Monday, 16 December 2013

Shop of Curiosities: an interview with artist Nicola Hebson

On my blog today, I'm delighted to host Nicola Hebson, artist and taxidermist, who leads the Taxidermy Tuesday course at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. The course runs in partnership with Blackburn is Open, a project to showcase Blackburn's creative and business acumen; Blackburn is open to: ideas, creativity, business, people and you. A fantastic scheme to regenerate the heart of the city. 

I asked Nicola about her artwork.
"Other mediums I work in include acrylic painting, drawing, resin jewellery, a little bit of photography, and I also love making dream catchers. I love to get stuck into anything crafty but one of my main loves has to be painting. Taxidermy kind of started towards the end of university when I wanted to try something new. I've always been fascinated by nature and had the idea to try and preserve the beautiful feathers and furs you see on the roadside left to rot away.

I practised on a tiny little mouse as my first project which was kind of a disaster but I still love him as it shows how much I've progressed. I used to hate taxidermy as a child because I thought it was sinister and disturbing. I could not grasp the idea why someone would kill an animal and stuff it. Then when I started seeing roadkill all over Lancashire near where I live I wanted to try and preserve the skins and recreate them into funny, quirky little mounts.

I think it started when I was at college and I had an idea to start photographing roadkill, then I began collecting bones and feathers. Then eventually I decided to try out taxidermy for myself. I was at a stage in my life where I wanted to push myself to try things I would never usually try and, believe it or not, I am very squeamish! Well, I was, I guess now I'm more used to things. It took me a year to overcome the fear of taking the brains out of an animal skull by hand, and now I find it really fun! I think when you are face-to-face with death and decay, you start to realise how precious life is, and any fear of darkness and weird, spooky things kind of dissolves. I'm not really scared of anything anymore. When I was little even looking at a photograph of a skull used to send a cold shiver down my spine. But nowadays I have learned to see the beauty in all aspects of life including death."

Is there anything you'd love to taxidermy, given the opportunity?
"I would really like to taxidermy a cat one day, I just think that they are so beautiful. When I was young I saw a dead cat hanging in a bag from a tree and it has haunted me ever since. If I taxidermied a naturally deceased cat now then maybe it would help me to overcome that horrible memory as I would preserve it in a beautiful way."

How do people react to your work?
"I get all kinds of reactions to my work, and I wouldn't want it any other way! I think it's great to be loved and hated at the same time as it means my work reaches all kinds of people and always evokes some kind of emotion rather than just being overlooked or compared. 

I think when people get to know me and my personality it often changes their views. They realise how much I love animals, and that I am doing ethical taxidermy in a loving way. When I was little I wanted to be either a vet, or an artist, and now I am both! I see it this way - I am creating art pieces from the outer shells of animals that would otherwise be left to rot, and in doing so, reminding fellow humans about our closeness to animals and that we should take extra care to look after them. In children's books, like Winnie the Pooh for example, all the animals are anthropomorphic, and anthropomorphism is a theme which has been carried through civilisations since cave man times. I recently found a roadkill hedgehog lying on the side of the road. He looked so sad as he lay there all cold and full of dirt. The cars were all whizzing past without a care. I took him home and stuffed him. It was very difficult to do because of his sharp spines, but I got there in the end. I didn't know what he was going to turn out like but I had a good feeling about it. I remember putting the final stitches into his belly and propping him up, adjusting the wires in his feet, and I made a few finishing touches to his face and then I took a step back and I did a huge grin. Harrison the hedgehog was reborn and he was dancing. I had recycled a piece of roadkill into a beautiful, most amazing dancing hedgehog that went on to inspire and create such delight in all who met him. Everyone who knew me was talking about Harrison. And everyone had completely fallen in love with him. 

I think that's the difference between my taxidermy and traditional taxidermy trophy mounts. I don't see my taxidermy as my 'prize', a thing I have caught, killed and shown off to evoke how fantastic a hunter I am, that is just the work of the ego.

My taxidermy is the antithesis of that. And that is what I want to show people. My taxidermy is about love, imagination, and positivity! I have a strong connection with nature, and I've even had a dream about the spirit of a fox that I taxidermied and buried in the garden. I dreamt that the fox was dancing around the bottom of the garden on two legs! It was such a wonderful dream. I always see animal characteristics in people, too. This also inspires me to make taxidermy pieces based on them. I know of a beautiful relationship between a squirrel spirit and a frog spirit in two people and I would love to represent this in taxidermy as I have a frog and a squirrel in my freezer at the moment. 

