Our featured interview this month
is with Sarina Brewer founder of Custom Creature Taxidermy Arts.
She is an internationally known taxidermist and gaff artist…also
a founding member of the Minnesota Association of Rogue
Sarnia, how did you become interested in gaffs?
Being the hopeless science nerd and
sci-fi freak that I am, I've
always been interested in anomalies of nature; frogs with extra
legs, cows with 2 heads, cyclops piglets, etc. I loved going to
the sideshow tents at the State Fair as a kid where I could see
living animals with parasitic twins and other bizarre
deformities. It obviously made quite an impression on me! I've
been actively collecting natural history related items for close
to 30 years. It was around the time I was in college that I
began to seek out and collect genuine freak animal taxidermy
mounts. But since they were relatively hard to come by and
generally expensive, I couldn't afford most of what I wanted to
buy on my starving artist shoestring budget. So I decided to try
my hand at creating fake freak animals for my collection. My
very first attempt at taxidermy resulted in a squirrel with 2
heads (I never could keep it between the lines) I sell most of
what I make as soon as it's completed, but that squirrel still
hangs proudly in my showroom, just like the first dollar taped
to the wall behind the cash register at a pub.
Who are some of the people
who have influenced your gaff work?
There isn't really anyone who has
influenced my gaff work. However, my taxidermy work in general
has been influenced by pioneering "rogue taxidermists" of the
world. Not that I do a lot of anthropomorphic taxidermy mounts,
but I'm captivated by the work of Walter Potter and his dioramas
of kittens at tea parties and little bunnies going to school.
I'm also inspired by the numerous unsung heroes of the rogue
taxidermy world - like whoever decided to slap some antlers on a
rabbit, thus creating one of the best known creatures of
folklore in the world. But really all antique taxidermy mounts
inspire me. Before the age of pre-fab urethane foam deer heads a
taxidermist also needed to be an anatomist. In order to make the
animal look real and look alive you had to know every muscle,
every bone, every structure inside and out in order to recreate
it. Today's world of sportsman's mounts is very assembly line.
Many taxidermist don't even tan their own skins anymore, they
send the deer hide away to get it tanned. Then when they get it
back they mount the skin to a pre-fab form. I'm not saying that
doesn't take any skill, but in my mind the true test for a
taxidermist is someone who can make a realistic mount the old
fashioned way; Cleaning the flesh from the bones, re-assembling
and wiring them back together, then rebuild the musculature
using clay, maché, twine, and shredded jute. It totally blows my
mind to think how much work went into the taxidermy mounts in
the dioramas at the Field museum or Smithsonian in a day before
prefab mannequins. Those are the taxidermists I aspire to be
more like and that have driven me to hone my skills.
What influenced your decision to
become a taxidermist?
What I do was more of an evolution
than a decision, and it’s
been a very gradual evolution over the years.
I've always considered myself an artist first and a taxidermist
second – more precisely an artist whose medium is animal
components, in the same way a sculptor's medium is clay or
steel. When people ask me what I do for a living I simply answer
"artist". If prodded for details - "taxidermy sculpture" is the
term I settled on. My journey to taxidermy actually began when I
was a painter attending art school.
Could you tell us a little more
about your schooling?
I graduated with a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art in
design in 1992. While in college I worked predominantly with oil
paint and found objects,
abstract paintings and shadow boxes.
these formative years the found objects I incorporated into my
work consisted mainly of mummified animal remains and bones. It
time that I also began doing restoration on dilapidated vintage
taxidermy mounts that I scored at junk stores. I noticed that
process of preparing animal
remains for use in my art had a lot of similarities to what I
was doing while restoring the old mounts. Up until that point I
was learning only through trial and error.
So I bought a
few books to learn more conventional techniques of preserving
animal remains. I ended up learning how to mount an animal from
start to finish.
I'm totally self-taught in this realm.
Initially there was a lot of blood, sweat, and tears (mostly my
blood) but my mantra has always been practice makes perfect. My
study of anatomy over the years also proved crucial knowledge
necessary for taxidermy work. Without it, it's impossible to
create a life-like mount, be it a real animal or a fictional
one. The whole taxidermy process just came to me so naturally.
It was weird. Not sure how to verbalize it – not to sound like a
total nut job, but it's almost like the animals tell me what
they want to be. Like clay in the hands of a sculptor, it's like
my creatures create themselves in a way. I just new this was my
calling and what I had to do.
I understand you have done
some work for museums. Could you tell us about that experience?
