going through the emotions of astonishment, curiosity, then disgust, as they ask “so you have to gut them and everything?!”
To which I explain that I carefully peel the skin off the carcass so no ‘gutting’ is involved (unless it is a badly deformed roadkill). I tell them to visualise the chicken they roast on a Sunday and that it looks similar once a bird is skinned so they have something to relate to. I always find it funny how people who eat meat are squeamish about ‘dead things’, but are totally fine with the idea of handling and preparing something such as a chicken carcass to eat. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t have a head and feet therefore is easy to dissociate from a once-living being?
What part of your work do you think would surprise people most?
People are most surprised by just how many processes and skills are involved in creating a piece of taxidermy. Most people don’t realise that beneath the skin, is an anatomically correct, handcrafted mannequin that has to mirror the original carcass with absolute accuracy.
Once a bird is skinned, I take measurements of every part of the carcass and note them down before carving and sanding a body out of balsa wood, or foam for very small birds. So a ‘taxidermist’ is really an umbrella term for being a sculptor with a keen eye for detail, hairdresser, biologist, carpenter, architect, an alchemist of sorts, and most importantly of all in my opinion – a keen naturalist.
What was the learning process like? How do you practice etc?
Taxidermy is a constant learning process. I am learning new ways to do things and things I never knew from a zoological perspective, with every specimen I work with, and that’s what I love about it. Just recently, I was working with a red-crested turaco and to my amazement, the red pigment was appearing to come out of the primary feathers as I was skinning! After doing some research, I learned that turacos harbour this amazing red pigment as a result of their copper-rich diet which is totally unique to them, which was even used as a paint pigment in years gone by! They are also the only bird to have ‘true green’ feathers, which isn’t a result of light refracting in the feather structure.
But in terms of learning the craft itself, it is really a case of trial and error and you learn from your mistakes very quickly. I consider myself self-taught, apart from a day course in London where I learned how to do the absolute basics working with a rat. I religiously watched as many youtube tutorials and read as many books as I could, which all varied massively with methods. Like any art, there’s no right or wrong way to really do things, so I used the knowledge as a guide, applied it to my practice, and sort of found my own way of working, but this is not without many failures! I love to look back on them to see how far I have excelled.
Were you ever squeamish?
I was never really squeamish, but more nervous about working on animals as I was afraid of not being able to do them justice. So I did have a lot of anxieties when I first started out.
The only thing I am not really fond of, are ticks and parasitic worms that come with specimens, especially when they’re still alive! I freeze all of my specimens prior to working on them, which resolves this issue.
How do you refer to the animals you work on? Subject, specimen, piece, animal? Do you think how you address something changes how you perceive it?
I prefer to refer to the animals I work on as ‘specimens’. I think this helps build the association to a practice of science and natural history, rather than a ‘trophy’ for ‘sport’, which is a stereotype I want to keep as far away from as possible.
Is there much separation between your taxidermy and your other artwork? How much is it about re-creating something as it was or do you try and add some majesty to your subjects through creative licence?
The overall thought process is much the same for both my taxidermy and traditional art. For both practices, I have to have a good knowledge and understanding of the animal, what it’s ecology is like i.e it’s habitat, behavioral attributes, and diet, in order for me to create accurate concept sketches true to the subject.
I do quite like to create a homage to the animal and represent it to a true former likeness in a creative way through. Recently I have started to work with resin and have incorporated it into the wooden bases for my specimens. My favourite piece is a Eurasian Jay, which has acorns embedded in the clear resin, sandwiched between two pieces of oak. Jay’s bury and ‘stache’ acorns for a food source in the winter and the ones they do forget, turn in to oak trees! I thought this was artistic, yet an educational way of showing the ecology of the Jay – my favourite bird.
Can you tell us about starting your own business? Was that always your plan, to use your art training to open a studio?
Starting my own business definitely wasn’t my plan, although having said that, I never really had a plan, to begin with! In 2014, I graduated from university with a graphic design degree, and soon after, I had a job at a local design studio doing illustration for car wraps for almost a year. However, due to my ongoing battle with Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fibromyalgia, I had to resign as it was too demanding and I had to have a lot of time off.
