MUSEUM ARCHIVES

In case you haven't noticed by now, I'm a huge museum nerd. I haven't dedicated much of my blog to posts about what I get to see behind the scenes, so I want to start a new series. I can't promise that it'll be a regular thing, but I do believe that these are things that should be shared!

On average, about 1% of any museum's holdings are ever on display to the public. Most museums have archives that are viewable by staff and volunteers, some museums have portions that people aren't allowed to photograph (and some portions that are completely off-limits to anyone but a curator) while other museums offer behind-the-scenes tours. As a museum volunteer as well as a traveling educator, I get to peek at things that a lot of people don't get to see EVER because I work closely with collections managers, education department heads, and curatorial staff.

Unfortunately I wasn't great at keeping track of digital files because I didn't realize how much those photos would eventually mean to me, but here are a few random images before I delve into museum-specific archive posts. A few were taken on old film cameras, but I love them because they're so unique.

Left: human fetus. Right: chimpanzee fetus. Taken at the Field Museum, October 2013. Canon Demi (half-frame) camera with expired film - excuse the dark exposure.

Left: human fetus. Right: chimpanzee fetus. Taken at the Field Museum, October 2013. Canon Demi (half-frame) camera with expired film - excuse the dark exposure.

Left: cyclops deer fetus. Right: six-legged kitten. Taken at the Field Museum, October 2013. Canon Demi (half-frame) camera with expired film - excuse the dark exposure.

Left: cyclops deer fetus. Right: six-legged kitten. Taken at the Field Museum, October 2013. Canon Demi (half-frame) camera with expired film - excuse the dark exposure.

Left: two-toed sloth study skins. Right: platypus study skins. Taken at the Field Museum, October 2013. Canon Demi (half-frame) camera with expired film - excuse the dark exposure.

Left: two-toed sloth study skins. Right: platypus study skins. Taken at the Field Museum, October 2013. Canon Demi (half-frame) camera with expired film - excuse the dark exposure.

Left and right: pangolin study skins. Taken at the Field Museum, October 2013. Canon Demi (half-frame) camera with expired film - excuse the dark exposure.

Left and right: pangolin study skins. Taken at the Field Museum, October 2013. Canon Demi (half-frame) camera with expired film - excuse the dark exposure.

Sambar selfie at the Houston Museum of Natural History - December 2013

Sambar selfie at the Houston Museum of Natural History - December 2013

Posing with an elephant tusk in the educational archives of the Audubon Zoo - April 2014.

Posing with an elephant tusk in the educational archives of the Audubon Zoo - April 2014.

Skulls and skull replicas - Audubon Zoo, April 2014

Skulls and skull replicas - Audubon Zoo, April 2014

Archival study skins from birds via the Burke Museum at University of Washington, on loan to the Henry Art Gallery as part of artist Ann Hamilton's  The Common S E N S E  - a large-scale installation for which I was a guest speaker on sourcing and taxidermy in education.

Archival study skins from birds via the Burke Museum at University of Washington, on loan to the Henry Art Gallery as part of artist Ann Hamilton's The Common S E N S E - a large-scale installation for which I was a guest speaker on sourcing and taxidermy in education.

I'm sure I'll share more as time goes on. I've been hoarding my large collections of archival photos but I didn't know where to put these one-offs, so I hope you've enjoyed them!

LOOKING FOR A SPECIFIC BLOG POST? CHECK OUT MY ARCHIVES HERE.

TURNING A HOBBY INTO A CAREER

Unless you work in a museum, chances are that it’s a rare occasion when you meet a taxidermist. The first thing out of most people’s mouths when I tell them what I do is “How did you get started in taxidermy?” and when I explain to them that it started out as a hobby, they always want to know how I went from dabbling in the craft to working in universities and museums.