All of my pieces have a unique and sentimental story, in the same way that my paintings do. I can understand why some people think taxidermy is odd and gruesome, but it's really not. I mean, squirting red paint onto a pallet, is that not gruesome? A lot of people are scared of spiders, but maybe it's because their parents told them to be scared of them, or they watched a scary film about spiders as a child. When I was at university I decided to push my boundaries, follow my intuition and see how scary death and decay really was. I found beauty in it, and I also found freedom. Fear is not real, and it only ever holds you back. When skinning an animal for the first time you are facing a fear in a way; it is something very unusual. But as you get to the final stages of the taxidermy process and you see what a lovely creation you have preserved, it reminds you that death isn't as macabre as it's made out to be. It may sound ironic but ethical taxidermy has helped me to become a more spiritual person."

How are you involved with Blackburn is Open?
"Blackburn is Open is a project currently running in Blackburn helping creative people to get their business ideas off the ground. They are such a lovely group of people who are really motivated to get Blackburn to become arty again and full of life like it once was. The scheme is backed by designer Wayne Hemingway of fashion label Red or Dead. He's a very inspiring man and we are really lucky to have his support! Blackburn shall have its own unique identity with more than just shops and takeaways. I plan to open a shop in the town next year which shall be fully supported by the Blackburn is Open scheme. The shop shall be called Nicola Hebson's Curiosity Shop. It will not be your average shop. In fact it will be like walking into my mind. It will be interactive. I will hold events and workshops, including more taxidermy workshops, film nights, talks, evening parties and gatherings. I will showcase my jewellery line Dead Good Jewellery, my taxidermy pieces, paintings and there will also be a seating area for people to relax in and read strange books from my own mini library. My studio will be at the back of the shop. I want the shop to be a friendly and positive curiosity shop. Something new and unique!

You can keep up to date with me on my website, taxidermy Facebook page, Dead Good jewellery Facebook page and website and instagram @roadkillgoddess."

Many thanks, Nicola; I can't wait to visit the new curiosity shop soon! Also, thank you to Blackburn is Open, for investing time and capital in Blackburn's fantastic artists and creatives. 

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Carys Bray's 'A Song for Issy Bradley' Proof Prize Draw... and the winner is... ME!

This arrived this week!

I can't really express adequately just how delighted I am!

'A Song for Issy Bradley', Carys's first novel, recently sparked a massive publisher bidding war (the sort of thing every writer dreams of!) Read about it here.

I 'Liked' the novel's Facebook page and won a prize draw for a copy of the proof. And I never, ever win anything! I'm so thrilled. Not only did I get the proof, but Carys very generously also threw in a 'Books are my Bag' tote as well. Feels like Christmas came early in the Schofield house.

I am doubly lucky, in that I've had the opportunity to read a few sections of Carys's novel already. I am a massive fan of her writing. I reviewed Carys's Scott Prize winning short story collection, Sweet Home, last year. Carys is a writer who gets to the heart of human experience. You know when you read a passage that is so strikingly true and perceptive that you want to read it out loud to someone? That happens all the time for me in her stories. I am so excited to get to read the proof.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

And here it is...

Introducing Chris, my first ever taxidermy mouse. He was supposed to be Gabriel mouse, dressed up in an angel costume with wings, halo and tiny trumpet, but the gown I'd made for him in advance of the workshop swamped him. In a way, I was glad - he doesn't seem like an angel mouse now he's made. He is an everyday down to earth sort of mouse who enjoys a stroll to the pub in smart jacket and jeans. My mother has promised to dig out my old Sylvanian families and strip them of their belongings to give to Chris. And I will make him a tiny felt Christmas hat so he looks a bit festive.

I loved the Taxidermy Tuesday workshop with Nicola Hebson this week. However, taxidermy is much, much harder than I'd imagined. In principle, Nicola's taxidermy technique is simple, clear and precise. The challenge comes in the delicacy you need to do it well and having artistic vision for shaping your creation. I'd previously thought myself to be quite dextrous. (I'm good at untangled jewellery chains and can always find the end of the sellotape roll) but suddenly, with the pelt of a tiny mouse at stake, my fingers seemed to turn to cumberland sausages and the scalpel trembled in my hand like a hungover surgeons.

