Director Erin Derham’s documentary Stuffed in its World Premiere at SXSW 2019 is a fascinating eye-opener about the preservation and celebration of animals and birds in a most unique way, through taxidermy. Through interview clips of artists who have perfected the science of taxidermy and elevated it into a gorgeous art form, Derham reveals a world of beauty and creativity which ranges into the full appreciation, preservation and singular enjoyment of nature’s creations, some which, if climate change has its way, soon may be extinct.
Derham’s encomium to this particular group of scientific artisans elucidates the process of taxidermy and explodes all myths we may have about dealing with dead animals and “pumping them up” with embalming fluid. This is not the way of the taxidermist who works from sculpted forms made of styrofoam or other materials after they remove the skins, organs, skeletons and/or feathers from their glorious creations. The tricky part is the in-tact removal and then after the form of the animal is sculpted, to cover the sculpture with the skin/fur and feathers.
This is not only a painstakingly precise process where one can mess up at every turn, it requires that these artists know and understand the creature’s anatomy, skeletal structure and musculature. In order for taxidermists to excel at their craft, they must understand sculpting and painting. Also, they need to be proficient in chemistry and biology, animal
behavior and movement. Finally, they must be apprised of hundreds of species’ habitats.
After the sculpting phase and the skin/fur, feathers or outer layers are pulled over the form, they must be reconstituted and conditioned to life-like form. The additional artistry is to recreate the animal in a pose that reflects their lives in the wild or enhances their being as a work of art. This enhancement emphasizes that the animal is an integral dimension of our ecosystems on the planet and another wonder of nature’s bio-diversity.
Indeed, putting into focus the final work of art, one cannot help but venerate the artist for their passion, skill and talents. They laboriously and intimately deal with every feather, or piece of skin and fur, every bone in the skeletal structure of the animal and bird. And their love is expressed as the restored creation is presented for posterity so that future generations will relate to it on many levels: aesthetic, artistic, scientific, cultural, biological.
Derham features various artists and explores their methods. During voice overs, they discuss what fascinated them about the field. She presents them at their place of work and this is where we become astounded. A number of the artists work in museums to maintain dioramas of the animals displayed. Others have their own businesses and do set pieces which are indescribably beautiful.
Allis Markham is an award-winning taxidermist recently celebrated as “Third in the World” at the 2017 World Taxidermy Championships for her African Jacana. Based in California, her extensive client list includes L.A. Natural History Museum, Moore Lab of Zoology, the Huntington Library, The Getty and more. Her artistry expands to creating cool advertisements. Check out the new Gucci perfume ad, the ad for The Nomad Hotel and others on her website.
Jaap Sinke and Ferry van Tongeren are taxidermists based in Amsterdam, who have studied the Old Dutch Masters in the 17th century who portrayed exotic animals that were brought in by explorers (Darwin) to show the magnificent details on the animal. Working together for almost two decades, Sinke and van Tongeren do film, advertising, graphic design and taxidermy. van Tongeren who works for the Dutch Museum of Natural History in Leiden is happy that the venue enables him to work with a variety of techniques as he examines one of the largest and oldest taxidermy collections in the world.
Others Derham features are Travis C. De Villiers, a multiple award-winning Anatomical Sculptor and Taxidermist, and Daniel Meng. Meng is a hunter and conservationist who travels extensively to work on projects with top taxidermists. At 21 he received the “Best in World” title at the World Taxidermy Show
Through Derham’s lenses the art-form becomes lifted, and we note that these craftspeople are not obsessed with death, but obsessed with resurrection and the loveliness of life and nature’s variety. In fact to be able to reconstruct musculature precisely so the skin and fur fit perfectly shows a passion and love for animals/birds to bring them back to the appearance of life. In many instances, their creations achieve a new reality. As one moves up for closer inspection, we anticipate a lion’s nostril flaring or the blink of a jaguar’s eye. Indeed, this art form is another way to apprehend the animal kingdom “close up and personal” without the danger.
The beauty of the artistic creations of her subjects, Derham reinforces in her cinematography clips of the artwork and the very lyrical accompanying music throughout. I particularly enjoyed the opening credits and introductory music that set the foundation of the subject to follow, that it was not the gruesome macabre, but was the exceptional in “living” recreation. From editing to music to shot composition and staging of the animals and their preserving guardians, the taxidermy recreationists, there is an attention to aesthetic that belies the title, Stuffed. However, the very title is an irony for none of the creations are “stuffed,” sculpted, perhaps, but there is no sawdust fill.
This is a fine documentary that will keep you intrigued. Special kudos to everyone who took the subject out of the nether regions of horror into the sunny light of art.