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From animal to art

Missouri taxidermists use creativity to bring dead animals to life
Tuesday, January 2, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:44 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Gary Sharp’s garage workshop is filled with drawers of glass eyeballs, shelves of paint and walls mounted with yellow Styrofoam mannequins in the shape of deer heads. Everything has its place. There is an island countertop in the middle of the room where Sharp works with animal skins 20 to 30 hours a week.

Audio slideshow

The method behind the art: Gary Sharp, a Boonville taxidermist, explains the work that goes into mounting a white tailed deer. Launch slideshow


Sharp, a retired teacher from Boonville, considers himself a part-time professional taxidermist, but his home suggests that his profession is a full-time way of life.

His kitchen has two refrigerators: one for food and one for dead animals.

Two otters look like they’re gracefully swimming together in the study.

His living room appears to be a strange zoo where animals that would never be seen together in the wild all lurk in the same cozy habitat. An unnaturally large bobcat creeps down a rocky mountainside, while a ram with 2-foot curly horns treads across a ridge mounted 15 feet high on the two-story living room wall. A black bear is sitting comfortably on the carpet in front of the television, positioned as if he’s a child watching his favorite show.

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Taxidermist Gary Sharp uses his artistry and knowledge of anatomy to make his creations more realistic and true to nature. (Photos by ALISON FONTE/Missourian)

“I call him Boo-Boo,” Sharp said of the black bear. He and his wife are crazy about the animal, and Sharp even takes it for rides in his truck on occasion.

“He looks good at stop lights and stuff,” he said.

Sharp acquired these animal skins differently than he would a typical whitetail deer mount, which comes from a hunter who pays between $250 and $400, depending on size, for it to be mounted. Sharp acquired the otters when a car hit them on the highway. He received the bobcat from a Kansas wildcat farm that had to put to sleep a particularly large, aggressive bobcat.

Sharp created the pieces around his house either for competitions or his own enjoyment, but the bulk of his work is not so artistic. Although he prefers to do creative pieces, he mostly mounts white-tailed deer and other game for customers who want a lasting trophy of their hunt. Sharp said he gets a great deal of satisfaction from giving them a tangible, lasting memory.

“That extends for them that hunt or that fishing trip,” he said. “It will go on for years.”

He occasionally gets an unusual request from a customer. One woman called to tell him her pet goldfish was nearing the end of its life. She requested that Sharp mount the 4-inch pet.

Sharp told the woman, “If he doesn’t make it I’m sorry, but you’ll have to bury him or flush him down the toilet because I can’t do a 4-inch goldfish.” Not only is a goldfish too small, but as a general rule Sharp won’t taxidermy pets.

“People treat their pets like humans,” he said. “It’s that personality thing. I can’t make a particular cat, somebody’s pet, look like it did.”

Sharp said one particular mount really made him feel good about his work. He rushed to finish mounting a deer for a man who had just been diagnosed with liver cancer. The deer decorated the wall of the man’s hospital room for the last week of his life.

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Sharp says he enjoys working with otters in his projects because of their graceful bodies. “They can do so many things with their bodies in the water,” he says. Sharp has also worked with deer, bears and exotic animals.

“That gave, obviously, a lot of satisfaction to him, but it did for me too,” he said. “That’s when you think maybe it does mean something.”

Marcus Detring, a taxidermist of over 20 years in Farmington, said his satisfaction from taxidermy comes from the fact that it’s so challenging. He doesn’t think it’s possible to create the perfect piece.

“Nature is just too perfect on it’s own,” he said. “We can’t duplicate it.”

The process

The most challenging animals Detring mounts are the exotic ones, he said.

For most typical animals, such as the white-tailed deer or bass, taxidermists fit the skin on Styrofoam mannequins that mimic the bone and muscle structures of the animals. The mannequins can be ordered from a catalogue to save taxidermists time and money that would have been spent on creating their own models.

The animal skins are cleaned and salted to preserve them before the taxidermy process begins. They are then soaked in a pickling solution for disinfection, tanned for preservation and fitted around the mannequin. Because this process takes about a week, many taxidermists streamline the process by preparing several skins at once.

They use glass eyeballs that can cost up to $30 a pair and a water-based clay to form realistic eyes, which Sharp said is the most important part of making the animal look authentic. Some birds require artificial heads and feet because the natural bills have many openings that attract insects.

Exotic animals are difficult because there are no pre-made mannequins for them, so Detring must use his knowledge of anatomy to alter an existing form. He has done life-size mounts of a rhinoceros, a 13½-foot crocodile and a gazelle and ibex from Central China.

The creative side

“To basically put something together it doesn’t require a tremendous amount of artistic talent, but to do it well, and consistently well, it does require artistic talent,” Detring said. He compared the difference between a taxidermist and a good taxidermist to the difference between a carpenter and an architect. One knows the method while the other knows both the method and the design.

Columbia taxidermist Jim Cook said he considers Detring one of the best taxidermists in the country.

“He sees things and can transform those things with his hands and fingers in a way that we only dream about,” he said.

Detring’s life-size cougar mount was recognized in the 2004 Wildlife Artist Supply Co.’s competition as one of the most artistic entries.

“I think that piece did well because I just captured the facial and body expression of that particular animal,” Detring said.

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Gary Sharp uses an airbrush to touch up the mouth of a newly mounted deer.

But Detring mentions Sharp as one who has created pieces that have inspired him. Observing and practicing with other taxidermists is one of the best ways to learn taxidermy.

“Honestly it’s also a matter of spending lots of time,” Cook said.

He said the job takes a great deal of patience. Every small detail must be considered, from the shape of the eye and droop of the eyelid to the position of the ears.

When Sharp paints the nose of a deer mount, his eyes and hands are fully focused on the task. He scrutinizes the nose from several angles and doesn’t step away until his face indicates the deer nose is up to par with his standards. He meticulously cleans the airbrush when he’s finished, and places it back in the proper cabinet.

This scrupulousness pays off in taxidermy competitions. There are statewide competitions each year and a world competition in the U.S. every other year. There are a variety of awards, but judges don’t go easy on anyone or any piece.

“White-tailed (deer) taxidermists get anal when they’re studying these things because judges get anal,” Sharp said.

Judges sometimes shine a flashlight up one nostril of a deer to make sure light comes through the other, like it would in a real deer. They’ll dock points if it isn’t right.

Detring has judged several taxidermy competitions in recent years, including the last two world competitions in 2003 and 2005, in Springfield, Ill.

“In a big competition with a lot of pieces in it, the pieces with good composition jump out at you,” he said.

The judging involves a certain level of subjectivity. Detring said he looks for pieces that tell a short story in time, illustrating what the animal is doing at that moment. For example, pieces with a bird or mammal in a snow scene can have leaves or weeds from the habitat bending in the wind.

“If they pull off the animal correctly, you think, ‘brrr,’ when you look at it,” Detring said.

He said pieces that have a good use of negative space and use multiple levels rather than one flat scene are more interesting to him.

“Proper composition will tend to draw your eyes from one spot to another,” he said.

While a basic commercial deer mount takes about 12 to 14 hours, Sharp said he spends about 80 to 100 hours working on a piece for competition. Despite all that time and effort, he said doing artistic pieces still feels more like a hobby than work.


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