How to become a taxidermist – we talk taxidermy with Nicola Hebson
How to be a taxidermist? Explore the path with Nicola Hebson, a vegan who transforms roadkill into surreal art.
From pheasant wing fascinators to glow in the dark rat skull brooches – Nicola Hebson is a creative and talented taxidermist from Great Harwood, Lancashire. Today I am talking to her about her hobby turned career of recycling roadkill and creating unusual pieces of jewellery, accessories and curiosities. Perhaps you’d think this is a strange line of work for a committed vegan like Nicola? She takes the time to discuss her methods, sources and love of taxidermy with us.
How did your love of taxidermy come to light?
When I was at university I was doing a project about the beauty in decay, which led me to studying the decay in deceased animals. I began to collect feathers, bits of fur, bones, shells and insects on my travels. Soon enough I started to notice roadkill, just lying there on the roadsides, as where I live is predominantly countryside. Eventually I began to look into taxidermy on my own accord. My great, great grandfather was a leather worker so you could say that this sort of art runs in the family! I have his journal with all the tanning recipes that he used.
Are people often surprised when you tell them you’re vegan?
Being a taxidermist and a vegan seems completely normal to me now! When I first started taxidermy five years ago I was a meat eater. I transitioned to vegetarianism and then veganism about three years ago. I think if I hadn’t have started taxidermy I wouldn’t have become vegan. Seeing the inside of mammals makes me realise how close we are to animals. The whole anatomy of a rat, for example, is so similar to a human on the inside. They have a tiny ribcage the same shape as our own. People usually find it funny that I am a both a vegan and a taxidermist, but after I explain a little more they usually understand. Personally, I don’t think I need animal products to survive and I feel better without them. Yes, I use animal bodies in my work, but only roadkill and naturally deceased animals I find. I see it as the universe leaving me a shell to recycle into art.
I have quite a few vegan/vegetarian fans and customers! Usually people from USA.
How do you become a taxidermist?
To be a legitimate taxidermist takes great enthusiasm for the subject, patience and years of practice. As it’s such an old practice there is no mainstream educational certificate that you can achieve in taxidermy, although you can become a member of The Guild of Taxidermists like I did. In this UK guild you can enter competitions to go from ”amateur” status to ”professional” in the taxidermy world. I have been to several guild meetings and learned a few tips and tricks of the trade. However, I much prefer to keep going and learning from my own studio, as I’m more of an artist than a taxidermist.
In America they use the words ”rogue taxidermist” for someone who takes an unconventional approach to taxidermy and uses surrealism in their work. Which is what I do, and my paintings are also in the ”pop surrealism” style.
Are you an artist outside of taxidermy?
Taxidermy is one part of the art that I produce. Outside of taxidermy I create paintings and jewellery and sometimes the different mediums overlap into one another. I consider myself an artist above all else.
Is it easy to make mistakes? Do you ever wind up with wonky taxidermy that’s crying out to be made into a meme?
It’s easy to make mistakes if you don’t know what you are doing! I’ve made many in the past. Nowadays I like to make taxidermy where I purposefully make the animal I’m working on smile! Occasionally an animal I’m working on will have a slightly off-looking face, but that’s all part of the art that I make.
What first made you want to make jewellery and accessories from taxidermy?
I am really inspired by the Victorian times and the mourning jewellery that was created then, and also the Latin phrase, Memento Mori, which means ”remember you must die”. Wearing taxidermy as jewellery is a kind of reminder artistically and symbolically of our own mortality.
I am also really inspired by practices which acknowledge a connection with animal spirits. For example, I believe that wearing a crow’s foot is a symbolic reminder of the powers of the crow which can help us in our own lives, kind of like a magical talisman. It’s also really good to wear something natural, to make you feel closer to nature.
I worked in antique jewellery for a time and fell absolutely in love with the mourning lockets that we had. We received them containing locks of lost loved ones’ hair which eventually must have lost significance to people…
Jewellery plays an important role as it is very symbolic and holds a kind of energy that resonates with the wearer, be it for ceremonies or daily wear. To me as a jewellery maker, I believe that when somebody wears a piece of jewellery that I have made, it not only looks attractive and interesting, but carries a kind of positive energy and a deeper meaning – like a talisman. The meaning of the piece can remind the wearer of the symbolism associated with the piece whilst he or she is wearing it.
