You lucky, lucky things- we have a very special guest writing for us today, please welcome Kittie who takes us on a journey into the victorian art of taxidermy. Charmed by curiosity Kittie is both ‘funny ha-ha’ and ‘funny peculiar’. A psychologist-turned-entertainment specialist she writes, performs and produces whimsical theatre to high acclaim lauded by both comic and glamour luminaries. Often cited as the founder of the UK burlesque renaissance- through her establishing of the Ministry of Burlesque, Kitty also has a sideline in curios- Moriarty Mittens. Read on for Kittie’s taxidermy adventure!
Taxidermy: it literally means ‘arranged skin’ but to many today, it means something along the lines of ‘weird old stuffed animals’ possibly followed by a brief shudder. How awkward and alien it was to me too – but this was exactly why I wanted to know more. You see I suffer from intense curiosity with a resultant predilection for investigating the peculiar… and you now what? The more I learned about taxidermy’s history, its methods and its eccentrics, the further down the rabbit hole I went.
I read up on the dedicated study of nature and complicated artistry that is involved: detailed knowledge of figure, form and feature, biology, the treating of skins, creating armature, sculpting and artistic animation among other technical skills, innovations and quirks. I was fascinated by the anthropomorphic dioramas of Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter e.g. the adorably cute yet deathly still “Kitten Wedding”. Similarly, amidst the displays of natural history in universities and museums where animals, mammals, fish, butterflies and creepy-crawlies are shown as if alive, in sometimes awe-inspiring (in)action. I felt some insight in to the Victorian mind, seeing their reverence for nature and desire to study, preserve and educate. After all, they didn’t have any Attenborough box sets to watch – or Beanie Babies to collect.
Over the past year or so whilst circulating antique fairs for momento mori and other such, I’ve been taking in waifs and strays of the still life world. If it’s a bit wonky and looks like no ‘serious collector’ would want it, I’ll make room for such a little friend in need of a home. I call my gaggle of somewhat comical misfits (quite literally not fitting their own skins at times) ‘Taxiderpy’. But it’s been a year and I felt that to better appreciate this misunderstood craft, I’d have to have to get my (gloved) hands dirty.
The Internet is a Wonderland of information and on one Sunday afternoon when I was feeling a bit plucky, a quick search found my opportunity. After asking the politely veiled but necessary questions i.e. “how are the (ahem) materials acquired?” [sic] “you didn’t bop these critters yourself did you???” and thus being satisfied that they were ethically sourced, I booked on to a one-day workshop.
Psyched up and ready on the morning of my 9am – 3pm tour de furs, I was greeted by the very lively form of Patricia (artist at Death Warmed Up) in her Stockport studio. I never imagined that a workshop full of dead rodents and scalpels could be so full of giggling but Patricia, myself and another intrepid first-timer engaged in a camaraderie that saw us through the removing and preparation of the pelt, the building, sculpting, stitching and posing of our projects.
It was fascinating. Patricia provided everything we needed including props and posing paraphernalia to choose from while her flair for teaching took us through each stage with demonstration, open discussion and well-timed encouragement. Little rats riding teacups were the end results, naturally.
The outcome was strangely warm and fuzzy (and that was not just our take home pieces!) I felt I gained a lot. I have increased respect for a rodent’s physical being and how it’s ‘made up’, for the craft of taxidermy, for the patience and skill of all those who work with that incredible stuff called skin and also those preserving, conserving and celebrating the natural world, past and present. It gave me lots to think about too – and this is possibly the best part of any education.
So, if you want to try something different, test your own comfort zone or really surprise a loved one with an unforgettable date, perhaps this workshop is for you. It’s literally a chance to make new friends.