To be sure, he knows his Urban Beasts are kitschy and hilarious. "I think it's really funny," Marbury says of the elaborate stories behind his creations. "But I actually put a lot of meaning into it." Yet even in the realm of the ridiculous, his mythic animals still reveal something about a culture of consumption and the depletion of resources. These savage beasts serve as a reminder about the possible effects of genetic engineering, illustrating what the desire to alter nature for consumer purposes could create in the future. They also speak to our willingness to anthropomorphize animals, revealing that it's in our nature to express ourselves within nature. Humans have been personifying animals long before the Sumerians etched their first goat-headed man. "We're much more forgiving when it comes to animals," Marbury says. "But we're racist and offensive and horrible when it comes to people."
"I told Sarina there was a dead squirrel at the end of the street and she went trucking down there to pick it up," Marbury says as he, Brewer, and Scott Bibus set up at Creative Electric.
"It was still warm when I picked it up," Brewer says. She smiles innocently and pulls her shoulders to her neck like a shy little girl. Marbury proudly flashes through images on a digital camera, laughing at a picture they took a few moments earlier that features the wide-eyed, just-killed squirrel. Its shocked expression looks more like a simper as it sits on Brewer's shoulder, perfectly arranged to look like it's creeping up from behind. "People love squirrels," Brewer says. "Squirrels can sell anything from furniture to breakfast cereal. I love working with them now."
When the taxidermists aren't busy photographing road kill, their works are shaped by the curiosity cabinets of the 19th century, the circus sideshow, surrealism, and the same Victorian-era obsession with horror and wilderness that first made the art form popular. But Brewer's work is also influenced by mythological beasts such as the griffin, an eagle-headed lion with wings and talons that could snatch up horses from mountaintops. Her Goth Griffin is a fantastical black-cat body with an open-beaked crow head and thick, black wings in mid-soar. The feathering is so intricate that it looks like the iridescent scales of a fish. Brewer fused together the bodies of two real animals, both connected with superstitions, in order to add a more contemporary gothic flare to the traditional lion-eagle griffin because, she says, Halloween is her favorite holiday.
Her North Woods Chimera is another beautiful beast inspired as much by myth as by her own wild imagination. It's a wrinkly three-headed turkey with spindly turkey legs, the upper body of a rooster, and the back end of a raccoon. She shaved the raccoon's fur and altered its body shape to make the animal parts look unrecognizable. "I just get inspired when I hold the animal," she says. "The moment I touch them I already know exactly what I will create with them. They sort of tell me what they want to be in their next life." Moments after picking up the warm squirrel Marbury pointed out in the street, she knew it was destined to become a liquor decanter. She's planning on wrapping its fur around a goblet, and its little head will pop off like a wine cork, allowing the alcohol to be poured fur-free. "It's a little something I created with Ted Nugent in mind," she says of her first decanter. "I'm still waiting for him to call me."
Brewer attended the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and began using mummified birds in her paintings, which later inspired her to start experimenting with different taxidermy techniques. "I classify my work as sculpture," she says. "Only I use feathers and fur where others use clay and steel." Like any true artist, she doesn't want to waste any of her limited supplies. She paints leftover squirrel carcasses blood-red and sets them in various poses: boxing, dancing the jitterbug, standing in a threesome doing the "See No Evil" routine.
"I'm aware that they may be interpreted by some viewers as macabre," she admits. "But I view my pieces as tongue-in-cheek rather than disturbing."
Brewer has baby-doll bangs and perfectly manicured eyebrows that make her look more glamorous than gothic. "People always assume things about me when they see my work," she says. "They assume I'm a guy, I'm a redneck, I'm a hunter, and I don't respect animals. All those things are the complete opposite of who I am and where my work is coming from." Most people first come into contact with Brewer's work via her website, www.customcreaturetaxidermy.com, which is where MART's Scott Bibus first found her. He also assumed she was a guy until they began e-mailing and arranged to meet up.
"We're all pretty different from typical taxidermists," says Bibus, who was previously profiled by City Pages in November of last year (see "Plays with Dead Things," 11/3/03). "Partly it's because of what we do, but we're also pretty different personally and politically." Mostly, he says, taxidermy has been relegated to a rural craft celebrated by hunters. Bibus is an urbanite, as are Brewer and Marbury, and he never hunts. He has a chest-length red beard that he strokes when throwing out ten-cent words to describe his frustration with trying to come up with a group name that was at least rhythmic--or, as he says, "iambic." He likes to create animals that gobble human digits, but in person Bibus is animated and jovial and has a heart as big as his laugh, which fills up the entire room. He's prone to placing raccoon heads inside cereal bowls, yet he's skittish about touching the dead squirrel Brewer once held like a trophy. "Once it's frozen and re-thawed, I don't mind touching it," he says.