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. 

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