Photography by Chris Baglien
Interview by Jones Grey
Over the last 25 years, Rogue Taxidermy has taken on many different definitions: pop-culture phenomenon, blood-and-gore lover’s delight, and museum-worthy art form. But to get it right, it’s best to ask the Queen. Enter Sarina Brewer, the woman responsible for the modern outpouring of female-crafted works utilizing everything from fur and bones to manikin forms and glass eyes. A completely self-taught creator, Brewer began ethically sourcing deceased animals as a student at the Minneapolis College of Art & Design. Her work has since been featured across the globe in art galleries and museum collections, but the blazed trail must begin somewhere. “It was the early 1990’s and they had never encountered the mummified corpse of a squirrel plastered onto a homework assignment before,” says Brewer. “Making art out of dead animals wasn’t trendy back then, it was morbid. People assumed I was doing it for shock value or that I needed a psychological evaluation.” Though the press has morphed the genre into whatever fits the headlines, Rogue Taxidermy isn’t the gore-tastic practice spectators assume it to be. Brewer elaborates that “for a sculpture to qualify as Rogue Taxidermy, its main component must be some sort of “taxidermy related material;” however, the end result doesn’t need to be reminiscent of an animal, it can be completely abstract, and it doesn’t need to contain organic animal materials.” Brewer’s popularity has earned her several invitations from former professors to speak on the same work that almost lost her the chance to complete her thesis. “Using animal remains in art is so accepted now that it’s hard to believe they truly couldn’t wrap their heads around it.” Just as her art is an homage to an animal life once lived, Brewer’s response is apropos considering her history as a student. “Funny how things change. The irony is not lost, nor will it ever be, and I have yet to accept any of their invitations.”
Jones Grey: Artist Joel-Peter Witkin, who uses human corpses in his photography work, shares an interesting anecdote about his defining artistic moment. Upon walking out of church as a child, he claims to have encountered an automobile accident in which a severed head rolled just in front of his feet. Does the Sarina Story contain any similarly unforgettable experiences that lead to your choice of livelihood?
Sarina Brewer: Thank God it was nothing that drastic or I would probably have actually needed the therapy my college professors thought I did, however my story does have the common thread of childhood attempts to comprehend and deal with the concept of death, only my story revolves around the loss of animals. I think most artists within the genre of Rogue Taxidermy ended up here for the same reason, their relationship with animals. My preoccupation with dead animals starts with a childhood memory of a naked baby bird crushed on the sidewalk and covered in ants. It’s a strong image and makes a lasting impression, which is why everyone reading this right now can visualize the scene based on their own first encounter. My family had a diverse menagerie of pets while I was growing up and I have been surrounded by animals my entire life. Needless to say when any of them died I was heartbroken. Seeing any dead animal was upsetting to me. I would lavish anything dead with an elaborate funeral upon its passing, from the crushed baby bird on the sidewalk to our pet turtles and rats. After my parents made the mistake of telling me about reincarnation there was no turning back and my path in life had been set. I was fascinated with the concept of an afterlife and the body merely as a “vessel”. Animals didn’t cease to exist just because they were no longer using their physical body. I would take comfort in the notion they weren’t really gone but I also felt the need to have a tangible part of them near me even after death (and that’s where mom and dad’s plan failed) so on several occasions I secretly dug up their bones and incorporated them into little shrines in my bedroom. I remained enthralled with the circle of life as I grew into adulthood and during my years at college everything started to coalesce. While earning my degree at The Minneapolis College of Art and Design I worked primarily with found objects – most of which were animal remains. These early works were shrines to the animals they incorporated. As the years went by my “shrines” became more metaphorical than literal. The work I create now versus the work I created then has only changed in appearance, the philosophy has remained the same. I still save part of the “vessel”, only now instead of incorporating it into a shrine, the vessel itself is the shrine. After the non-physical part of an animal leaves its vessel no one knows what animal it will inhabit next. I use multiple animals to create a single creature to symbolize the variety of vessels that could be the next stop for the non-physical component of the animals I am using to create the piece. I don’t believe in reincarnation anymore, at least not like I did when I was child, but when I’m gone the atoms that made up my body will still be floating around somewhere. If I’m lucky they will nourish another living thing, and that to me is a true rebirth.