I take on projects for
education institutions whenever I have the chance. I recently
created a pair of feejee mermaids for an exhibit at Oceanopolis
Cultural Center in Brittany France and one of my Jenny Hanivers
resides in the permanent collection in the Geneva Museum of
Natural History in Switzerland. I currently volunteer my skills
in the biology department of the Science Museum of Minnesota. I
clean and articulate skeletons and prepare study skins, which
are used for research purposes by the museum and the Minnesota
Department of Natural Resources. Museums are always short on
funds (it seems money is always short when it comes to any type
of education in this country) Without volunteers there would be
no museums. So I always urge anyone with knowledge and skills
applicable to the natural sciences to look into volunteer
opportunities at museums in their area
Tell us a little about the
different types of work you do? I’m especially interested in
what you call your fantasy mounts.
I make the best use out of
all of the animal materials I get. My work takes several
directions. I make things out of all of the scraps that a
regular taxidermist would throw in the garbage; I make
accessories like necklaces and keychains out of leftover bits
like paws and tails and I pickle internal organs for study and
display. But my favorite way to recycle is creating
"carcass-art". I mount and dry the skinned carcasses of small
animals in anthropomorphic poses. Even though
are some of my favorites, they disturb people that have a fear
of what lies under the skin. I'm fascinated with the inner
workings of animals. I think animals are just as beautiful and
intriguing on the inside as they were on the outside. But my
specialty is creating composite-animal taxidermy work. "Fantasy
mounts" is simply an all-encompassing term I use for any
fictional animals I create, be they cryptoids or freaks.
How has your interest in
Cryptozoology influenced your work?
Cryptozoology, folklore, and mythology are intertwined on many
levels and are an endless source of ideas.
I'm inspired by classical beasts of Roman and Greek mythology
such as the centaurs
and satyrs. But I'm just as inspired by creatures of folklore
like the wolpertinger and hodag. Mythological beasts were often
simply combinations of animals already known to ancient peoples.
Like the griffin; half eagle half lion. Or the Chimera; a lion
with a goat sprouting out of it’s back with a snake for a tail.
I use plenty of artist license when creating my versions of
these classics, but I often substitute with the closest proxy I
can find. For example; I'll use a wild cat instead of a lion,
or a crow instead of an eagle, etc. Creating these types of
fantasy mounts presents more of a challenge than creating one of
mythological animals don't exist in real life, it can be tricky
mounting one in a way that looks like it would have a natural
movement and looks "alive" – hard to visualize when you've never
seen a living one. The mannequins are also more of a challenge
to create – obviously there aren't any pre-fab forms for
Capricorns and Griffins.
gaffs…showmen, collectors, or is it just someone who wants a
I've sort of carved out a
unique niche for myself in the art world. There's quite a bit of
variety in what I offer so it has a broad range of appeal. I
sell to people from all walks of life, catering to everyone from
sideshow exhibitors and tattoo shop proprietors, to collectors
of fine art and other artists themselves. It's hard to say what
percentage of my customers comprise showmen and what percentage
comprise collectors, etc. It's everybody; a doctor buying a
squirrel liquor decanter for one of his friends, a guy buying a
squirrel head trophy as a gag-gift for a hunting buddy, a
club-going urban vampire buying a boar heart dome as a
Valentine's day gift for his significant other, a receptionist
buying the magic mystery paw as a white elephant Christmas gift
for her brother, or a woman buying a griffin as an anniversary
present for her husband, etc., etc. It really runs the gamut.
Definitely showmen comprise a good portion of sales, but there
also seems to be a growing number of tattoo/piercing shop owners
who are setting up formal parlors in their shops - waiting rooms
decorated with outlandish curiosities to draw in more customers.
How have you been accepted
by the sideshow community? Have you had any unusual experiences
dealing with showmen?
With open arms - It's been great.
I had the privilege to meet Bobby Reynolds and James Taylor in
person through the sideshow gatherings and have met numerous
other showmen via the Internet. The gatherings are a great place
to network. I've met a lot of great people working in the
business, performers and artists alike. Always great stories!
Definitely, not a profession full of dull people.
Do you feel a connection
to traditional sideshows and the dime museums?
Yes, very much so. Many of
my pieces are in actual sideshow exhibits. I like to think that
I'm helping to preserve the sideshow tradition and even becoming
a very small part of sideshow history by creating my pieces.
Unlike gallery shows, the sideshow is the perfect venue for my
work because the ultimate compliment is when someone walks away
thinking they just saw the Real McCoy. I show in galleries as
well, but I can only get that sort of reaction from viewers
within the context of the sideshow. A good customer of mine that
owns one of my Chupacabra mummies had been displaying it as the
real deal in his curiosity shop. It recently got some local
press coverage as a potential real Chupacabra. It was
subsequently "out-ed" as a fake, but it sure was fun while it
lasted. I have other showmen with my Feejee mermaids that
check-in periodically relaying conversations they have with the
awe struck visitors as they walk out of the tent. I love every
minute of it.
