Plays with Dead Things

Mike Mosedale

As befits a death metal rocker turned taxidermist, Scott Bibus practices his new craft in a dungeon. Okay, not literally a dungeon, but a single, semi-finished room that is buried in the bowels of a nondescript, cinderblock warehouse in northeast Minneapolis. There is not a ray of natural light. No sign on the door. No running water.

Inside, the furnishings are sparse: a couch, two rickety homemade worktables that were abandoned by the previous tenant, and a computer and TV. The appliances are useful in filling downtime. The business of transforming dead matter into a reasonable facsimile of living creatures can be a tedious process. So while the fish skins soak in their brine of Borax and Dawn, Bibus sharpens his X-Box golf game.

While there are none of the usual taxidermy studio decorations--no Les Kuba prints hanging from the walls or paintings of loons frolicking on impossibly glassy lakes--Bibus's studio is not entirely unadorned. A set of shelves, illuminated by a string of tiny white Christmas lights, holds several rows of mason jars. The jars contain various animal curiosities: pig stomach, chicken foot, carp gills, deer trachea, a skinned bear paw with a disquieting resemblance to a human hand, and more.

"I had some pig brains at one point. I bought them in the gross foods section at Cub. I had to throw them out because they smelled so bad," Bibus says with a dry laugh.

Bad smells are an occupational hazard in the taxidermy business, and a tolerance for things most people regard as utterly repulsive is requisite. Bibus, however, is not simply tolerant of the more macabre aspects of his trade. He revels in them.

This helps explain the nature of some of his stranger creations. Consider his beaver diorama. At first glance, the piece appears unremarkable. The beaver, hunched over in a typical feeding posture, sits atop a mossy surface. When you look closer, you see the grim joke: a bloody human thumb in a pile of gore at the beaver's feet.

Bibus created the diorama while attending a taxidermy program at a technical college in Pine City. "My teacher gave me extra points for creativity," Bibus recalls. "But the idea wasn't very popular with the other students. I had a lot of people tell me, 'Beavers don't eat human thumbs! Beavers aren't carnivores!'"

Which may or may not be the point. "I didn't have any grand idea or artistic statement," Bibus explains. "I just thought it was funny. There is something really sinister about a beaver's appearance, especially when it looks at you."

Bibus has made other forays into dark whimsy. He recently put the finishing touches on a spectacularly gruesome diorama that depicts a crow disemboweling a gray squirrel, the intestines stretching from the gut of the rodent to the bird's beak. Before that, he made what he describes as "a really bad salmon-pheasant-squirrel thing."

Bibus's work doesn't exactly fit within taxidermy norms, but then neither does he. Unlike most of his colleagues in the field, he doesn't hunt and rarely fishes. He also doesn't chew tobacco or espouse right-wing political beliefs--two qualities that set him apart from his classmates at Pine Tech.

And while Bibus eats meat, he admits to a certain ambivalence about the killing of animals. Many of his subjects are either donated by hunters and fisherman or simply collected from the highway shoulder.

Bibus isn't sure what drew him to taxidermy. As a kid growing up in Richfield, he was always curious about roadkill. He remembers his parents constantly telling him not to play with dead things.

While at Augsburg College, Bibus majored in English and sang in a death metal band called Pentagoria. He quit the latter pursuit after a few years. ("I had to make a choice between trying to become a full-time death metal rock star, which is the life of forever living in your parents' basement, and learning things and going to school.") After graduation, Bibus discovered that a BA in English didn't offer many more ready employment options than death metal. He took a part-time job working in a bookstore and, at loose ends, decided to take a quixotic plunge into taxidermy.

While his parents didn't understand his decision, Bibus says, they were supportive.

"They'd already been through the death metal phase, so I'm sure they're more happy with this. You know, 'at least he's not singing about all those horrible things anymore.'"

Bibus is presently working on an eelpout, an extremely strange-looking fish of deep, cold lakes of northern Minnesota. He turns his attention to the fleshing wheel--a sort of specialized grinder that taxidermists use to separate meat and guts from a skin or hide.

Nobody mounts eelpout. Few people fish for them. But this is Bibus's second crack at the species.

"The first time, I tried to make it look too curvy. It was off kilter. Then it just started to reek, so I threw it in a closet and forgot about it," he says. "I picked it up at the end of the year and we used it as a football. It flew pretty well."

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