Three artists in Minneapolis are trying to breathe new life into the art of preserving the dead. Dead animals, that is.
Scott Bibus, Sarina Brewer and Robert Marbury are passionate about taxidermy, a practice they consider an art and one that they say has suffered from the bigotry of the art world and the provincialism of professional taxidermists. The artists call themselves the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, and they are dedicated to exploring the artistic possibilities of stuffing and mounting animal remains _ and not without a certain sly humor.
While some traditional taxidermists have applauded their efforts, the group has been criticized by the world's largest taxidermy organization.
In a recent phone interview, the Rogue Taxidermists, speaking from Minneapolis, acknowledged a certain spirit of mischief in their work.
"I think the point of the association should be to get as many people doing weird taxidermy as possible," Bibus said with a prankster's glee.
Indeed, the absurdly gory, sometimes campy nature of the work is aggressively weird. But the three are earnest about their art and the ideas they are trying to highlight through taxidermy. All are animal lovers, with a number of pet dogs, cats, birds and fish among them; they use only road kill, donations from veterinarians and unused animal remains from museums. A strict waste-not-want-not policy accounts for Brewer's mummified squirrel heads and pickled internal organs, what she calls "carcass art," which is not technically taxidermy.
To be sure, the Rogue Taxidermists do not claim to be the first to suspend animal remains in formaldehyde and call it art. But they hope that through their exhibitions they can inspire people to recognize the natural world around them and to reconsider their position in it _ whether, as Marbury said, the reaction is "revulsion or love or distrust."
In Marbury's estimation, taxidermy has a unique capacity to evoke the mystery of death. "When you deal with a dead object and then you are imbuing it with life and giving it characteristics," he said, "people become uncomfortable."
Bibus, 25, is the only formally trained taxidermist of the three. After graduating from Augsburg College in Minneapolis, he enrolled in a one-year certification program. His mounts might be mistaken for traditional wildlife taxidermy, were it not for the conspicuous presence of blood and the unsettling depictions of consumption. Two pieces in particular show animals in the act of eating _ in one, a beaver is hunched over a bloody human thumb; in the other, a muskrat lolls on its back, gorging on the bloody hind legs it has torn from itself.
Brewer, 34, is the group's sideshow artist. A graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, she taught herself to stuff and mount animals, picking up techniques from books and videos. ("It was a lot of trial and error," she said.) She combines parts from different animals to create mutant creatures and mythological beasts, like her half-cat, half-raven "Goth Griffin." She and Bibus met through the Internet, where her Franken-Squirrels (prices begin at $250) and signature two-headed hatchlings ($125) have sold briskly on eBay and at her Web site (www.customcreaturetaxidermy.com). For his part, Marbury is not a taxidermist. "I'm the vegan taxidermist of the group," he said. He uses stuffed toy animals exclusively. Bibus and Marbury met last spring while exhibiting their work at Art-A-Whirl, a local arts festival. A native of Baltimore, Marbury, 33, lived for a time in New York, where he became fascinated with the way garbage collectors sometimes decorate the grilles of their trucks with stuffed toy animals.
He conceived the "Urban Beast Project," a collection of imaginary city-dwelling creatures fashioned from plush toy animals and embellished with comically vicious fangs and other prostheses. He places them in urban dioramas and gives each a proper Latin designation (Canis Boriqua, or Boricua Dog, for example) and an elaborate biography.
The three held their inaugural show as the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (a name Bibus had been saving for the right moment) in October at Creative Electric Studios, a gallery in the alternative arts enclave of northeast Minneapolis. Dave Salmela, an owner of the gallery, said he had been apprehensive about a show exhibiting dead animals, if somewhat intrigued by the prospect of controversy.
"Because of my own feelings about animals," said Salmela, who is a vegetarian, "I even felt like I might be one of the people who was offended by the show."
The group braced itself for reactions of outrage and disgust. But the response was quite positive. "People who came to the show generally enjoyed and understood it," Salmela said. "I saw some people who looked a little sick, but I don't know of anyone being offended."
The pieces, displayed on the gallery's Web site (www.creativeelectricstudios.com/), include Marbury's Lesser Yeti, a chowlike canine figure in its own diorama ($600), and Brewer's Capricorn, a goat with wings and a fish tail ($6,000).
Though the show was not reviewed, it turned some taxidermists into art critics. Letters from traditional taxidermists commended the artists, Brewer said, for "expanding the limits of the art form." The most gratifying response, she added, came in the form of an invitation to tour the dioramas at the Bell Museum of Natural History in Minneapolis.
Bill Haynes, however, was not impressed. He is the vice president and one of the founders of the National Taxidermists Association, which he said is an organization with 35,000 members that represents commercial and hobbyist taxidermists in the Americas, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. After viewing images of the Rogue Taxidermists' work that Salmela had posted at an online taxidermy forum to generate buzz for the show, Haynes responded by e-mail with a withering critique.
"If you are looking for approval for this so called "art,' ' he wrote to Salmela, mistaking him for one of the artists, "I am afraid you have come to the wrong place."
"Most, if not all (taxidermists) abhor your displays," he continued, closing with a terse rebuke: "You can surely be called a Rogue taxidermist."
Reached by phone at his home in Sharpsburg, Ga., Haynes said: "The very fact that they're using the word "taxidermists' is offensive. The National Taxidermists Association is an organization devoted to wildlife art _ i.e., we reproduce nature to exact standards that represent the good Lord's work. From what I've seen of the rogue taxidermy association, that's not wildlife art. It may be art of some sort, but it's not in my estimation taxidermy art."
Brewer was not bothered by Haynes' comments and interpreted his disapproval as resistance to change. "We're using the same medium they're using," she said. "We're just doing something different with it."