Maybe it was the dark alley locale. It could have been the rubber gloves. Or perhaps it was the frozen mouse thawing atop a mound of white powder. Something should tell you that this is no ordinary art class. We’re at The Observatory for "Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy," a class taught by taxidermist, fashion designer and artist Divya Anantharaman. Over the course of the night, she’ll teach us to skin, stuff, stitch and style these tiny mammals into works of art. No blood and little gore promises the class description, but a strong constitution is required.
Our instructor certainly fits that bill. Anantharaman is an artist whose medium happens to be animals she has taxidermied. Yet her work arises from a fascination with life, not death. “I love taxidermy because it combines art, anatomy and science,” she explains. Drawn to nature from an early age, the Brooklyn-based artist taught herself taxidermy while studying fashion at Pratt. Her first project was a field mouse she had found frozen in the snow on a hike.
Since then, Anantharaman has taxidermied mammals and birds of all kinds – she says that raccoons are the grossest, thanks to their all garbage diet and thick layer of fat – and has even tried her hand at mummification and shrinking heads. She’s currently working on a turtle, and someone on Facebook offered to send her an armadillo.
Arts And Sciences
Anantharaman’s sculptures are whimsical and fantastic, reflecting her desire to portray animals in ways that are unfamiliar and unexpected. She cites as influences Walter Potter, who is generally regarded as one of the first taxidermists to arrange his animals in humanlike forms and situations, as well as Dutch fashion designer Iris Van Herpen and Australia-based designer and taxidermist Julia de Ville.
With the winnings from a victory on Lifetime’s 24 Hour Catwalk last year, she is developing custom-made women’s shoes incorporating her taxidermy. They’ll be special occasion pieces, she explained. Durable, but not exactly designed for tromping through the subway.
Life In Death
Despite – or perhaps because of – her proximity to death, Anantharaman’s respect for life is abundantly clear. In her classes, Anantharaman uses only ethically sourced animals: those that have either died naturally or would otherwise be disposed of. In her own work, Anantharaman also uses, for the most part, animals that have died of natural causes. Otherwise, she traps or hunts the animal herself and uses every part for art or food.
This reverence is found in her work as well. Decay is a sculpture of a broken sparrow skeleton, spread across a weathered book. The page is open to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 18th Century ballad that recounts the suffering of a sailor who brings great misfortune upon his ship by killing an albatross. He must wear the bird’s corpse around his neck as a reminder of his transgression. The sailor’s redemption comes only once he is able to see the beauty in all creatures.
No Guts, No Gory
Back at The Observatory, our initial chatter dissipates into focused silence; the intensity of the task at hand demanding our full attention. The scent of mouse flesh periodically wafts through the room, but the taxidermy process is surprisingly tidy. It’s not for the faint of heart, but any momentary queasiness is dispelled by pure fascination and a sense of awe.
- Divya Anantharaman’s next class at The Observatory, this time on English sparrow taxidermy, will take place on June 30th. More information is available here!
Article by Marisa Office