Inside the Mind of a Taxidermist
“There’s not many people who have held a tiger heart in their hands and realized how absolutely big that is.”
Taxidermy has been at the center of controversy for as long as it’s existed. What is considered for some, the conservation of knowledge and others the preservation of beauty, of nature and of life is seen as unethical, cruel, and a blatant act of disrespect towards the deceased animals for many.
As an art, it is often viewed as morbid, fascinating, and above all, intriguing. It is an art form that has changed and evolved over centuries in it’s meaning and its role. Whether you’re for or against taxidermy, it is undeniable that it has extended beyond simply being a popular element of interior design or a display of trophies. Today, it serves its role as educators of the past and of the extinct in natural history museums, as the medium, the muse, and the subject of many contemporary artists, as live animal doubles in films, commercials and music videos, as decorations of showcases, displays and much more.
This month, I sat down for a phone interview with popular hollywood taxidermist Allis Markham, whose works has not only appeared in various facets of the media and the entertainment industry but whose work has recently won categories in championships. As a successful insider of the industry, Allis Markham gives remarkable insights and engaging personal views and opinions on the art of taxidermy and her position as an artist.
What do you think is something controversial surrounding taxidermy and what is your take on it?
Well taxidermy itself is a very controversial and misunderstood art. People look at your basic deer head on the wall and they don’t realize that no one is killing a deer just to take and have a head. It was hunted and eaten by someone, and it was part of the family. I’m not going and buying live birds and snapping their necks. That’s insane. People don’t realize that yes, we’re working on an animal that has died and maybe it was hunted but most things were either hunted and eaten or they died at the zoo. People think that we have some type of morbid joy in the animal’s death and that’s just not the case. I’m grateful that I have it and that it’s intact. I’m an animal lover. I rescue dogs and birds and I have my own chickens because I don’t like the way they’re treated. I’m a carnivore. I eat many of the things I work on or I feed them to my dogs, Not tigers of course but quails, things like that. I’m one of those people that if you looked at my fridge I can tell you where everything came from and none of it is from factory farming.I try to be aware in that way and I find that most taxidermists are the same way. We’re animal lovers.
How did your interest for taxidermy begin?
I grew up loving nature and science and was always very curious and loved art. I loved taking things from the outside and making things with it so when I worked in Disney and began moving up in position, I realized it’s a very corporate world. I worked with computers and lost that ability to work or create anything with my hands so I went to Taxidermy school, a two weeks program in Montana(Advanced Taxidermy Trading Center of Montana) and when I got back, I volunteered at the natural history museum for Taxidermy. I still work for them on a volunteer basis.
What does Taxidermy mean to you?
It’s a way to take something like death which is a very scary and ugly thing and to make it beautiful. And when you’re take something from the wild, and bringing it indoors and showing it to people, it’s doing it in a way that they learn something. I’m really big on using taxidermy in education, and not just art. I think they’re connected. To me, taxidermy is a way to make something alive again.
What would you say is an interesting aspect to your job?
That every specimen is different. Right now, I’m working on a tiny colorful bird. I’ve worked on this kind of birds before, it’s the same species but totally different. I was working on it and I was like “Oh, this one has really long femurs and it has weird bone growth!” and I thought maybe it had some disease and that’s why it died. You get to literally know them inside and out. There’s not many people who has held a tiger heart in their hands and realized how absolutely big that is.
What’s the best parts of the process?
What’s interesting is that you’re a sculptor. I’m working on the windpipe in the neck of a little bird right now. You will never see it but it’s there so as I’m laying the skin over my work, I have to be a scientist but also a sculptor. One of my favorite part is the prepping part. You’ve got to skin the animal so I have these scalpels and tweezers and carefully skinning, skinning, skinning. Most people call that the “gross part” but deep down, humans have been skinning animals forever, it’s how we’ve evolved. It’s kind of therapeutic, my hands just know what they’re doing.
Is there emotional connections that you form with the animals?
I think that you kind of have to. Any artist forms emotional connections with their art. Only difference is, my art used to be alive and so I think it makes even more sense. It’s my job and if I’m doing my job right, it’s supposed to look alive so I have to attribute some understanding of the animal’s personality, character traits, what the animal was like alive, from a biological and behavioral perspective. I try to imagine myself as the animal rather than the animal as a person. Any artist should have some sort of emotional connection to their work. You’re making it from something inside of you and that’s what separates art from anything else really. If you’re not really doing that then what would you even call it? Craft?