I know I’ve told this story a million times before, but it’s never really been in the context of how a person can turn something they're passionate about into a career. What I do is unconventional in the eyes of people with “normal” careers but I’m unconventional as a taxidermist as well. When someone asks me that question - about how I got started - I always begin my story the same way. “It all started with a dead squirrel and a bottle of wine…”

My career really did begin with a dead squirrel and a bottle of wine. A friend and coworker (at H&M, of all places) of mine knew I had a strong stomach for “gross” things - mostly because I was the only one who could handle disgusting things in the fitting room when our janitor was off-duty. One evening she invited me over to help her with a project for a mammalogy class, which turned out to be an assignment to create a study skin utilizing the skin of a roadkill squirrel collected by her professor. (A study skin is the preserved skin of an animal, usually filled with cotton, which is pinned and dried flat as part of museum or other archival collections for future generations of scientists to learn from.) When I got to her house, we split a bottle of red wine and literally dug in. I found the process to be absolutely fascinating. Haley… well, not so much. She has always been supportive of my pursuing of taxidermy, though.

It was one of those things I just couldn’t stop thinking about. If you’ve never tried your hand at taxidermy I know this is going to sound very strange, but it’s just a satisfying process. I liken it to peeling a sunburn or peeling a tattoo (which are huge no-nos), except that you’re actually supposed to peel everything off the skin of a squirrel before you sew it up. If you’re one of those people who really enjoys that sort of tactile sensation, taxidermy may be the hobby for you! For all of those readers who are grossed out, well… you’re reading the blog of a taxidermist so I don’t know what you expected. Aside from the process of cleaning skins, I started thinking a lot about how I could turn a skin into something other than a study skin - by adding an armature, higher quality filling, and glass eyes to make the animal look alive again. One squirrel and I was hooked.

For my birthday I went to a reptile expo and quickly tracked down someone who sold frozen feeders, and purchased the largest rat that they had available. When I tell the story of the beginnings of my career, I often say that I started everything with a $5 investment. That gigantic rat was the $5 investment - everything else I had on hand at home… except the glass eyes, which I forgot I needed, due to the fact that the initial study skin didn’t have or need glass eyes. I made do with what I had and posed the eyeless rat with his lids closed, curled in a ball and sleeping. He has certainly held up over the years, smells faintly of cornmeal, and is on display in my living room at this exact moment.

My first rat, which strangely, still has no name

My first rat, which strangely, still has no name

I documented the process and shared it on my Instagram - that’s where my career shortly started to take off. With a combination of taxidermy as well as jewelry that I had made using animal bones, I vended my wares at a few street fairs with friends. People took interest both in person and via social media, and after a few months a young girl approached me to ask if I would teach her how to do taxidermy. I said yes, and she became my first student. Around Christmas, I had a pop-up shop at a friend’s print shop and a woman showed up from the Detroit News looking for me, citing that she had seen some of my taxidermy work on Instagram and was interested in doing a profile on me. I ended up on the front page of the Life & Style section - and from there, things just snowballed in the best way possible.

January brought invitations to Cleveland and Chicago. February took me to Cleveland again, and then in March I returned to Ohio as well as flying to Atlanta for private lessons with a shop owner. In April I finished my last semester of college and moved to Cleveland, and in May I took my gigs west to Minneapolis and then Seattle, where I had a write-up in the Stranger.

During all of this I took in so much information from other taxidermists - written works as well as videos. I hadn’t found anything that was very worthwhile, at least not as worthwhile as continual practice and eventual evolution towards refining my techniques - but no guide I found was as helpful as finding a mentor (or three) to take me under their wings.

In some senses the taxidermy industry is much like the tattoo industry. There are some self-taught tattooers who end up being alright and producing quality work, but the majority of top-notch workers are the ones who spent years refining their techniques and seeking out critiques from their peers and superiors in order to become the best they can be. The rest of the self-taught tattooers work out of their basements and are complete hack jobs. On the opposite side of the coin, it’s entirely possible that someone can spend a year or two as a tattoo apprentice and still produce bad quality work because their heart just isn’t in it, or they simply don’t have the right touch. The fact remains that someone is more likely to end up being successful if they seek out help and mentorship rather than trying to work on their own, because getting feedback is crucial to continual positive growth.