I never plan out in advance any of the jewellery that I make, I just begin to make things in the same way that I approach painting and taxidermy. I allow for discoveries and ”happy accidents’’. I’ve always believed that my ideas come from deep within my subconscious, the art of not thinking too much and just going with the creative flow. When I work this way I allow my creative juices to flow and I feel it to be alchemical, almost. Then, when a person looks through the jewellery and other things I have made they might find a piece that resonates with their soul. I often get the comment ”I really like this piece and I don’t know why.” Maybe it’s morbid curiosity, or something more esoteric, or maybe I’m just a girl that likes to make weird things!
I’ve always been close to nature having grown up right next to fields and fields of countryside and woodlands, and I feel most at home when I’m in nature. It’s my dream to live in a hobbit house in the woods! I feel like nature speaks to me. I can explore the woods for hours and I especially like looking for faces in the tree barks. Nature is just pure, untapped inspiration to me.
Can you describe an average day in your workshop?
I usually get up around 10am and have a banana smoothie, then I go for a ride on my bicycle to do errands in town such as making trips to the post office and buying supplies. I also ride around the countryside for an hour or so and pick up any roadkill that I find. Then I come home and put the roadkill in the freezer, and start working on some jewellery and taxidermy pieces. I answer emails, make phone calls, do some tidying up and make dinner, then I usually work on jewellery pieces all evening and maintain my online shop till around 10pm. I also like to paint when I have time in between doing other taxidermy related pieces. I’m working on my art most of the time, even on weekends, but it’s my passion and I love to do it!
What are the best things about a career in taxidermy?
The best thing about this lifestyle is being my own boss. I come up with all of my ideas and I am in full control. Just knowing that everything I have achieved so far has come completely from myself is very positive and uplifting and it makes me want to carry on doing what I’m doing. I could have carried on working in a beer store for the rest of my life but I always had a strong feeling that I wanted to do what I do and I’m glad that I always listened to my own intuition.
And the worst?
The worst things about practising taxidermy is not knowing the outcomes of pieces I’ve never worked on before, or spending ages working on an animal skin and realising that the animal is a bit too decayed! However, I always manage to recycle as much as I can from an animal before I bury the remains. Also, fleas coming back to life on animals and maggots hiding in crevices is not very nice either! The most gruesome moment was probably when I accidentally punctured a badger’s scent gland. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination!
I imagine there can be a danger factor where taxidermy is concerned. Are there strict health and safety regulations to follow?
I always work in a well-ventilated room. I wear medical gloves and an old nurse gown, which is fitting as I also live in an abandoned hospital! I always freeze an animal for at least a week before working on it.
Can taxidermy be very demanding?
Oh, yes. I often try to do it in stages. Luckily, pieces can be put back in the freezer at any point and taken out again to work on once more. Sometimes I can be working on a piece for up to twelve hours at a time. It’s like surgery!
You used to have your own curiosity shop. What made you switch to trading online?
I had my own shop in Blackburn but it was very demanding and I spent most days talking to people about the work. I didn’t spend enough time actually making stuff. I gave it up to go online because the rates for the shop were also very high, and the location was terrible! At least with being online people can look at my work whenever they want and I can concentrate on my taxidermy more. I do still have a travelling shop that appears at UK festivals, tattoo conventions and fairs. I do about one a month and you can see where I am going to be through my Facebook page.
When browsing taxidermy online I haven’t seen many other women taxidermists. Does it tend to be more of a man’s world?
Taxidermy has previously been very male dominated but I think a surge of female taxidermists over the past few decades has turned that around. Taxidermy is one of the most intricate craftiest things to practice. It seems only natural that women should get involved too. I think taxidermy culturally has seemed like a man’s world due to the hunters and trophy-getters of the UK and USA, the men who hunt animals and then mount their ”trophy” on their wall at home. This is the antithesis of my work and it’s something I really do not like or condone. Killing an animal to eat and then mount is really not what I’m about. I sometimes receive messages from people asking me for fox shoulder mounts done in a traditional style and I have to explain how that’s not what I do. I am an artist and an anthropomorphic taxidermist.
Do you have a favourite piece?
All the pieces I make are like extensions of my imaginary family. However, my favourite piece at the moment would have to be a baby rat riding a pigeon, adorned in travelling attire.