Whether making a purse out of a rat or jewellery out of a jaw, Reid Peppard always reveals a delicate beauty in dead things. We talk to her about ethical fashion and the difficulties of working with roadkill.
What initially attracted you to taxidermy?
Well, I was studying for my degree in sculpture at Central Saint Martins when I first started using vintage taxidermy. I was attracted to taxidermy because of its ability to evoke an emotional response in people. It also fascinated me because in many ways taxidermy inhabits this sort of grey area between reality and fiction. People will often ask: "Is that a REAL..?" in reference to a rat/fox/crow preserved using taxidermy and I love that there is no definitive answer. I mean yes, obviously the skin is from an animal, but everything that gives taxidermy the illusion of life is the product of much labour on the part of the taxidermist.
I think the role of the artist within society is to create a visual dialogue that ignites some sort of discourse. I like how taxidermy gets people talking about things like animal welfare and the meat industry.
How have you been influenced by more traditional forms of taxidermy? Did you always envision it as a wearable form of art?
I was trained by a master taxidermist in Yorkshire, so my professional training in the craft is very traditional. However, I was always attracted to making taxidermy more than a physical representation of an animal in a 'natural' setting or display. This isn't to say that I feel it shouldn't be used to preserve animals in a natural habitat---quite the opposite! I am a huge admirer of traditional taxidermy done well. It's just that my skill sets and interests lie elsewhere.
Many of the animals you use died of natural or unpreventable causes, are you a unique case?
Not in the least! 90% of taxidermy in the UK is made from roadkill. Every taxidermist I know is an avid lover of nature and animals. I think you have to be to commit so much time and energy into replicating it.
How do you feel about those who kill animals for taxidermy?
I think it's unfortunate. That said, if you're a meat eater, I do think there's something to be said for killing the animal you're going to eat and putting every last bit of it to use. People are so removed from where meat comes from these days. If you're going to eat meat and wear leather jackets and shoes, I think you should be able to face what goes on to obtain these animal products.
Is there a message or ethos behind your work?
I aim for my work to act as a catalyst for discussions on animal products, social hypocrisy and beauty.
People often accept leather or even fur, but react differently when confronted with the whole animal. Why?
The concept that leather is ok and taxidermy is bad is something I don't understand. People have an easier time wearing and eating animal products when it's not shaped like an animal, I guess. To be honest I find this outlook nothing short of infuriating, but then that's a big reason why I make the artwork.
Has your work ever provoked negative criticism?
I have received the odd piece of hate mail. My work definitely isn't for everyone, but I've been surprised by the generally positive feedback I've received over the years.
Talk me through the taxidermy process?
Taxidermy requires a detailed knowledge of a number of skill sets. A (super) short breakdown of the taxidermy process for a small mammal, such as a squirrel or mouse, would be:
- Start with a dead animal that's fresh enough to eat (if you were that way inclined).
- Freeze it in an airtight bag or container for storage. When you're ready to use it, defrost for a few hours.
- Using a very sharp knife, make a small incision on the animal's back or belly and carefully peel the skin off of the body.
- Deflesh the leg and arm bones, keeping the knees and elbows intact. Then remove them from the body keeping the hands and feet un-skinned, but attached.
- Measure the corpse and make an exact sculptured replica of it out of foam or wood wool.
- Tan the skin, which turns it into something like leather, and remove all the fat.
- Boil the skull and remove the brains and muscle.
- Resculpt the musculature back onto the skull, add glass eyes and attach it to the sculpted body form.
- Roll the tanned skin in powder to help remove moisture, fur or feathers.
- Cover the sculpted form with the tanned skin, and further sculpt with clay.
- Continue to shape the form, setting in pins to ensure the skin doesn't shrink or move as it dries over the next few weeks.
Woah. Sounds intense. Does its visceral nature make it a stressful task?
Things that make taxidermy stressful include: slippage - when the skin starts to release the feathers or fur follicles, incorrect or out of sync tanning solutions, flesh eating dermestid beetles, water damage (rotten taxidermy anyone?), sun damage - it will eventually bleach out all the colour from the fur or feathers, over boiling skulls can cause them to break up, and last, but not least, puncturing the skin, intestines or glands while skinning an animal can result in quite a lot of smelly mess.
Has working with death changed your view of it?
I like to think of my work as a way of giving animals that would have otherwise been binned, a second life of sorts.
Have you ever found it hard to tackle a piece?
My first feral roadkill cat was hard for me as a cat owner. For me, all animals are created equal, whether it's a little mouse or a big brown bear. That said, seeing an animal similar to my beloved pet so badly injured really struck a chord with me. But I'm always a bit sad when I see a roadkill animal. It's not a very nice way to go.
You’re from America but have studied and lived in London. Are reactions to your work different on each side of the Atlantic?
I've just moved back to Los Angeles after nine years in London. Taxidermy has a different culture over here, it's all hunting trophies in contrast to the UK's roadkill based practices. So far I've found more ignorance towards my work over here, for example, a girl once told me she hated taxidermy because she believes the spirit of the animal lives in the skin. She was wearing leather boots, jacket and handbag at the time. We'll see, only time will tell how the West Coast views my work. I might end up high tailing it back to London in a couple years time!
Will you miss the deceased foxes strewn across the streets of London?
I already miss the plethora of roadkill animals in London. LA is so bloody clean! It makes finding roadkill very difficult.
Watch out for the HUMAN COLLECTION and a series of metal "paintings" by Reid and visit her site, RP/ENCORE.