So you’ve done taxidermy for museums and movie sets, tell me about what the experience was like.
For movies and things like that, it’s television and we’re in L.A so there are a few taxidermy houses with really extensive collections of taxidermy but I’m the person to go to here if someone needs a live animal stand-in or if you need something created. I’ve done a lot of little birds that people want to rent and right now, I’m sending a peacock off into a design showcase.
A lot of the times, we need an animal that looks dead. There was a time when they needed these ducks in a commercial and it had a dog that was going to have these ducks in his mouth, running back to it’s owner. The birds have to look dead and be floppy. You can’t just use a taxidermy duck. You need something that was going to be movable and it’s going to sway because it needs to feel like a dead duck. By the way, you can’t use a dead duck. There’s regulations as far as the laws work in filming so I made sure they were floppy and moved in a biological way by using strings instead of wire to connect everything. To make sure the skin wouldn’t dry and crack, I had to deliver it still kinda cold, in a fridge to keep it floppy. And in a music video, we needed these doves to come alive so there was a live bird and I needed to find a dead bird that matched the live bird and make that floppy and dead. So it’s things like that, which are pretty fun.
What kind of advice would you give someone interested in taxidermy?
I say travel and take classes. If you get the opportunity, take a class and you get to keep a piece of taxidermy at the end of it. Local nature centers and museums will have collections and are usually preparing birds and mammals. Many taxidermists, especially museum taxidermists started out volunteering in nature centers and museums on collections. I learned more under my mentor in the museum than I ever could’ve if I had a 4 year university.
What advice would you have for young artists wanting to experience amazing opportunities and jobs like you do?
My best advice is that if you want to work in the arts, just try out different things. Don’t talk about things, just do them. Just pull the trigger, jump in the water, don’t look before you leap.
The only reason I’m able to do what I do today and the only reason I’m doing this as a career is that I was too stupid to know that I could fail but smart enough and passionate enough to know how to get things done.
Time passes quickly and the older you get, the quicker it passes. When you’re young, you gotta be ok with making mistakes and being ok with failing. If you love it and you’re good at it, it’ll work out.
How do you deal with failure?
I think the way to deal with it is to fail fast. If something doesn’t work out, move on to the next thing and learn from it. If you fail and you don’t learn from it, you now failed at two things.
Fact is, at the end of the day no one can eat you. You may have bill collectors calling you, you might have people who thinks you’re weird and you might have some really dark moments but nobody can eat you so what’s the worst that can truly happen?
Can you share a story of a time in your journey when you encountered a big setback of experienced failure and most importantly what did you take away from the experience?
There was a time when we were working on a jack rabbit and we received completely wrong measurements on how large a jack rabbit actually is so I had to put together something that I was less than proud of in a couple of hours. It wasn’t what I imagined it to look but at some point, it’s more important to have something there that is representative than your best work. It’s hard for me sometimes because I’m a bit of a perfectionist and as an artist, I want things to look the way I want but at the end of the day, the show must go on.
What is one habit that you strongly believe contributed to your success?
Going against what I just said, seeking to be a bit of a perfectionist. I would rather something not exist than not be proud of it. It makes me a bad business person but it makes me a good artist and a good person. I truly believe in everything that I put out there and I believe it’s the best I could do. It definitely has a downside but I trust my vision, myself, and that meter inside me that tells me what’s good and what’s not.
Would you say persistence is a very important part to being an artist?
Absolutely, when someone comes to you and they want to do something, say no three times and if they keep asking then the answer is yes. There’s a lot of noise out there so to really get in somewhere, to really be part of something, get into that, you show them that you’re serious.
What is an aspect of your art that you feel like you need to improve on?
I always feel like I need to be improving on everything. The moment you stop learning, you’re waiting for someone to surpass you or you become stale and stagnant. I’m trying to recreate mother nature. I can never create anything more perfect than what millions of years of evolution has created. I’m always networking and learning from other artists. The moment that stops is the moment I should quit.
What is a goal you’ve set for yourself and where do you see yourself in 10, 20, 30 years?
One goal I recently reached was winning best in a category in the championships. I moved from pro into the masters division. My next goal is to keep competing and doing well in that division. Another goal is to break into the fine arts world. When someone buys a piece of taxidermy from me, I don’t want it to just be an animal. I want them to have a piece of Allis Markham. Within the next 20 years I want a strong group of apprentices. In 30 years, I want to keep working, keep putting my name out there, and keep being affiliated with museums.