Scavenging for skin and bones

By HermineBloom

It begins with a musty, log cabin-style cottage in a remote forest. The ceilings and walls are entirely wood-paneled—reminiscent of the ’70s, minus the putrid, mustard-colored velvet sofa.

First Place ribbons and framed plaques adorn the walls, making it evident that a proud fisherman, or a man deeply connected to woodland creatures lives here. His most celebrated trophy of all, however, hangs above the mantle: The beady, black pupils, the coarse hair, the angular neck, the antlers resembling crooked tree branches. It’s merely the product of an afternoon spent

hunting game.

Suffice it to say that many of us might find a dead animal on display to be quite peculiar or rather frightening. Yet, four well-established, Chicago-based artists find a reproduced creature’s cryptic and somewhat absurd qualities a source of inspiration. The results, of course, are wonderfully mysterious works of taxidermy-inspired art.

Formally, taxidermy is widely known—albeit not widely accepted—as the practice of reproducing and remounting (or stuffing) life-like, three-dimensional animals for display, which dates back to the 1800s. Usually the actual skin, including the feathers, fur or scales of the specimen, is preserved and used.

Four different local artists have purchased furs and skins at flea markets or approached osteology experts (scientists who study bones) to form a refurbished creature, primarily due to their collective fascination with the look and feel of the once-living animals.

Although many people associate taxidermy with hunting, which they deem immoral, all four artists are naturalists who are honoring the beauty of dead animals that might get swept away otherwise. Newlyweds and Columbia alumni Adam Rust and Skye Enyeart, independent curator Lauren Levato and well-established artist Jessica Joslin are creating strange, whimsical taxidermy-inspired art for local shows in Chicago, and in Joslin’s case, around the world.

Joslin, 36, has built more than 150 creatures using antique hardware and animal skulls in the past 16 years. Astonishingly, some are less than an inch tall and others are close to 6 feet tall. She describes the construction process as combining components of both living and dead animals in that some have rib cages and spines and others have fur and feathers.

The natural history museums in Boston, Mass. first captured Joslin’s imagination at a very young age.

“There are these beautiful, old wooden cases with wonderful little brass engraved plaques on them—Victorian exhibits,” Joslin said. “All of the taxidermy and the articulated skeletons are all presented in this lovely manner.”

Joslin was accustomed to collecting sea shells, flowers and animal skulls when she took walks through the woods as a little girl. In the early stages of building sculptural creatures, she would only use treasures that she found herself.

Gradually, she began to show her unusual creatures in exhibits both around the country and abroad. As her business evolved, so did her method of acquiring artifacts. Now she works mostly with osteology firms, or the kinds of companies who would normally supply bones to museums or schools, she said. Even so, she is very resolute in maintaining an environmental consciousness.

“I’ve needed to recruit other people to help me find things, although I’m always very careful to work with companies that are ethically and environmentally sound,” Joslin said. “They shouldn’t be out there killing the animals for this.”

Joslin explained that the artists she’s familiar with who produce contemporary taxidermy art typically don’t have backgrounds in hunting. None of the artists’ homes resemble that of the somewhat antiquated prize-winning fisherman.

“They’re usually using forms and techniques that are somewhat influenced by taxidermy, but very much reinterpreting the types of processes and also the intent,” Joslin said.

In fact, the most crafty, carpentry-savvy artists perform their own taxidermy to a certain extent. Rust, for example, uses a product called Great Stuff, which is primarily used for sealing windows in the wintertime, to fill up a space or in this case, the shell of animal skin and fur.

Rust, 31, attended graduate school at Columbia in the hopes of studying drawing and painting. The interdisciplinary Book and Paper Arts Program at Columbia shifted his attention, and he soon developed a profound interest in creating absurd objects within larger scenes, rather than merely drawing them on paper.

“I started to make all these sculptural objects and installations

[at Columbia],” Rust said. “I could probably safely say that I would not be making these objects and installations if it wasn’t for Columbia.”

An artistic rendering of Cookie Monster’s murder and an installation on display at Columbia’s Manifest last year, where dead mice and dead rats are made to look like they’re at war by holding tiny guns and wearing tiny helmets, are among some of Rust’s

unique interpretations.

Now, he is continuing to explore taxidermy-inspired art, which is ultimately the focus of the exhibit titled “Binary: A Pairing of Opposite States.” It will take place at the St. Paul’s Cultural Center, 2215 W. North Ave. He and Enyeart along with eight other artists will showcase their work at the exhibit.

“[Skye and I] are complete animal lovers,” Rust said. “I think part of it for Skye, and for me too, is that we like to claim these broken, dilapidated taxidermy finds and kind of give them a new home, a new personality and a new life, instead of just a trophy on somebody’s wall. We care about them enough to give them all names and make a new home for them.”

Enyeart and Rust can typically be found scavenging for their new pets at flea markets, Craigslist or eBay. Having done this for 10 years, they are both all too familiar with ill-founded accusations or sideways glances from those people who don’t have a clear understanding of what they set out to do.

In fact, Enyeart recalls a time when a woman accosted her and Rust after purchasing a $15 deer head at a flea market and accusing her of promoting evil and being

environmentally unaware.

“She kept rattling things off about PETA and preserving the environment,” Enyeart said. “I said to her, ‘You’re preaching to the choir.’ I am a firm believer in all this stuff. We’re collecting taxidermy because we’re recycling, saving the environment, we’re reusing these objects—and reusing them in a respectable way because it’s not like we want to be out there hunting the animals. Otherwise, they’d be thrown away and their bodies wouldn’t be respected.”

One recycled piece that the couple will showcase at the Binary exhibit is a hybrid of a tortoise and a hare. After months of searching for a desirable fur color, the hare ended up coming from Australia, whereas the tortoise was shipped from Texas, Enyeart said.

Lauren Levato, 32, curated the Binary show. The exhibit is one of 200 featured events that the Chicago Artists Month program chose to highlight this October. This year, Chicago Artists Month’s theme was Chicago 2.0, which relates to viral technology and ultimately encourages artists to explore the themes of connectivity via technology.

“Binary is how computers operate; it means on and off in computer terms,” Levato said. “I was interested in how artists operate in a binary state as well.”

Levato is a classically trained artist, a student at The School of Representational Art and a long-time friend to both Rust and Enyeart. Her drawings, in particular, take anywhere from 40 to 120 hours to make, although her undying love for insects and deep appreciation for taxidermy-inspired art have given birth to a new show devoted to the remounting and the general reusing of dead animals called “Show Your Skins,” which she plans to curate for next year.

She, not unlike her friends and colleagues, believes that the artists she works with aren’t facing an ethical dilemma in using taxidermy for their art.

“If you buy your pelts ethically, which you can do, then you’re getting skins from an animal that somebody raised to eat,” Levato said. “So there are other people that people should be attacking and questioning aside from my artists who use taxidermy because we’re actually scavenging and reusing things.”

Undoubtedly, an artist’s intentions are pretty universally understood, even when their obstacle isn’t disassociating themselves with the stigma related to hunting.

“The underlying goal here is to say something with your art that someone hasn’t seen before,” Enyeart said.

“Binary: A Pairing of Opposite States” will be held at the St. Paul’s Cultural Center, 2215 W. North Ave. from Oct. 9 to Nov. 7. The opening reception is on Oct. 9 from 6 p.m. to 12 a.m. Visit for works by Adam

Rust, for works by Jessica Joslin, for works by Lauren Levato and for works by Skye Enyeart.