Last week I had the chance to speak with Robert Marbury, author of the gorgeous and SUPER FUN book Taxidermy Art, which combines a mix of taxidermy history, profiles of key influencers, modern day rogue taxidermy artists’ work, and even a DIY guide should you feel inclined to try your hand at mounting animals. Though I’ve not taken up taxidermy as a hobby of my own, I find the art itself to be HUGELY fascinating, especially when it comes to the more imaginatively designed specimens (i.e. mythical creatures and/or creatively curated fantastical scenes), so our conversation went heavy into topics like ghosts, mermaids, chupacabras, yetis and more. Read up on our chit-chat below, and grab a copy of the book; it makes for a great read, and will also look fab on your coffee table. (ALSO if you happen to be in the Baltimore area tomorrow night be sure to hit up Atomic Books to catch the book launch live and in-person.) HERE WE GO:
So first and foremost CONGRATULATIONS on the book! It’s beautiful; who designed the cover?
Isn’t it great? So Kara Strubel worked with us on it, and it’s funny, because when I started the book I had a very strong idea in mind. I’d never worked with a publisher before, so the day that I handed the manuscript over I was giving the entire layout as well…I crunched out the whole design and samples of all the pages, and then I found out I had an entire team for that. [Laughs]
Well, it looks GREAT. Now, this could be a difficult question, but what would you say is your favorite (or one of your favorite) pieces of taxidermy art?
Yeah, that is a hard one because I see so many of them. (Obviously I got to meet all of these artists in the book; there are twenty of them with twenty different kinds of work, all of which I love.) I do tend to like the smaller stuff, like the stuff that’s a little more delicate; I think is wonderful, very playful, and it has a sense of history to it…it feels like it’s from a different world. Sarina Brewer (who I started with) consistently creates these fantastical objects and animals, and every time I see one I get blown away…I’m always digging and looking for stuff, and I saw a chupacabra that someone had found in Texas (it was on the news sites) and Sarina implied that she’d just shipped it off. I realized then how weird my world had gotten, that I knew the people who had created the pieces that would be picked up by the Daily News. [Laughs]
Okay, well semi on that fantastical note, are you a man of science or do you believe in ghosts? I mean, are you ever concerned you’re going to wind up with angry ghost animals inside your home? [Laughs]
So there’s this crazy disconnect that occurs…you’re working with this material, and in a sense you have to distance yourself from what it is. What the viewer sees can lead to some very uncomfortable responses when something gives them rage or sadness or any of these feelings. I don’t do a lot of taxidermy myself, but I’ve taken classes so that I know what I’m talking about, and I do have some taxidermy in the house (not much, but some), though I don’t really feel anything from that. But that doesn’t mean I’m a man of science, nor do I not believe in ghosts. The reason I have Borges included as an influencer in Taxidermy Art is that magical realism is very appealing to me…this idea that we have the structure of reality, but there’s always awe and this sense of unknowing. Sometimes if you can allow yourself to be comfortable in not knowing, you end up with some more interesting interpretations of the world. I mean, if you have to come to the conclusion that it was A) light reflecting off the water or B) a mermaid, I mean…what do you want, what do you choose?! [Laughs] Sometimes it’s nice to have that mermaid.
I’m a big magical realism fan as well, so I feel you 100% on that. And since we’ve brought up the mermaid, what is your favorite mythical creature from the taxidermy world?
I’ve seen some really beautifully made unicorns (I like the idea that the only way you can capture a unicorn is allegedly with a virginal child, which is kind of weird…they have to fall asleep in a young girl’s lap, usually, which is why they’re so difficult to capture, I guess), and I’ve also seen a great Yeti that’s in the International Cryptozoology Museum in Maine; he doesn’t propose that it’s a real Yeti, but I’m a big fan of attempts at creating them.
Me too! I mean, it’s one of those things that…of course you LOGICALLY think, “Okay, this doesn’t really exist,” but the idea that it still COULD is just kind of a nice break from the humdrum routine of reality.
I actually had a hilarious thing happen where someone sent me a picture of an alien baby, and they said, “What do you think of this?” I looked at it and said, “That’s not an alien baby, that’s a skinned, desiccated spider monkey.” (I believe it was desiccated because it was wet preserved and the fur fell out.) And so the person said, “Can I call you? I want to talk on the phone.” So it turns out she was a producer for a William Shatner show called Weird or What? and she said, “Hey, would you be willing to come on air and debunk this alien?” I have a hard time with reality shows, but I looked it up and it got panned across the board as an awful show, so I immediately confirmed and said, “I’d love to.” So I ended up going on as an alien debunker (mostly because I felt like if you Googled “alien debunker” and my picture came up that that was a win-win situation), and it was pretty awesome.
Now, back to that thing of whether or not you can give yourself the ability to believe in things that you don’t see, the other side of it is that we’re wired to make sense of stuff. The best example I can give you besides that alien baby is Kate Clark’s work (in the book) with the animals with the human faces. She does such a good job of merging the two that when people look at it they’re sometimes initially repelled, because the brain doesn’t make sense of it. She says people have to leave the gallery and then come back and THEN they’re able to be with the piece and look at it. But it’s an interesting thing, this need to know what we’re looking at. And sometimes we just don’t.
Right, there’s definitely that human need to compartmentalize and categorize. Now, if you could work with (or have someone else work with) any specimen on a taxidermy level, either still in existence or extinct, what do you think that might be?
Well, there are a lot of animals that are just recently extinct that are close to my heart. I think the thylacine (Tasmanian tiger) is one of the coolest ones I can think of, personally because I love Tasmania…I mean, Tasmanian devils are so cute, they look like little Boston Terriers but much fiercer, but the thylacine…they have this wolf walk and their jaws open really wide and they’ve got beautiful striping that sort of starts halfway down the back and continues to the tail. There’s just nothing like them, and I think they’ve sort of been in my mind as the most interesting animal, if that’s fair. I mean, there are some beautiful animals that are alive, but we’re talking fantasy here, so I’d go to that one much quicker.
Be sure to grab a copy of the book for yourself, and definitely boogie on over to Baltimore (Atomic Books, details below) tomorrow if you’re in the area. ALSO follow Robert on Twitter and like the book on Facebook!
Thursday, October 9th, 7:00 – 9:00 p.m.
Taxidermy Gone Rogue! Artist Talk and Book Signing
Atomic Books, 3620 Falls Rd. Baltimore, MD 21211 USA
Free; books available for sale