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Whimsical taxidermy catches on in Baltimore

After decades of being relegated to man caves and hunting lodges, taxidermy is hip.

Three cable television shows delve into the art of preserving animals, and its practitioners. There are national taxidermy competitions and conferences and even a New York City museum devoted to the art.

At Bazaar, a Hampden curiosity shop that opened last year, ducklings that died soon after pecking through their shells, jars with preserved fox and coyote heads and even a rare albino raccoon are on display. The shop can't keep up with the demand for the taxidermy workshops it began hosting last month.

Tickets for an upcoming class on preserving moles -- and outfitting them with eyeglasses and coffee mugs -- sold out within minutes, said Bazaar co-owner Greg Hatem.

"We had people lined up at the door to get in the class," he said.

Unlike the stuffed bucks and bears of years past, today's taxidermy skews toward the fanciful. Think two-headed squirrels, goats with fishtails or mice wearing petticoats.

Practitioners are more likely to scour country roads for dead animals than hunt. And, in contrast to the boys club atmosphere in most taxidermy shops, many of the biggest names in taxidermy today are women.

"It's like any other art," said Miranda Beck, 36, a Federal Hill esthetician. "It's so interesting to me to have these wild, untamable animals in my living room, to bring the wildness in."

Beck vowed to learn taxidermy to mark her 30th birthday, and, since then, she has preserved eight animals. And that's not counting the pets she mummified for friends or the earrings she fashioned from deer vertebrae.

A self-described "anatomy geek," Beck savors studying animals she would never be able to get close to in the wild.

"You notice the different textures of fur," she said. "Otherwise you'd never know the difference between the fur of a raccoon and a fox."

While modern taxidermy -- the practice of preserving, stuffing and mounting animals -- arose in the 1700s, the current fascination is inspired by the whimsical creations of the Victorian era, Robert Marbury said. He is a Baltimore resident, although he's also the president of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists.

Traditional taxidermists attempt to create perfect specimens of animals in lifelike poses, but rogue taxidermists create chimeras -- say, the head of a chicken on a body of a cat -- or pose animals to make them look human. The works are playful, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and often beautiful.

Marbury, whose book, "The Rogue's Guide to Taxidermy," is slated to be published in the fall, says taxidermy provides a connection to the visceral realities of fur and bone and death -- a contrast to the virtual worlds that consume us.

Mitch Webb, president of the National Association of Taxidermists, said "there's been a real uptrend" of interest in taxidermy, although the growth is difficult to quantify.

Television shows that profile rogue taxidermists such as AMC's "Immortalized" and the Discovery Channel's "Oddities" have introduced the art to a larger audience in the past couple of years. Workshops are being offered from Portland, Ore., to Nashville, Tenn., and curiosity shops similar to Bazaar have opened in New York and San Francisco. 

In Brooklyn, N.Y., the Morbid Anatomy Museum, a library and museum devoted to taxidermy, opened in 2008 and has grown so popular that it is moving to a larger space in April.

Beck, the esthetician, was among a dozen people who filed into Bazaar for a winged-guinea pig-making workshop on a recent chilly Sunday.

A partially thawed guinea pig was placed in front of each seat, and participants studied them carefully, picking the furry face they found most appealing. Some of the students looked a little queasy as reality sank in.

"If anyone needs some fresh air, you can go out the front door," Bazaar co-owner Brian Henry said. "Or if there's an emergency, you can go out the back."

The workshop instructor, Katie Innamorato, 24, handed out scalpels and latex gloves, which, she said, most people prefer to wear.

Innamorato wore a ski hat over her long, wavy hair and a fox tail clipped to her waist band. She said she wanted to be a vet when she was growing up but her interest in art -- as well as dead animals -- led her to taxidermy.

"I used to pick up road kill when I was a kid," she said.

Innamorato, along with Divya Anantharaman, who is teaching the mole workshop at Bazaar, is a taxidermist-in-residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum. Innamorato floated through the classroom, guiding students as they pushed in the scalpels just below the base of the guinea pigs' skulls. They sliced along the spine, then peeled the skin from the creatures' muscles and viscera, which, several people pointed out, looked rather like raw chicken.

Jody Sanford, 51, collected the discarded organs and muscles to leave in the woods near her farm in Freeland for other animals to eat.

The guinea pigs used for the class were "feeders" -- animals bred to be fed to snakes or other pets. Rogue taxidermists generally do not kill creatures for taxidermy, preferring to use road kill or animals that have died naturally. Animals that have been killed for food, either human or pet, however, occupy a "gray area," Marbury, president of the rogue taxidermy association, said.

Such animals are often used for workshops, since they are likely to be uniform, in good condition and free of disease.

Eleni Diamantopoulos gave her guinea pig a name: Eloise.

A graphic designer for "House of Cards," Diamantopoulos and her wife, artist Nikki Diamantopoulos, said they've gotten hooked on taxidermy since Bazaar opened last year. They have several pieces in their Hampden home and gave taxidermied ducklings to guests at their wedding last summer.

Despite her appreciation for taxidermy, Eleni Diamantopoulos said the actual act of cutting into the dead body of a guinea pig made her queasy. The room smelled of rubbing alcohol -- which is used to dry and preserve the skins -- and a faint animal smell a little like cat food.

The work was tedious. After removing the muscles and organs, the students spent more than an hour scraping bits of tissue off the skin, a process called "fleshing."

The participants then soaked the skins, dried them, stuffed them and sewed them back up. The faces required delicate work, as did preserving the creatures' fragile ears.

As the students sewed quail wings to the guinea pigs' backs, Innamorato explained that the list of animals on which you can perform taxidermy is rather short. Many birds are considered protected species, and can't be used for taxidermy, even when they are found dead.

Leeann Hoerr, a 31-year-old office manager from Bel Air, said she thought her 7-year-old daughter would love the winged guinea pig.

"It's your own design," she said.  "Your own doll in animal form." 

julie.scharper@baltsun.com

twitter.com/juliemore

Go rogue

Bazaar is at 3534 Chestnut Ave. in Hampden, and is open from noon-7 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. For more information and questions about classes, call 410-844-3015, email bazaarbaltimore@gmail.com or go to bazaarbaltimore.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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