A dead bird in the hand feels like a grenade: cold, compact, loaded. On a Saturday morning at Prey studio in downtown L.A., eight taxidermy students — a grab bag of artists and curious amateurs, all but three of them women — lower frozen European starlings into kitchen-sink baptisms. They take scalpels to the specimens.
Serving as their guide: Allis Markham, 31. Porcelain skin, jet-black hair and red lips belie dexterity with a scalpel rarely seen outside the operating room. Three years ago, Markham quit her job as director of digital strategy at Disney; last March, she opened the studio in the Spring Arts Tower, an office building–cum–artist enclave, which on its ground floor houses the Last Bookstore.
Now she runs sold-out taxidermy classes two or three times each month, between part-time shifts honing her craft at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHM).
“I went from working toward 'new, now,' to something that was most popular in the Victorian era,” Markham says.
She had found the digital space, where so much of her work disappeared into “the cloud,” unsatisfying. With taxidermy, she loved that she was creating something tangible.
The tactile work speaks to some primitive calling, satisfies a visceral urge. “It grounds people,” is how Markham sums it up.
And it's keeping a dead art alive.
The Natural History Museum itself plays a crucial role in preserving taxidermy. Museums are the only place where practitioners have the opportunity to work on most specimens; as employees of a public institution, museum taxidermists are exempt from laws restricting the sale, trade and possession of endangered and protected species. The complex regulations include the Migratory Birds Treaty of 1918, which restricts the “taking” of wild birds, criminalizing the whole pursuit all the way down to being in possession of a feather.
Ironically integral to that treaty's establishment: Frank Chapman, renowned birder and ornithologist at New York's American Museum of Natural History. As an executive committee member of the New York Audubon Society, Chapman was instrumental in what amounted to the first true effort to protect decimated avian populations. At the time, the popularity of bird-bedazzled ladies' hats had become a real threat.
Because taxidermy is essentially an apprentice trade, museums keeps the chain of transmission going.
The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County is unique among its peers in that it's the only such museum in the country with a full-time taxidermist on its payroll. “No other institution that started building dioramas in the '20s has continuously had diorama people on staff,” Tim Bovard notes.
Bovard has been the head taxidermist at NHM for 30 years. As a kid in the mid-1960s, he found himself fascinated by the practice. His training was thorough: He completed an apprenticeship program in 1974, worked in a commercial studio, took an internship at NHM and completed a degree with coursework in zoology, biology and museum studies at the University of Idaho before returning to a position that NHM created for him in 1984.
Markham came on in 2009 — first as a volunteer and then in a part-time capacity once Bovard realized she wasn't going anywhere.
“I just kept showing up. I wouldn't leave,” she says.
Bovard and Markham are among just a few publicly employed taxidermists in the country. By their reckoning, the only other one is at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Even the American Museum of Natural History dispensed with staff taxidermists when the last one retired in 1987.
Markham describes taxidermy as “a blend of art and science.” The job calls for skill in sculpting and painting, and a working knowledge of zoology, biology and anatomy.
Yet for all the skill required, the artist is forgotten: A taxidermist doesn't sign his work.
Little-known even in the annals of natural history, George Adams spent 40 years in the business, first in New York and then in L.A. He worked on some of the most iconic displays at both museums, including NHM's elephant diorama. But, with the exception of his successors and a few devoted followers of the art, no one knows his name.
“He was one of the last true sculptor-taxidermists,” Bovard says. Adams' attention to detail was impressive: He crafted mannequins by casting animals' skeletons in plaster, then sculpting in a clay overlay. Today, most mammal casts are made using polyurethane foam.
“Taxidermists can be kind of secretive about their methods,” Markham says, adding that Adams mostly worked alone in his lab. One story goes that a colleague would watch him through a hole in the wall, the only way he'd ever get a shot at learning from the master.
Halfway through Markham's class, students strip the birds' skulls, bracing their thumbs against the lower mandible to turn the things inside out. The skin stays attached at the beak, giving the eerie impression that the bird is kissing itself. The maneuver reveals the ears and the eyelids, allows access to the eyeballs — they look like blueberries — and the back of the skull. This is an easy entry point for the brain scoop: purpose implied.
One student, who found the class after seeing Markham blow-drying birds out the window from his office across the courtyard, remarks how quickly he's gotten comfortable handling bird guts. The class murmurs in agreement.
Still, there are shudders as students push clay into the skulls and the last of the brain matter oozes out. And then, the crux of the transformation: glass eyes set into their orbitals, a new life in dead birds. The starlings, ethically sourced from an abatement project in Wisconsin targeting the invasive species, which threatens local songbirds, look almost good as new.
Markham gives her classes a “freezer tour” once their mounts are complete. This time, she reveals — among popsicle-shaped parakeets and a pile of Arctic fox puppies that died in a cold snap — a peacock.
It has since been thawed, skinned and mounted. It represents for Markham a new facet of her practice: high-end rentals for film, TV and photo shoots.
She's added to that collection with three more specimens that died in captivity at the Georgia Zoo and Safari Park.
“I'm, like, 6K in on dead birds,” Markham says.
It's a small price to pay to become, to the best of her knowledge, the only person in the country renting stuffed African birds of prey. Since she's based in L.A., Markham has access to Hollywood, precisely the market for a museum-grade taxidermy African sparrow hawk. And, as a museum employee, she has the necessary experience to mount rare birds.
Forget the macabre: Taxidermy makes room for the notion, not that animals are killed but more that everything dies. Those that are preserved get a shot at life after death — and maybe, even, stardom.