Although I have been suffering with these chronic conditions since the age of 9, I went through a particularly rough patch during this time, even the simplest of tasks such as showering and brushing my teeth would leave me completely exhausted and unable to carry out any other activities for the rest of the day. I found it extremely difficult to adapt to this new, slower way of life and lost a lot of friends along the way, as they didn’t quite understand why I couldn’t meet up with them and were declining their invitations to events.
Having all of this free time at home has allowed me to focus 100% on my art and taxidermy and it seems to have naturally progressed into something people are genuinely interested in – I soon built up a commissions list, much to my amazement and delight! I do explain to people about a waiting list before taking on work, which they are mostly fine with thankfully, they don’t mind the wait. I allow a lot of extra time to take on projects to accommodate for days I am unable to work due to frequent illness.
Unlike most taxidermists that can get things done in a couple of days, I have to vigorously pace myself. I’ll allow a morning for skinning a specimen (which will most likely deplete me of energy for the rest of the day) then pop the skin back in the freezer which is essentially the equivalent of hitting the ‘pause’ button on a project. Another day, I will make the form based on the carcass measurements, and I will allow myself an additional 3 days (typically) to clean the skin, mount it on to the form and ‘feather’, which is the process of making sure each feather is where it should be.
You advertise yourself as an “Ethical Taxidermist”. Can you discuss why it is important to make this distinction, what does this mean to you?
Branding myself as an ethical taxidermist is something that is extremely important to me. I know ‘ethical’ is a subjective thing and what it may mean to one person, won’t necessarily mean the same thing to another. For me, animal welfare and conservation are at the forefront of what I do and I will not work with any specimen that has been killed unnecessarily for a so-called ‘trophy’ or the pure purpose of taxidermy.
The only specimens I do work with that have had their lives deliberately terminated are those that have been culled in the interest of another, more vulnerable species. A prime example of that is having predator control on nature reserves to protect very vulnerable breeding birds that are in declines, such as Stone Curlew and other ground-nesting birds. The carcasses of the predators such as carrion crows and foxes will only end up being incinerated, therefore I obtain them for free and I just prefer to preserve their beauty.
I also donate a percentage of my profits to my local wildlife trust and other conservation charities to enable them to continue the amazing work they do to conserve and protect our wildlife. So in an unconventional, roundabout way, although these animals have perished in very sad circumstances, their legacy lives on through the medium of taxidermy and they are actively helping other wildlife to thrive – it’s the ciiirrrcle of liiiife!
One more point I’d like to say is that I donate the carcasses of my birds of prey to the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme, which gathers and analyse data such as the level of toxins like lead and other poisons that get into the food chain, within the carcasses. Very important research for the wellbeing of our birds of prey, who are often at the top of the food chain which gives us an indication of how the rest of our ecosystem is doing.
When most people think of taxidermy they probably imagine people getting family pets “stuffed” which is a service you do not seem to offer, what are your thoughts on this practice?
Preserving pets is a controversial subject within the taxidermy industry. It’s a service I personally don’t offer, as people have a very deep, emotional connection with their beloved pets and know every single little quirk and characteristic about them. This is something taxidermists would never be able to comprehend and therefore it is very difficult to portray the character and soul that a pet owner knew so deeply into the art of taxidermy. This especially applies to pets such as cats and dogs, that hold so much emotion in their face, again, something that’s difficult to get right.
Not only is it the physical and technical aspect of pet taxidermy which is the challenge, but the emotional one too. People are understandably distraught over the trauma of losing a pet and may not be able to bare the thought of living without them. They may make impulse and irrational decisions during this time. For this reason, I urge anyone thinking of getting their pet preserved to keep them in the freezer for at least 6 months and revisit the prospect of having them preserved after this time. Many people will change their minds after they’ve had time to grieve.
What is the weirdest thing you have ever mounted?