With the practice I’ve had and the guidance I’ve gotten from all three of the men I work closely with, I feel confident to continue experimenting and I feel that I’ve really found my groove. I’ve since taught at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, Portland State University, and the University of Washington. I have a (sold out!) lecture coming up at Harvard, which I’m very excited about - I am absolutely achieving my dreams and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Aside from traveling to teach, I also run a shop in Chicago called The Niche Lab where I teach classes and sell my work - at twenty-five, I think this is a huge accomplishment. I’m not writing all of this to toot my own horn - I’m listing these things as examples of where hard work and dedication can take you if you play your cards right and the stars align and all that jazz. It IS possible.

Getting here wasn’t easy, and I definitely made a lot of mistakes along the way, both career-wise and in the way I related to other people, but I am proud of what the last four years have done for me. Turning a hobby into a career takes a lot of hard work, sleepless nights, and dedication. You learn a lot about yourself. Whether you’re looking to be a taxidermist or a goldsmith, if you think you’re passionate about, here are some pieces of advice that I think will work for everyone.

Teaching in Somerville, Massachusetts // taken by Madeline Barr Photo

Teaching in Somerville, Massachusetts // taken by Madeline Barr Photo

Have some social media presence. Instagram has been monumental for me, and consistency is key for building a brand. If you want to have a social media account for just your new hobby-turned-business, start early. My personal Instagram has a lot of followers so I use it to promote my business Instagram page every few weeks. Eventually I would like to separate the two completely, so I suggest having separate accounts from the beginning if possible. Try using a “real” camera rather than your phone camera and/or use an image editor like VSCO before you post - properly exposed and focused images will help you the most. Even though it’s called Instagram doesn’t mean you have to post everything in the exact moment that it happens.

Stay humble. Man - I wish I had done this for the duration of everything. Because my Instagram account was popular I treated my followers like fans and on occasion I was extremely rude. For lack of a better term, I was quite honestly a total see-you-next-Tuesday at times. I can’t say how much I wish I could change this. I also had friends I spent time with who behaved in a similar manner towards their followers and I think we rubbed off on each other - and not in a good way. After taking some time to myself and really analyzing not only how I could improve my business but also the way I was perceived by my followers (who are all potential customers) I totally took a step back and am making an active effort to always respond to people who ask questions, and try to be kind when possible even if people are being offensive. ALL of your followers are potential customers (and human beings deserving of kindness) - treat them as such.

Photo of Chuck Testa filming for Ojai Valley Taxidermy, taken by Stefanie Jorge Bockenstette

Photo of Chuck Testa filming for Ojai Valley Taxidermy, taken by Stefanie Jorge Bockenstette

Find people whose work you admire and ask them for advice, or simply befriend them. I’m friends with my favorite photographer, my favorite painter, my favorite taxidermist, and members of all three of my favorite bands. How? Because people who are passionate about their craft feed off other people who are passionate about their craft, even if their passions are not in the same field. All I did was approach them and basically say “Hey, I dig what you’re doing!” in a non fan-girl way. If you want to start doing metalsmithing, find the best mom-and-pop jeweler in your city and ask if you can apprentice with them. If you’re really into screenprinting, hit a craft show and befriend the people there selling their work. Eventually you’ll make a connection worth keeping, and these people will be both inspiring and uplifting during the time it takes you to grow from a hobbyist into a professional in your field.

Practice, practice, practice. No matter what your hobby, do it a lot and do it often. Watch and learn how other people do the same things as you, and decide whether you should borrow their techniques or if you already do it better. You’ll get tons of hours honing your skill set and you’ll be producing product that you can sell in order to buy more supplies so you can practice even more.

Believe in yourself. You’re doing something that you’re passionate about and that will shine through. Not everyone is going to be on your side, but as hard as that is you will eventually learn to ignore them and only pay attention to those who champion you and support you.

Take deep breaths. The road to turning your hobby into a career is a long one and there are going to be a lot of bumps. Entrepreneurship is difficult but it’s worthwhile - as long as you make sure you are properly caring for yourself. Being at the end of your rope on a constant basis is something people will notice, and it won’t affect your business in a good way. Your attitude and your work ethic will reflect how much sleep you’re getting and how much time you take for yourself. At the same time, though, don’t get lazy!