How much of your work is
At this point in time all of my
work is commissions. I started out selling on ebay before I had
my first website. After I set up the second website the
commissions were keeping me too busy to create anything in my
spare time for ebay. This is my only job and only source of
income. It's a 24/7 one-woman operation and keeps me very busy.
Where do you see the gaff
business headed? Do you see the demand for your products
It's hard to say, but it seems the
often oppressive "politically correct" climate is lightening up
a bit. Freak shows, to some extent, seem like
getting un-demonized. So, more sideshows means more demand for
exhibits. So I'm hoping it will be awhile before this
wave I'm riding hits the
I know different types of
work take various periods of time to complete but could you give
us a general idea of how long it takes to complete a project?
Small things like a 2-headed chick
may take as little as 3-4 hours. But a taxidermy mount
isn't something that you can sit down and do from start to
finish all at one
time. There are a lot of steps that require hours and/or days
step. Skinning the animal is the first
the tanning of the skin which takes several days. In the
interest of time management I will usually
build the mannequin while the hide
is in the tanning baths. Complicated mannequins may
take several days to build, then another day to mount the skin
over the mannequin. Then more waiting; detailing (finishing
touches like painting exposed skin areas) cant' be done until
the mount is totally dry, which is generally around a week. But
you can’t just mount a skin and walk away from it for the week
until it's dry. The skin needs to be adjusted daily, sometimes
twice a day; pins moved around, adjusting fur or feathers
repeatedly to "train" them into the position they will finally
dry in. it's a long drawn out process
so it's hard to say exactly how long the more complex mounts
take – I guess around a week of 8-12 hour days not including the
time it's drying in-between steps.
I’m sure a few of our
readers may wonder where you acquire your animals and parts.
What different sources have you used?
I use exclusively recycled animal components in my work. That
has been my primary mandate since the very beginning. I'm a
strong proponent of wildlife conservation who also participates
in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation in my spare time. None of
the animals used in my work were killed for the purpose of using
them in my art. I utilize salvaged road-kill and discarded
livestock, as well as the many animals that are donated to me.
Donated animals are casualties of the pet trade, destroyed
nuisance animals and pests, or animals that died of natural
causes. Friends, family, and complete strangers give things to
me. I also make use of any specimens from the Science Museum
that we can't use for research purposes. I adhere to a very
strict "waste not, want not" policy in my studio - I recycle
virtually every part
of the animal in some manner.
I notice that you sell a
number of animal parts. How do you categorize this part of your
work? Would this fall into your “waste not, want not” policy?
Exactly - I recycle every part I
can. I don't waste any of the animal. Wasting any part of them
makes them seem like a disposable commodity – to me, that would
be disrespectful. I think each of their elements are special and
I treat them as such.
I have a deep respect and
appreciation for animals and the natural world. I'm fascinated
with the circle of life and intrigued with how different
cultures honor their dead and deal with death. Immortalizing
loved ones (be they animals or humans) by preserving their
remains or creating sentimental remembrances out of their body
parts does not sit well with the majority of western society and
is unfathomable to the average thinker. Yet such practices have
been the norm in many cultures throughout history and still are.
Undoubtedly, the average American thinks such ghastly practices
are only carried out by "savages" in primitive cultures. Yet
these practices exist in this day and age in the "civilized"
world – a well known example being the mummified body parts of
saints on display in Catholic Churches around the world. My
point being, reverence is relative.
people find the concept of taxidermy and gaffs to be offensive,
disgusting and maybe even immoral. How do you respond to these
This question of "respectfulness"
is one that comes up often. I understand if people find
taxidermy in general offensive, but if they're going to preach
the evils of taxidermy they better be living a vegan lifestyle
and not have any leather shoes in their closet. In regards to my
work specifically, I'm totally fine if some people think my work
lacks artistic merit. I welcome everyone's opinion and respect
his or her feelings. But again, unless their vegan, any argument
from them is hypocritical...what is more disrespectful towards
an animal: (A) making art out of an animal that is already dead
(B) killing a cow and shitting out a hamburger.
People hate to think about
animals dying. I think that taxidermy is often lumped together
with hunting in people's heads - and for good reason, that's why
most taxidermy is done. The majority of animals mounted by
taxidermists are hunting trophies. I don't like to be lumped
into the same category with taxidermists who do sportsmen's
mounts. Traditional sportsmen's taxidermy is about preserving a
moment, commemorating a human achievement - the killing of the
animal. Hence the term "trophy" mounts. Conversely, my work is
about commemorating the animal itself, not how it died.
