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.

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