I get asked this question a lot…most of the animals I work with are roadkill, so I don’t get to work on exotic and unusual specimens very often, however, I always love working on a woodpecker as their tongues wrap right around their skull and sit in a special groove between their eyes. That’s pretty weird!
Can you describe the process and the tools you use?
Most of the tools I use are probably what you’d expect, scalpels, knives, etc. but there are some pretty cool taxidermy specific ones out there that you won’t have heard of, like a brain scoop or a tail stripper! It’s the most satisfying part of skinning mammals for me – using this tool makes removing the tail bone from the skin a lot easier, it literally slides out like a slippery glove off a hand. I’m sure other taxidermists can relate.
The taxidermy process in a nutshell for mammals consists in order of the following:
After the specimen has defrosted, I’ll remove the skin from the carcass, usually by making an incision down the belly.
Next, I will deflesh and remove all bits of membrane, flesh, and fat from the skin.
The skin then goes through the tanning process, in which I first have to ‘pickle’ the skin which prepares the epidermis by removing unwanted proteins for accepting tannins. This solution has to have a PH level of between 1.0 and 2.0.
After neutralising, the skin will then go into the tanning solution, which will strengthen and preserve the skin and turn it into a strong, durable leather.
After the mannequin or ‘form’ is accurately recreated from the carcass measurements, I will mount the skin on to it and move into position. Glass eyes are fitted to the form prior to the skin is mounted.
Birds go through a similar process, but go through a series of washes and soaks instead of tanning, as their skin is paper-thin and very delicate!
What makes a bad piece of taxidermy?
Taxidermy is undoubtedly a form of art, so there is no right or wrong, good or bad way of doing it providing the skin is properly preserved.
But it does annoy me a lot when I see taxidermists that clearly have little understanding of the subject they’re working on. For instance, not knowing what species you’re working with means you can’t plan in advance or research into their ecology, to know what pose they are typically seen in, their eye colour, habitat, etc. and this very clearly reflects in the finished article. A little bit of my soul dies every time I see someone use black eyes for my favourite bird – the Eurasian Jay as they have gorgeous, vibrant blue eyes!
There are ‘rogue’ taxidermy artists who like a lot of creativity into their pieces and step away from the traditional approach. Although they aren’t focused on representing how the animal would have looked in their former life, I do enjoy seeing all the weird hybrids people come up with! I especially have a fascination with animals in mythology and there are some great taxidermy artists that have come up with mystical beasts such as griffons, using parts from multiple creatures that some people would consider ‘bad taxidermy’, I suppose.
How does taxidermy make you think about your own mortality/have you thought about what you want to happen to you after you die?
Taxidermy definitely makes me reflect on how fragile we all are when I’m working on birds especially and how we’re only here for a fleeting moment in the Earth’s endless timeline. It sounds very cliche, but It’s encouraged me to make the most of every single day, even if that means observing and appreciating wildlife through the window when my health is bad.
I haven’t given too much thought into what I want to happen when I die, but I would like to be returned to nature in whatever form rather than cremated, I like the idea of my body being given back to the earth. Also, a sky burial would be really cool! Not very practical in the UK though, mind you.
Is there any message would you like to get across to the general public about taxidermy?
I’d love to reiterate the point and defeat the stereotype that is not all taxidermists are blood-thirsty psychopaths that kill animals for fun! There is now a huge community that preserves animals because they love and have great admiration for the natural world. We see the priceless educational and scientific value of taxidermy, which is now more important than ever with the number of species at risk of extinction. In years to come, sadly taxidermy may be the only way of appreciating the creatures walking the earth today.
How important is it for you to have a creative outlet?
Having a creative outlet is the most important thing for me – it’s honestly the only reason that gets me out of bed. Not only is it my only form of pain relief and a chance to escape from my ailments for a while, but it also gives me hope and fuels my ambition to make better art and advance in my taxidermy career. It also so good for my mental wellbeing – being stuck at home all the time isn’t easy, so it keeps me busy.
For more information on Krysten’s work go to https://taxidermyco.uk/
Pictures from Krysten Newby.
A version of this interview features on https://sciculture.eu/a-more-modern-prometheus/