Dead animals in art and
taxidermy evoke strong reactions and opinions, yet hardly an
eyebrow is raised over the slaughter of cattle to make belts and
steaks. I think it's odd that one use of an animal is so
offensive and disrespectful, while the other barely evokes any
thought at all. I believe it's because a steak has been
depersonalized in the butchering process, no fur, no feet, and
most importantly - no face. Just another example of the "out of
sight, out of mind" mentality in our culture.
Could you explain the
resurrection concept in your work?
I think on some levels my work can be
interpreted as creating "life" where there was death. But my
work is not about trying to bring back the dead (as resurrection
implies) my work is about paying homage to the animal –
celebrating the animal.
I deal with death, in what is
considered by most, an unconventional manner. I don't view a
dead animal as disgusting or offensive. I think that all
creatures are beautiful in death as well as in life. I want to
capture and remember their beauty. My early works in college
were shrines to the animals they incorporated, creating final
resting places for them. This somewhat ritualistic honoring of
the dead (animals) can be traced back to my early childhood in
the form of the elaborate funerals that were lavished upon dead
sparrows and pet goldfish alike. We had lots of pets when I was
I developed a close
bond with these animals and was completely heart-broken when one
of them would die. We always had a little graveyard for our pets
When the family moved, dad moved the pet cemetery with us
(Because my brother and I would have a fit if "mittens", or
whoever, got left behind) Inevitably
we were just digging up their bones. On several occasions rather
than re-burying the remains I absconded with
bones and built little shrines hidden in my bedroom.
I have the same respect for the remains of
the animals I use in my work now as I
did for the
remains of the
family pets. I feel that what I do in my work now isn't much
different than what I've done in the past. My attitude about
them is the same, but the "shrine" has just taken a different
shape over the years.
What does your family think of
My parents may have told me
not to play with dead animals when I was a kid, but they did
encourage my interest in the natural world and nurture my
artistic abilities. I suspect they may still secretly wish I’d
taken my anatomical interests to a more lucrative level - such
as a veterinary surgeon, but instead I graduated from the art
school with their blessing. If it
wasn't for their support I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing
today. They're both artists and attended the Minneapolis College
of Art and Design just as I did. I come from a long line of
artists. My great grandfather
Nicholas Richard Brewer was a
prominent 19th century portrait and landscape painter whose work
is now highly collectable, my great-great uncle Edward Vincent
Brewer was a commercial artist and portrait painter who created
the famous Chef Rastus character for Cream of Wheat as well as
painting many of the taxidermy diorama backdrops in the Bell
Museum of Natural History, my Grandfather N.R. Brewer II did
medical illustrations as well as animation for Disney before he
became a dentist, My father Richard Thomas Brewer is an
internationally known fine artist who has had exhibitions all
over the globe and whose work resides in major art museums,
corporate collections and prominent private collections. My
mother Sally King Brewer Lawrence is a well know children's book
illustrator creating books such as "Silver Spurs", my Aunt
Judy King Rieniets is
a prominent fantasy art book illustrator who produced many
collectable J.R.R. Tolkien calendars and posters. The list goes
on and on and on.
I'm merely carrying on the family
Would you tell our readers
a little about the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists?
The Minnesota Association
of Rogue Taxidermists (M.A.R.T) is a collective
of artists who share a common
philosophy and passion. The group was created as a resource for
meeting other artists working in taxidermy related mediums. We
are here to network and exchange ideas with others interested in
this art form. All members of M.A.R.T adhere to a strict ethics
charter, using only animals procured in ethical and
environmentally responsible manners. The group was created in
2004 with fellow co-founders and friends Robert Marbury and
Scott Bibus. The creation of the group spearheaded a Rogue
Taxidermy movement of sorts as the term "Rogue taxidermy" was
introduced for the first time. Our mission is to bring
like-minded artists together from here and abroad to unite under
the genre "Rogue Taxidermy", and in doing so, gain recognition
for this genre in the mainstream art world. But most
importantly M.A.R.T. is in existence to create dialogue, evoke
thought, educate, and expand
people's horizons. I encourage your readers to visit our
Many of us have had a
helping hand along the way. Is there anyone you would like to
A quick special thanks to
James Taylor. (when James Taylor talks, the right people
listen!) Thanks to James for his compliments about my work and
for spreading the word. (more beers to come James ;) And thanks
to John Robinson, and especially you Rick, for this opportunity
to blow my own horn and soapbox. Hope to see ya all at the
I would like to thank Sarina for
taking time out of her busy schedule to
do this interview
for SIDESHOW WORLD. I’m certain our readers will find her
interview entertaining as well as educational.
World interview by Rick West