Jones Grey: How is the growth of women in taxidermy art changing the landscape for future female artists?
Sarina Brewer: When I began doing my taxidermic work there were only a handful of people (male and female) around the globe creating work reminiscent of mine. As a result of a New York Times article following my first show, I became the best know artist in the United States producing this type of work. Images of my work flooded the internet after the show and they still dominate internet search results. Not only did my art inspire people to follow in my footsteps and create Rogue Taxidermy, my persona inspired people as well, this time specifically women. I unwittingly became a subtle feminist icon for women dabbling in the shadows of taxidermy related art. For lack of a better analogy, I became a Rosie the Riveter figure of sorts – “We can do it”. “It” (making art with a dead animal) was okay now, the materials were no longer taboo. I inspired women to express themselves with materials that had been labeled as a masculine medium in the past. Not only that, I showed them they could do it in a way that not only preserved their femininity, but in a way that it actually accentuated it. The juxtaposition of doing something “manly” while being “girlie” is empowering and appealing on many levels. I was once jokingly told, I did for taxidermy what Madonna did for cigars. I carved a path for other women to follow, and they did. Some of the young women who were inspired by me early in their careers have since hit the streets with pop-up style D.I.Y taxidermy classes. Having a female instructor encourages other women to attend the classes, so a healthy portion of the students are female. I think the Rogue Taxidermy art movement inspires women artists across the board regardless of what type of art they do. I think it could end up having a far-reaching effect and we could see an increase in the number of women artists working with other types of traditionally masculine mediums and tools. We live in a time where the breaking-down of stereotypical gender roles is occurring throughout society. The Rogue Taxidermy art movement also sets an equally important example about tolerance for the belief systems of others. The philosophy behind the work in this genre is as important as the art itself. You have the right not to agree with it, but you don’t have the right to discriminate. Its 2015 and as a sociality we make room for everyone now, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, or personal belief system. The Rogue Taxidermy art movement is truly a reflection of the times.
Jones Grey: Taxidermy takes serious artisan-type knowledge and skills that require more than just a creative mind. What must a taxidermist absolutely possess to produce quality work, whether traditional or rogue?
Sarina Brewer: Understanding the anatomy of an animal inside and out is absolutely fundamental. Having the ability to visualize what’s under the skin is as crucial to a taxidermist as it is to a sculptor. You can study anatomy in a book but unless you actually spend time around animals you will never fully master the intricacies of their inner workings, and if you don’t believe animals experience the same feelings we do, than you will never be able to capture the look in their eyes. A lifetime of observing animals has given me an innate ability to render their structure, the way they move, and the subtle expressions on their face. The process came to me naturally, just like some people can pick up a pen and draw a photorealistic portrait without having any formal training. I could pick up a dead animal and make it look alive again. Sculptors often say a lump of clay “speaks” to them when they touch it. Once they begin working with it, the clay seems to choose what it wants to become and leads the way. It’s the same with me only my medium was once alive, so it speaks even louder.
Sarina Brewer: This variety of work has gone from counter culture to pop-culture, and from controversial to contagious. What began as a 3 person online artist collective here in Minneapolis a decade ago has literally exploded into global phenomenon. Due to our efforts the genre of Rogue Taxidermy is now considered a legitimate form of fine art. The genre has transcended stereotypes about taxidermy and firmly transported it from hunting lodge to gallery. The popularity of Rogue Taxidermy created a trend in the world of art that changed the perception and assumptions about taxidermy, not only in galleries, but also in contemporary aesthetics. After something hot hits the gallery scene it begins to be assimilated into mainstream society, which is exactly what has occurred with taxidermy. Every home décor magazine and home fashion window display across the country is overflowing with decorative objects that mimic taxidermy, and it can all traced back to Rogue taxidermy and its arrival on the gallery scene. If people are smart enough to keep their eyes on the Rogue work on the outskirts of the genre rather, than the superficial layers that the mainstream media keeps presenting, there is, and will continue to be, some amazing evolution to watch unfold. The serious artists working within this genre continue to push boundaries and challenge the established parameters of art. As a society we always ask ourselves “What defines art?”, “Can art still be shocking?”, “Can anything new be done that hasn’t been done already?” The answer is a resounding “yes”. It’s happening right now, right here in front of us. And it will continue to happen. You just need to keep your eyes open and use your peripheral vision.
