A leopard leaps on top of a downed impala, one claw going for the throat. Its mouth is wide open, preparing for the kill. The prey can only look up in horror as it lives its final moments.
This moment was frozen forever and prominently displayed at the National Taxidermist Association Convention July 15-17 at the Crowne Plaza. Taxidermists from across the country came to compete as well as to attend seminars and lectures and get tips on more anatomically accurate and lifelike animal busts.
National Taxidermist Association president Steve Wolk of Fustus, Mo., says that people come to the national event to see the craftsmanship and creativity that the taxidermists can put on display.
“It’s the artwork,” Wolk said. “It preserves memories of the hunt, who you were with and what you were doing. This is artwork. Some artists use the canvas. We use hide.”
This year, 500 taxidermists came to the convention with 228 pieces being submitted for the competition. Wolk believes that the combination of the competition with the variety of workshops and seminars helps to make better taxidermists out of everyone who comes.
“You go to the seminars to learn, and this is your homework,” Wolk said.
Wolk says an interest in taxidermy grows not only out of a desire to preserve memories but also that the art is something that just naturally comes to some people.
“I grew up on a farm where hunting and fishing was a part of life,” Wolk said.
Growing up around animals also inspired Wolk’s daughter, Stacie, to become interested in the hobby. At 20, she’s been practicing taxidermy for 16 years.
“My dad had a shop where he worked on the hides,” Stacie said. “One day I asked him if we could cut open a fish, just to see what he ate.”
Stacie has gone far from just being interested in what an animal eats. She can easily point out which of the many busts on display have fake mouths or glass eyes and she speaks matter-of-factly about how she once worked on a huge watusi, a giant horned cow, but she thinks that all people in taxidermy are really interested in the act of making something special.
“I think people really want to get creative with it,” Stacie said.
Of course, there’s more than just creativity on the line for the competitors. The judging of the pieces is an intense affair. Judges, who’ve each won a national championship themselves, award up to 100 points to the pieces for anatomical accuracy as well as creativity. The process is grueling with even great taxidermists not receiving anywhere close to perfect scores.
“The best I’ve gotten was an 88,” Wolk said. “I’ve still got some learning to do myself.”
With the level of craftsmanship evident at the competition, judges have to check everything, from making sure that an elk bust has a deviated septum, to making sure that a pair of handmade glass eyes in a Russian boar are symmetrical and that one does not slightly pop out of the head.
“You have to be an expert at anatomy,” Wolk said.
With so much focus on whether the hairs lie correctly on the neck or if there is any puffing in the cheeks, one could think that there is no doubt there is a real sense of companionship among the artists.
“A friend wanted me to work on a raccoon sitting in a chair eating Cracker Jack,” Wolk said with a laugh. “Of course, I did it.”
Contact Jackson Adams at email@example.com.