Sarina Brewer will travel for miles just to scrape dead animals off the road. She cruises around town in an old Chevy Impala, looking for fresh specimens to feed to the dermestid beetles she keeps in the trunk of her car. As long as the rotting animal hasn't been infested with maggots, Brewer will pick it up and turn it into a work of art. "Maggots and eye boogers are the only two things that gross me out," she says. "I can put my hand inside any animal, but I hate those two things."
Brewer, whose road kill sculptures are currently on display at Creative Electric Studios' "Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART)" exhibit, grew up on a farm with hippie parents and hordes of cats, gerbils, and snakes. She's been an animal lover her whole life and still shares her home with a menagerie of dogs, fish, snakes, and birds. All of the animals used in her art come from road kill, discarded livestock, destroyed nuisance animals, or animals that have died of natural causes. "My obsession with dead animals came from my obsession with live animals," she says. "When my pets would die, I would have a little burial ritual. And I always wondered, Well, what do they look like now? And I'd go dig them up and look at them.
"It was almost like wanting to have a part of them or something," she says. "Like wanting to have someone's ashes."
For Robert Marbury, an obsession with the art of taxidermy began with stuffed animals. The bespectacled artist and photographer cuts away the fur from cuddly teddy bears and reconstructs them as teeth-baring city dwellers as part of his Urban Beast Project, which documents the fabricated plight of his fuzzy feral creatures. Along with works from Brewer and fellow MART member Scott Bibus, his artwork will be displayed through November 15 at Creative Electric.
"Stuffed animals are so funny," Marbury says. "They pull weird things out of us. They're sort of like a story."
Marbury's stuffed beasts possess more elaborate stories than Moses does. All of his 20 or so critters live in Marbury's manmade animal kingdom, and all have their own fabled history and taxonomy listed on his website, www.urbanbeast.com. Fernando, a tusked "trash mammoth" that looks like a mini Mr. Snuffleupagus, was recycled from a stuffed orangutan that Marbury used to re-create a famous Caravaggio painting. In one of Marbury's many animal-themed photo projects, the orangutan poses as "Doubting Thomas," placing its furry finger inside the open wound of what Marbury calls the "Dumb Bear Christ."
Another character, the mythical jinn, is a twisted, Beanie Baby-inspired tree dweller with Andy Rooney eyebrows and a dingy soul patch. "Jinns are from the Koran," Marbury says matter-of-factly, as if his plastic-coated frog mutation could have come from the same place. In the lengthy biography Marbury invented for his own Jinn, the creature befriended the whistler and bones player Brother Bones, whose mouth tunes lured the little amphibian to his doorstep. As he tells the story, Marbury starts whistling and tapping his feet along to Brother Bones' most famous song, "Sweet Georgia Brown," which has been the Harlem Globetrotters' theme song since 1952.
According to their origin in the Koran, jinns were created from flames before first-man Adam took his first sinning footsteps on earth. Despite their long lineage, however, Marbury insists that the camouflaged creatures still are linked to Wilt "the Stilt" Chamberlain and Earvin "Magic" Johnson through only two degrees of separation. And like their basketball-playing second cousins, the frog-squirrel hybrids also have a nickname: "Ar-Rajim," or "the stoned ones."
Marbury's interest in these glass-eyed, anthropomorphic toys was piqued when he began documenting the phenomenon of tying stuffed animals to semi-truck grills a few years ago. Through the rain, mud, and highway grit, the plushy hood ornaments managed to hang on, totally unfazed. Marbury has at least 20 photos of truck fronts that are decorated with everything from a ratty, glitter-suit-donned Barbie to cheap, googly-eyed carnival prizes so frighteningly ugly they make the obnoxious "YMCA"-singing Elmo look cute.
Marbury has an eye for spotting odd cultural and animal mutations. Walking his bug-eyed dog outside his south Minneapolis home, he spots a half-tailed squirrel as it scurries through a pile of debris, leaving a cloud of dead-leaf dust in its wake. "I think it probably had its tail cut off," he concludes. Perhaps this makes Lil' Halfy less an accident victim than a true genetic freak, an unwieldy adapter who can survive an attack and somehow still stand on two feet.
Back inside his house, Marbury expounds on how cities shape our ecosystem, and his manner of speaking sounds just like Ethan Hawke waxing philosophical about love in Before Sunset. Marbury also possesses a Hawke-like baby face and the same toothy smile and deliberate mannerisms. "Peregrine falcons do really well because the city skylines are like cliffs," he says. "Horseshoe crabs thrive in Brooklyn. Why is that?" He pulls out The Urban Naturalist, a book on the subject of adaptation, from a cluttered bookcase in his living room, causing a book that documents the history of scarecrows to fall over. Marbury, it seems, is obsessed with the dichotomy of stuffed cloth creatures that become part of the living.
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.
Before attending taxidermy school in Pine County, Bibus was an English major at Augsburg, which might explain his fascination with finding the perfect title for MART. There's nothing, though, that would necessarily explain his aberrant fascination with dead animals. His father was a vehement anti-hunter, and when he was growing up, the only dead animals he came into contact with were the ones he'd carry around in his pocket. His mother would often find a plastic baggie of dead worms and slugs in his pants pockets while she was doing the family laundry. His parents tried to discourage him from playing with dead animals, but that didn't stop him. "The thing about taxidermy that's so interesting is that it's the only art form that intrinsically has death in its medium," he says. "And it's trying to represent life. So looking at it is very confusing."
Marbury says that in the art community, taxidermy isn't viewed as an art form. And in the taxidermy world, MART's projects are often overlooked for more craftlike works, like Native American-themed pieces where antlers extend from a feathered headdress. While the work at Creative Electric may be maligned because of its ironic connotations, Marbury, Brewer, and Bibus are serious about their exploration of issues like conservation, consumption, genetic mutation, and fantasy. Their work tells stories of how animals shape our environment and how we shape theirs. And because these beasts mimic life--in mythological, mysterious, and often humorous ways--the works are often as disconcerting as they are beautiful or funny.
"A lot of people will come [to Creative Electric] for the shock value," Bibus says. "We'll see how theatrical it can get. And once that's done, everyone's going to eat squirrel."
Bibus came up with the idea for the squirrel feed, which will be held at Creative Electric on Saturday, November 6 from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m., after attending an elk game feed while at taxidermy school. He and the other students dined on the elk immediately after mounting the antlered beast, which stared back at them with vacant glass eyes. "It's rare in our culture that you see the animal you eat. It's especially weird to look at it while you're eating it!" Bibus says, erupting into hearty laughter.
The artists promise the dinner they prepare won't be the same squirrel Brewer peeled from the street. And it won't be Lil' Halfy either. If the half-tailed super-squirrel can survive his tail being lobbed off, he surely has the power to fend off cars. For now, he remains nature's work of freakish art.