Artists hooked on animal magnetism

By Claire McCall

Sometimes confronting, sometimes beautiful, Claire McCall meets three artists bringing pelts and taxidermy into the home.

Taxidermy artist Karley Feaver in her studio. Photo / Babiche Martens
Taxidermy artist Karley Feaver in her studio. Photo / Babiche Martens

It's not unusual for artists to cite the wonders of the natural world as their source of inspiration, but this is a different take on that theme. The manipulation of fur, skin and bone is common to these three creative individuals. Whether their starting point is taxidermy, biology or simply the texture and colour of the raw product, they're hooked on animal magnetism. And, they're happy to be recycling the stuff once integral to life into the heirlooms of the future.

Karley Feaver

Like many artists, Karley Feaver also has a full-time job. Her colleagues at Westpac, where she is an executive assistant, avoid opening Karley's mail. Her metier is mixing taxidermy with other forms, from top hats to glass beads to vintage dolls and hairpieces.

"Once I was on annual leave and the temp got a hell of a fright when she opened a box containing dead mice," she says. Never again.

Feaver, who grew up on a dairy farm in Opunake, has always loved animals. But dead ones? "Taxidermy fascinates me because of the science of recreating the animal, researching its behaviour and trying to make it just as majestic as it once was." She says one day she'd like to own a zoo.

Until 2006 Feaver, who studied at the Wellington School of Design, was your regular acrylic-on-canvas artist. Her paintings occasionally featured delicate, stick-legged deer or birds in flight. But a mallard duck changed all that. "I started to collect taxidermy from garage sales and auctions. My first piece was a duck with a rip in its neck," she explains.

She decorated it to cover the tear - and her mixed-media foray began.

Feaver does not prepare the animals herself. She sources birds, mainly from Australia - where "they have more exotic creatures" - then works with a taxidermist to get the result she envisions.

"When I get an animal I think about how I want it to interact with the other media, then I send my taxidermist a drawing of how it should be posed."

Technically figuring out how the taxidermy and the additions will "gel" and not fall apart is a part of the challenge Feaver enjoys most.

Lately she's been busy in her Eden Terrace studio constructing pieces for an upcoming solo show, Becoming Otherwise.

An ornithology documentary about the bowerbirds of Australia and birds of paradise of New Guinea was her inspiration. A call was made to her bird supplier who owns an aviary in Warooka, near Adelaide. Yellow canaries, purple finches and common starlings became her "bowerbirds" to adorn. With Folies Bergere-like feathers in their crowns, gilded beaks, and golden leaves as wings, they are spectacular and intriguing.

It may seem like frippery, but Feaver has a serious message. She takes inspiration from curator and author Rachel Poliquin, whose book, The Breathless Zoo, explores the history of the ancient art of taxidermy. Poliquin also asks what part of our nature this longing to preserve and mount animals appeals to? "By using jewellery and plaited human hair, I want to relate the birds to our human behaviour, to make a statement about the lengths we go to in order to attract a mate."

Becoming Otherwise is on at the Saatchi & Saatchi Gallery, Parnell, until August 15. See karleyfeaver.com for more.

Georgia-Jay davison

It started with a possum at a gypsy fair in Whangamata. That's where Georgia-Jay Davison picked up a skin, and the idea for an enterprise to call her own. "I made a leather bag with a possum-skin flap and everybody liked it," she says.

The 23-year-old now spends her time designing and making handbags and purses from animal skins. She operates on the fringes of fashion - and that's how she likes it. "I was never in love with the high-glamour side of that world," she says. Before enrolling in a Diploma of Design, majoring in fashion, at the Bay of Plenty Polytechnic, she hadn't touched a sewing machine. A Bachelor of Design at Otago Polytechnic followed. It gave her the pattern-making and construction skills she needed to pursue her craft.

Now her idea of pure heaven is passing long hours at her leather supplier, carefully choosing pelts. "You have to feel the product. Each skin is so individual. They're like little artworks."

Davison finds joy in designing a product that brings out the pelt's particular characteristics. "I design for the skin, its colours and texture. Some, like the goatskins, have little cowlicks in the hair."

Her raw materials are the byproducts of animals either originally bred for meat or hunted as pests. Calf, goat, deer, rabbit and possum are all from New Zealand. Fox, a pest in Australia, is sent over and the skin is tanned and treated locally.

Davison markets her Dutch the Clutch bags and Pepper the Party purses online and via Black Box Boutique. They are all hand-made, custom-designed one-offs and range from pristine white soft-as-air rabbit fur to the delightful, rich caramel-coloured, dotted deer-pelt bags. "I couldn't pick a favourite. I love them all," she says.

Davison is now exploring the idea of using the skins to augment vintage furniture. For my first project, I reupholstered an old postman's chair with a deerskin," she says.

And there's no telling where the young designer's passion for "playing" with fur will end up. "I'm pleased to be using a product that is too often wasted but, if treated, can be turned into a valuable fashion accessory. And so far, so good. I will see where it takes me."

See georgiajay.com for more.

Lisa Black

While her classmates were drawing still-life fruit and flowers, Lisa Black presented a strung-up Barbie doll, surrounded by barbed wire and shards of glass. Her art teacher, while not shocked, matter-of-factly called her, "a witch".

Black can now laugh at her unusual leanings. She went on to work as a flight attendant but even then her imagination catapulted her to great heights. "It was during one of those long-haul flights, when I was half-asleep in the galley, that I imagined making a mechanical horse."

Back on solid ground, Black adapted her dream. On Trade Me, she sourced a taxidermied deer fawn with a broken leg and set about "fixing" it with bits of steel and parts from an antique clock. Her husband, Daniel, encouraged her to put it online. Her first series of modified animals, titled Fixed, included a crocodile with a clock-winder in its back and drew a huge amount of attention, especially from overseas galleries. Black's hobby turned into a profession. The sculptor can now satisfy her creative cravings and explore her love of animals and their form.

From an attic studio on Auckland's Queen St come the sometimes macabre, often challenging, works that combine the natural and the mechanical. "Seeing animals with carefully integrated mechanical additions encourages us to reassess how we define 'natural' and in that way my work can be confronting," says Black.

Her butterfly domes, however, have proved less intimidating. They are glass cloches containing exotic, brightly coloured species that she places on pieces of curly willow or kiwifruit vine. The butterflies arrive "papered" in a tiny envelope, closed and dried. So the tools of Black's trade include, what she terms, "spreading boards" where the butterflies' wings are opened out and painstakingly pinned, and "relaxing chambers" where they are, basically, rehydrated.

Black's latest project also turns the spotlight on animals under glass but, this time, the subjects of her exploration are monkey, wildcat, crow and vulture skulls which she has plated in 24-carat gold. Two skulls are then mounted on each side of a hand-blown hourglass.

The hourglass is then filled with tiny glass beads that look like black sand. "The viewer can turn it over and watch as the golden skull is slowly consumed by the sand, adding an interactive memento mori element." For Black, this is the contemplation of finite time, life, death, and beauty.

And it's her way of creating beauty in the supposedly paradoxical world so often separated into "sacrosanct" natural and "vulgar" industrial. Some days, it's a surprise to be here. "I never thought I'd become an artist, I just knew that I wanted to make what I had imagined."

See lisablackcreations.com for more.

- VIVA

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