How one kitten-loving artist came to specialize in crafting couture hats out of dead raccoons and roosters.
“When I was really little, my parents would take me to the Radnor steeplechase,” she recalls. “And I was riveted by the ladies in their hats because there’s such a hat culture around horse events . . . I really love wearing [my hats] to polo, or dressage or steeplechase.”
Discovering the craft of taxidermy was the result of an impulse to salvage animals that she saw as “nature’s castaways.”
Years ago, while studying jewelry design and working as a window dresser—she’s the one who, back in the day, designed those wild Daffy’s window displays, like the centaurs—Beverly couldn’t stop noticing dead birds scattered over the sidewalks. Every spring in the city, birds accidentally commit suicide; many mistake their reflection in windows for a rival, then attack themselves. It’s a perversion of their territorial instincts, and ours.
“I’d ... see birds all over the sidewalk, and it was making me crazy because they’re so beautiful,” she says. “And people were just stepping over them, or I don’t know, kicking them into the street. So I bought a book on basic taxidermy and tried to teach myself.”
The sentiment is beautiful, but the process is not.
First, she explains, you thaw the frozen body. You peel the skin away, and you get all the flesh out. Traditional taxidermists use industrial machines and drills to scrape the fat, but Beverly does everything by hand. “Every animal is different,” she says, nodding at the dog. “This guy didn’t have a lot of fat on him—some animals do. Like raccoons—you will be scraping fat off them for hours … It takes a lot of manpower. It’s tough work. You get sore.”
The fur is dry, and the hide is ready to tan. She lays it out on her worktable. The underside is white, opalescent and slightly shiny, like pearl. Beverly dips a brush and begins painting tanning solvent onto the skin.
She’s not sure yet if she’ll stretch it or “stake it,” which requires running the hide over a surface repeatedly until it’s dry.
“It’s worth the energy and emotion that I put into them,” she says. “I’ll do it for hours.”
Her online portfolio showcases hats like “The Andrea,” a green plastic visor topped with a dandelion-puff dome of raccoon fur, and “The Isabella,” a dramatic fascinator made of a rooster wing the colors of a calico cat. (The latter is a tribute to the late Isabella Blow, muse of Irish milliner Philip Treacy, who designs for major fashion houses and Lady Gaga.)
“What Beth is certainly wonderful at is showing a whole new imagination and a whole new take on that old tradition of rogue taxidermy,” says Paul Rhymer, a recently retired taxidermist for the Smithsonian Institution and one of the judges on Immortalized.
As seriously as she takes her work, Beverly also has a playful, dark sense of humor. When you find yourself blow-drying a pickled stretch of a fox’s ball sack, how could you not? Humor bleeds through her written descriptions of the hats on her website. To wit, about the Isabella: “It’s a simple piece consisting of a taxidermied rooster dried in a shape which hugs the crown and points out at such an angle so as to keep simpletons at bay.”
Though artists like Beverly are using taxidermy in new ways, “rogue taxidermy” is a practice that stretches back to the Victorian era. The most famous devotee of the art form is Englishman Walter Potter, whose pieces are mostly whimsical, anthropomorphized dioramas. He sculpted a crew of rat cops busting up a rat gang, tiny stuffed kittens having a tea party and guinea pigs playing a round of cricket. “It wasn’t called that back then,” Rhymer notes, “but it is rogue taxidermy.”
The new name, however, marks a popular renaissance—one that’s sometimes derisively dismissed as “hipster taxidermy.”
“You can’t throw a rock in Brooklyn without finding a mouse taxidermy class,” Beverly shrugs.
It’s true, taxidermy is becoming its own star in the constellation that is the modern hipster galaxy, fitting in somewhere between the urban pioneer’s cultivation of tactile, DIY endeavors (pickling!) and neo-Victorian aesthetic (handlebar mustaches!)—right alongside the burly beardos playing banjo, decorative antlers, feather jewelry and whatever else is scheduled to be lampooned on the next season of Portlandia.
It’s a cultural moment that is distilled, perhaps, in the opening scene of Vice magazine’s video profile of “World’s Hottest Taxidermist.” It’s a close-up of a young pretty Brooklynite smearing her puckered lips in gooey pink gloss before hopping on a all-terrain vehicle to go trap a groundhog on a friend’s farm.
“I think the first mouse that I did that came out well, I was so excited, and was just like, ‘Shit, I’m going to do this so much more now. I’m going to fucking do it!” says World’s Hottest Hipster.
Beverly hasn’t seen the video, so I describe it. She sighs.
“I think of this stuff a lot,” she says. “Sometimes I think, ‘Oh, another batch of hipster taxidermists,’ and then I’m like, ‘Oh wait, that’s what I am.’” And yet: “I’ve never been a cool kid—no one ever called me a trendsetter. It’s kind of like being carded at a bar at this point. Like, are you sure you think I’m a hipster? OK, that’s great.”
Calendar: December 17-24
Calendar: Dec. 10-17
PW's Holiday Guide 2014