Whoever said don’t meet your heroes clearly did not pick the right heroes. I have been a huge fan of Allis Markham ever since she started up Prey Taxidermy in Los Angeles and having the opportunity to pick her brain at this SDCC Nerd Night 2015 was a real honor.
Though she has only been doing taxidermy since 2009 (and only had her own shop since 2014), Allis has made waves with her beautiful attention to detail as well as her skill with the delicate birds she chooses to work with, she just recently placed at the 2015 World Taxidermy Championship for her work. On top of this she is an all around caring and wonderful person who wants to use her work to educate not only future taxidermist, but young people interested in wildlife and biology, which is why much of her work can be seen at Los Angeles’s Natural History Museum.
What I think I respect most about her is that she doesn’t dabble in pets but instead animals that die at zoos and rescues that she re-purposes into being tools for education. That is what really, as a forensic anthropology student, sparked my interest in her because she’s showing people that taxidermy isn’t cruel or gross but instead, much like the profession I hope to be in, taking the tragic and macabre and making it beautiful and fascinating.
Most of all I think that because she so truly loves what she does, she can make a huge difference in training younger people to become a part of this art in the same way she is and help them change the world one faux body stuffed owl at a time. You can read a transcript of my interview below or check out the video. You can also find more of Allis’s amazing work at her website preytaxidermy.com.
What medium do you use to make the faux bodies you put in birds?
A: So for bird taxidermy you can go a couple different ways. One of the things is wrapped bodies, it’s called excelsior, what it comes down to its wood wool, its the left over wood shavings from lumber yards, so it’s actually quite green and then you wrap that with string and you kind of adding and shaping to making it what you want. The other that you could do, and I do this on larger birds, is polyurethane foam, so just like with mammals I’ll make a mold out of bondo or silicone or whatever, you take a mold of the actual carcass of the animal, remove it, clean it, if I remember, and then you actually pour in a two part foam which fizzes up and enlarges and all that and then you have a foam body. I do tend to like wrapped bodies though, because wrapped bodies your running wires through all these your creating this inner wire armature and with wrapped bodies it wrap of string its this its that and you can decide position later.
What’s the best way to get into taxidermy?
A: The best way to get into taxidermy, first off, research it and think about if its something that you might enjoy, go on taxidermy.net, go to the forums section on there and just start looking around at the different techniques people are using. The other thing would be you know to looking into the different techniques people are using and all that what they’re doing, that can be a very like, if you don’t know the lingo you don’t quite understand it, if you want a really great breakdown of how it’s done, breakthrough, they are called the breakthrough manuals and you can order them on breakthrough.com and you can order them from there.
The other thing is take a class, there are a lot of great traveling taxidermy teachers you can take a class from, if you live out in the boondocks or something like that then you are in the most in luck just stop by a taxidermy studio, see what going on, ask, taking on someone as an apprentice is a lot of work, I’ve done that myself and it’s a lot of work it’s a big ask, so take a class first, talk to people, you know I do classes myself in Los Angeles, but I think taking a class is a good way to start and in any large city or any small city there is someone you can take a class from.
What is your favorite type of bird to taxidermy?
A: My favorite type of bird to taxidermy? Well the name of my studio is Prey Taxidermy, I love doing birds of prey because they are so angular and that’s one of the things I mostly get to do for museums and nature centers, which is fine by me. Coming up on August 4th its National Owl Awareness day, so August 4th and 5th I am descending along with ten very highly trained students on the Moore Lab of Ornithology and we’re going to create owl taxidermy for them for scientific display, so I think birds of prey are one of my favorite.
Also Taningers, they’re South American just little beautiful colored jewels, and I get them a lot because, unfortunately, they die at aviaries a lot, they’re just delicate, I mean birds are just incredibly delicate and they are my favorite things to work on and they do die a lot so I do get to work on them a lot, so those two things the toughest of the birds and the most delicate.
What’s the strangest thing you have been asked to taxidermy?
A: Alright, the strangest thing I’ve been asked to taxidermy. I don’t do a lot of what is called “road taxidermy” just because it’s generally not, taxidermy a medium, that’s an art form in itself, but I was asked by a friend of mine who is also a historian, asked me to do a monstrous sea pig, this is a sea monster through a game of telephone over a couple of hundred years, ya know, it kind of became this thing where it was this fish that looked like a pig into being this 60 foot long pig faced fish with eyes of a human and beaver feet. So I kind of created a miniature form of that for him, so if he’d not been my friend I don’t know if I would have done it, but yeah I did it and I think it turned out pretty well, so I did a monstrous sea pig, why not?!
What is your favorite lab tool and what is it used for?
A: Oh my favorite lab tool, ya know I have these things they’re oddly, ya know I use a scalpel most of the time, so I use scalpels there’s a new brand I found called Excel which is the sharpest blade in the world, which despite being that the TSA didn’t notice me getting on with a whole pack of them, thank you very much TSA, I’m glad they didn’t confiscate them. But the thing I use the most is wire cutters, not to skin or anything else, it’s just like, “oh I’ll use it to cut wire, oh I’ll use it to get through the ligaments of this peacock, oh I’ll use it for this”! We call them “Blue Nippers” and no matter how many pairs I buy I never have enough of them, you just buy them at Home Depot they are just little blue handled nippers, so it’s that and oh, I have discovered the pleasures of a cordless glue gun, it is, everybody needs one, a cordless glue gun, get one.
So, besides the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, is there a specific museum you would love to work for?
A: So uh yeah, I moved to New York when I was barely eighteen and the American Museum of Natural History holds a really strong place in my heart, I would love to do some work for them. There’s a lot of nature centers in California and others states, and they are just fantastic and local people go there, and some of their collections are in disarray, so beyond just the dream of the American Museum, is the dream of improving local nature centers wherever they may lie. I think that is one of the reasons that I teach, I love to see more people working on volunteerism to make more accurate displays of nature.
Roughly how long does it take to learn taxidermy?
A: I went to school in 2009 and I think the school was a two week program and I kind of learned, but having the confidence to do stuff of my own did take me a number of years, a few years at the Natural History Museum, but I’m always learning, if you ever stop learning you’re doing something wrong, you are absolutely doing something wrong.
Every piece I work on is a learning experience, even if I’ve done that specimen before, like today, I won a first place in the professional category in the world competition, today I went to the San Diego zoo and saw that same Plush Crusted Jay, same species, actually it was the grandson of the one I did for competition crazily enough, and I was like, ya know what I did a really good job, I captured this, I captured that, but there was a couple things I would do this differently. So I think if I ever stop learning then I’m not evolving anymore and you may as well quit whatever you’re doing if that’s the case, so I hope I’m always learning.
Besides taxidermy, what would be your other dream job?
A: I hope this is my only dream job, I really do, I hope this is it. If there is anything besides taxidermy I don’t want to know about it, I love it, I love what I do. I think most taxidermists, you work alone in your shop, and that is so not my case, I’ve got fantastic friends here tonight, I’ve got people to talk to about my passion, my studio is never empty, so as long as I can keep that the case and keep it social and keep it intelligent and keep it fun, nothing else exists for me.
I hope you enjoyed my little interview and maybe it inspired a few of you to go out and explore taxidermy or another odd passion. It was a real pleasure to get to pick Allis’ brain and learn more about the woman behind the art and I hope to get to chat with her again soon. Thanks again to Nerd Night hosted by National Geographic, San Diego Comic-Con, Allis Markham, and the every brilliant Nerdophiles for letting me tag along and do the interview.
You can find a video of this interview here.