Jones Grey: Who do you perceive to be the next up-and-coming female artist in taxidermy?
Sarina Brewer: To be honest I don’t really keep my finger on the pulse of what is being created by the artists within the genre of Rogue Taxidermy who concentrate specifically on mounting animals. Because I’m a purest and I want to see the genre of Rogue Taxidermy flourish as the multi-media sculpture that it was originally introduced as, I’m always on the lookout for work that exemplifies the diversity within the genre, not work that is typical of it. So my eye is drawn to people using animal materials other than taxidermy and those working with synthetic taxidermy-related materials. Artists using these materials and artists creating abstract and conceptual Rogue Taxidermy are the life-blood of the genre and are what keeps it from becoming inbred. The Rogue Taxidermy art movement encompasses people at every stage of their art career. Many are professional artists who show their work in galleries. There are also a huge number of people working under the moniker of Rogue Taxidermy who were creating art with animal materials long before there was a term to describe it. The other end of the Rogue Taxidermy spectrum are young people who are new to the scene. A noticeable chunk of the Rogue pieces coming out of the D.I.Y sector of the genre are derivatives of pre-existing concepts. This is because a lot of the work is being constructed at pop-up taxidermy classes and the students all have the same assignment. For this reason I’m always encouraging people new to the genre to experiment with the other materials that the genre encompasses and not to become overly reliant on the taxidermied animal aspect. I’m also always encouraging the media to explore the work coming out of the other end of the Rogue spectrum – the work that doesn’t utilize actual taxidermied animals. The press has chosen to focus on the taxidermy aspect because of the sensationalistic appeal of making art with dead animals, but in doing so they are overlooking a lot of the amazing work being produced within the genre.
Jones Grey: What will you be adding to your repertoire over the coming years?
Sarina Brewer: I am going to begin phasing out commissions for works that are based on pieces I’ve already done so I can concentrate exclusively on new concepts. Creating editions of certain pieces has kept the bills paid over the years, but it also makes it challenging to find time to create new work for my gallery and museum exhibitions. My work, and the philosophy behind it, was the catalyst for the rogue Taxidermy art movement and I’ve played an active roll in shaping it over the last decade since its inception. The movement embodies so much of who I am that I feel a maternal connection to it. The movement will always be part of me and there will always be part of me in the movement, even after I’m gone. I will always create taxidermy, it’s part of who I am, but I’m beginning to take the focus of my work away from taxidermy mounts of fictional animals and beginning to revisit my roots. During my formative years at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design the bulk of my work consisted of abstract paintings, reliefs, and shrine-like boxes, all of which incorporated preserved animals remains. The direction I will be taking things in the coming year will marry my past and present bodies of work by incorporating taxidermy into the type of work I was creating while earing my degree at MCAD. To have my work come full circle like this is amazingly fulfilling and I’m excited to begin extending the boundaries of art once again with yet another variety of Rogue work.
Jones Grey: What is the most common type of request or commission from your clients?
Sarina Brewer: Some of my regular patrons let me choose what to create for them. The majority of my clients commission a work based on a preexisting piece from my portfolio. Some off my best-known pieces are my griffins. I’ve been making them since I launched my first website in 2003. For those who aren’t familiar with a griffin, it’s a creature from ancient Greek mythology. The back half of its body is a lion and the front half of its body is an eagle. Eagles (and all other raptors) are a protected species so I substitute with roosters, then I typically use a fox for the rear end. I have done a few griffins over the years with cats. The griffins that incorporate cats were commissioned by pet owners looking for a unique way to memorialize their pets. As for my smaller less expensive items, my dyed 2-headed chicks are signature pieces, with pink being a customer favorite. I added them to the mix about seven years ago and they have been a best seller ever since. |
Follow Sinical on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/sinicalmag
Follow Sinical on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/sinicalmag
Follow SInical on Instagram: http://www.instagram.com/SinicalMagazine
Follow Sinical on Tumblr: http://sinicalmag.tumblr.com
Follow Sinical on Fetlife: http://www.fetlife.com/users/1496724
Sinical on clips4sale.com: http://clips4sale.com/92175
Jones Grey: How has Rogue Taxidermy evolved already since its conception? How do you think it will continue to evolve?