Firstly, Nicola showed us how to skin the mouse. You start by making a cut from between the shoulder blades to about a centimetre above its tail. Then, you massage the pelt away from the body, making tiny cuts with your scalpel to cut away the epidermis layers. You have to be very careful not to slice the pelt or the body cavity (the internal organs don't smell fabulous, and you need to spend quite a lot of time close up to the carcass as you take it out of its skin.)

I'd always thought myself unsqueamish. I have cleared numerous animal bits off numerous carpets from the cats I've had in my life. And when I was about seven, having watched, delighted, the rabbit hopping around our front garden and named it 'Easter Bunny' I was intrigued and fascinated, rather than devastated to come downstairs on Easter morning to find the bunny disembowelled across the front room, the 'curly whirly bits' as I later recapped to all who would listen, being chewed over by my beloved first cat, Thomas. I can deal with blood, guts, gore, skin, inside-out animals. I've been plucking pheasants (steady...) left by rural neighbours since I was little. And I thought this would be more of the same. But this did feel different somehow. Being that close, taking it delicately apart was a bit challenging. Once the pelt was off (taking care not to damage ears, nose, whiskers, etc.) the inner body of the mouse stayed on our work stations for us to use for scaling the inner frame of our mouse. That little red faetal-esque scrap had more of an impact on me than I'd expected.

After this the skin needs salting. This helps to cure and preserve the pelt. Then the pelt is washed, then dried with a hair dryer. A surreal experience.

Then you use wood wool to make the inside of the mouse, squeezing it into a tight shape and binding it round with thread to smooth away lumps that would show through the pelt. And form a mouse head  shape out of critter clay. You use pipe cleaners to stiffen the back paws and pad out the body with cotton wool.

The the back of the mouse is stitched up and eyes pinned into place.

This is a photograph of the people who attended the workshop with our mice. Some clever people even managed to get their mice dressed up properly for the photo!

The two mice above are my favourites of all the other mice, created by two very talented people on the workshop. Such personality and expression in the little creatures. Next to them, my Chris mouse looks a bit of a Frankenstein's monster. (but I still love him!)

Look out soon, for my third and final blog post on Nicola Hebson's Taxidermy, and a little about the organisation that made the workshops possible, Blackburn is Open. In the meantime, click on the link for info and more photographs from the taxidermy workshops.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Anthropomorphic Taxidermy Class

I'm so excited!

Tomorrow, I will fulfil an ambition I've had for many years; tomorrow I will create my first ever taxidermy art piece.

I am delighted to be attending the Anthropomorphic Taxidermy course at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery led by taxidermist and artist Nicola Hebson. I can't wait to meet her. I love her work and cherish the opportunity to learn from her. You can see some of her beautiful pieces and read about her fantastic ethos on her website, and also on her Facebook page.

Tomorrow I will taxidermy a mouse. And it will probably be arranged and dressed as the angel Gabriel, if I can find the appropriate props and make a suitable costume; halo, gown, trumpet and feathered wings.

This course comes at a critical point for me. It taps directly into my thinking and writing around the subject of anthropomorphism, which is the theme running through the stories in my current work in progress; my first solo short story collection.

From an early age, I've been fascinated by automata, taxidermy and animal personification. I have a massive soft spot for Walter Potter's dioramas. The line between living and dead intrigues me; how we project life, animation and personality onto things that lack them, or give voice and action to inanimate things. I see this echoed in lots of ways; think children projecting life onto their toys and adults buying phones with personalities that talk back to them. We stuff stuff to make it look more real than real. We put emoticon expressions into the body of our texts. Flea circuses, robots and self aware food labels... Why do we do all these things? Are the reasons varied and abstract or does it come down to something quite narrow and fundamental to our human experience? These are the questions I want to explore in the short stories I write for the collection. And doing the taxidermy course with Nicola Hebson tomorrow feels like a fantastic way into some of the narratives. Hands on experience - research in its truest sense.

To find out more about Taxidermy Tuesdays at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, and for future courses and further details see Nicola Hebson's Facebook page. And do pop back here to see what I manage to create on the course tomorrow!