This isn’t the end-all, be-all of turning a passion into a career. Of course there is way more to it than I could ever fit in a single blog post, and I hope that this can turn into somewhat of a series. If you have more questions, feel free to send them my way. In the meantime, if you’ve been reading this and you don’t have a hobby you feel passionate enough about to turn into a career - well, maybe it’s time you start dabbling in something new. Either way - good luck!

Photo by Lenny Gilmore for RedEye

Photo by Lenny Gilmore for RedEye

BEFORE & AFTER: FENNEC FOX

Anyone who knows me knows a few things about me: how much I love a challenge, and how much I admire my esteemed colleague Chuck.

About a month ago, I visited Chuck in his studio in beautiful Ojai, California. As is tradition, we dug a bunch of things out of his freezer - and one of those things was a fennec fox. Hailing from Africa, Vulpes zerda is the smallest canine species in the world. They are a desert-dwelling animal and max out at approximately three and a half pounds. In the United States they are revered as exotic pets, and select zoos also have fennecs in their possession.

This particular fox came from a zoo. To be honest I'm not sure what happened to it, but since patches of its wrists and neck were shaved it appeared that it had recently received veterinary care. However, the appearance of the rest of the fennec's body leads me to believe it was severely neglected. Here is a peek at the condition it was in about halfway through my grooming process:

fennec1.jpg
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The fur was so matted that I couldn't use a comb to untangle it. In fact, I had to use a stout rougher - a spiked tool so sharp that it cut holes in my palms - just to get some of the knots out. The tail literally fell off in three pieces because it was one giant dreadlock but eventually the knots in the rest of the pelt gave way and despite how much fur fell out, I was able to make it look alright again.

In the meantime, to give my palms a break, I used a cast done by Mike Frazier of Research Mannikins as a reference for carving foam to replicate the skull of the fennec. I set the eyes (raccoon eyes!) into the foam form, then imitated the musculature of the eyelids using clay. The photo below shows my carving next to the cast, whereas the photos above this paragraph show the carving after it had been inserted into the fox's face.

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The addition of clay, a keen eye, an artistic touch, and a good tool kit are where the magic begins to happen. I use plain clay and a solid set of tools that I've curated over the years. I sell curated tool kits - please email hello@mickeyalicekwapis.com if you are interested in reviewing options and purchasing one for yourself. Here is a photo of how the fennec's face began to take shape.

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In between setting the facial features and tucking the lips, I also created a custom form for the inside of the body, inserted it, and sewed the back of the fox up. It still looks rough around the edges!

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After more tucking, pinning, some quality time with a blow dryer, and a whole lot of grooming, the fennec is ready to be set aside for a few weeks to dry. Even tanned hides need time to cure, otherwise they are floppy and unstable. Here is the nearly-finished product:

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After a taxidermy project is posed to dry, there are typically still a few things that are rough around the edges. After the curing process, the pins and staples are removed. The cardboard stapled to the earliners is discarded, putty is used to repair any damage or holes, and the ears, eyes, nose, and lips get airbrushed. In addition, the animal is removed from its temporary base and placed on a permanent one, either something made of plain wood or something with a naturalistic environment. The plans I have for this guy include a habitat base with a butterfly or a bug on the ground. You can't even tell he was nearly beyond repair when I started!

It'll be another few weeks before I am able to get back into my studio and do all the finishing touches, but here's a photo of me and Chuck with some things we worked on together.

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Please do not practice taxidermy without a proper license when one is necessary. Local, state, and federal laws vary from place to place and it is your responsibility to make sure you are doing what is right. This is a comprehensive series of images from a taxidermy project, not a guide to the entire process - if you are a beginner, please do not assume that what I've shown you in this post is the entire taxidermy process from start to finish, or you could end up with a mess on your hands. Take a class where you are supervised by a licensed professional so you don't injure yourself!