Is taxidermy an art form? Is it practiced by macabre people with a questionable fascination with death? How does a person get a career in such a field? The remarkable documentary Stuffed answers those questions, plus many more, about the oft-misrepresented and misunderstood craft.
Interviewing an array of taxidermists from all over the globe, the different styles of taxidermy is one of the first things learned. Yes, different styles. There’s the more natural, scientific avenue of taxidermy, in which the animal is going to resemble the real-life counterpart as closely as possible. It should come as no surprise that taxidermists at natural history museums and in research facilities utilize this taxidermy in this way.
It is also how Allis Markham creates her pieces; with her preferred animal being birds. She trained under Tim Bovard for years at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. This methodical approach left an impression on Markham, as even now in her downtown Los Angeles studio, Prey Taxidermy, she still goes for realism in the animals, even if the scene is more of a more fantastical nature.
A slightly more fanciful version is when the animals are still more or less realistic but augmented somewhat for a more profound emotional response. In a showcase in the movie, the Dutch team of Jaap Sinke and Ferry Van Tongeren added a more massive, more protruding jaw to a tiger. The predator has caught one bird, but there is another in the room, whom it is staring down in anger for having escaped. The more distinct lower jaw makes the tiger appear more vicious, which highlights the bloodthirsty nature of the story they are telling.
“…dispel the plethora of misinformation out there about the art of taxidermy…”
Diaphonization is the application of chemistry to highlight the natural colors of an animal’s bone cartilage, giving them a transparent look (this is an abbreviated description). This shows their internal organs and how their skeletal structure is designed (when applicable). The dyes and colors make for striking pieces.
Stuffed even looks at rogue taxidermy, which I fell in love with after watching the movie. It is the creation of cryptozoological, fantasy, or otherwise entirely made up creatures through taxidermy. There’s a half goat/ half fish, dubbed Capricorn, that is awe inspiring. This area of taxidermy is controversial amongst traditionalists for its absolute lack of realism. Though the co-founder of this movement Sarina Brewer think it is just because more females are breaking into the men-saturated arena.
Aside from the artists already mentioned, there’s Travis C. De Villiers, a bright man from South Africa with innovative and challenging designs. He approaches his trade as a combination of being an artist and being a naturalist; and the mid-Western based Daniel Meng who has been doing this as a hobby since he was eight-years-old.
Everyone and everything comes to a head at the World Taxidermy Championships. Everyone interviewed is there, either with an entry or as a judge. As you can tell, Stuffed touches upon every facet of taxidermy imaginable, even if just briefly. Director Erin Derham not only comes to dispel the plethora of misinformation out there about the art of taxidermy but to highlight the grueling process of how to do it.
“… they love wildlife and use nature as a platform for their art.”
Stuffed is full of beautiful long shots, courtesy of director of photographer Jan Balster, that show off all the little details and flourishes of each animal on display. From the skinning and washing to the creation of a mold body and fitting, to the posing and decoration, the documentary is filled with hypnotic imagery that vividly captures the efforts of the artists.
There is a lot of field work, with the artists studying animal behavior and movements, to ensure accuracy. Seeing these people, who have a profession seen as uncouth by many, not only doing scientific research but discussing how to preserve wildlife and the natural landscapes bring forth the heart of the movie. These taxidermists are not obsessed with death; they love wildlife and use nature as a platform for their art. Derham eloquently lets the pieces shown speak for themselves, in terms of what the artist is saying. A compelling entry into championships is that of a newborn zebra first standing up to walk.
The talent on display from the artists involved is incredible (my personal favorite being Markham, who reminds me a bit of Christine McConnell; whom I love), the history of taxidermy is informative, and that it touches upon several different kinds of taxidermy make Stuffed an invaluable resource. That it is very well made, featuring stunning shots of the models and truly engrossing makes all the better.
Stuffed (2019) Directed by Erin Derham. Starring Allis Markham, Tim Bovard, Daniel Meng, Jaap Sinke, Ferry Von Tongeren, Sarina Brewer, Travis C. De Villiers.
10 out of 10 Feathers