Leesburg resident Shasta Donegan brings taxidermy back in vogue

By Melody Rowell

Photo by Robert Merhaut

At first glance, the refrigerator in Shasta Donegan’s wood-paneled basement is like anyone else’s. It’s white, 6 feet tall and has a top-door freezer, which is packed with iced-over plastic bags, frosted Tupperware containers and paper-wrapped bundles. But these aren’t frozen dinners and ice-cream sandwiches. In the bottom right corner, a bundle with blue tape across it bears the label JACKRABBIT. Bags of purple pigeons are nestled between boxes of mice. The freezer itself stands next to a large blue plastic tub overflowing with antlers. Across the room, gray counters boast a jar containing a pale yellow horse heart swimming in preservatives, an immobile crow, an empty paint jar holding birds’ feet and a squirrel ready to pounce from its mounted branch. The room smells like wood chips and cold concrete—not a whiff of chemicals.

Donegan scans the freezer’s contents and opens the refrigerator door. It’s lined with a half-dozen bruise-colored skulls of various shapes and sizes, but Donegan still doesn’t see what she’s looking for. She opens the freezer again—“aha!”  She reaches past the jackrabbit, past the purple pigeons, past a tiny baby duck and scoops up a bag from the door. She opens it and gingerly pulls out the contents. “Here is the baby alpaca skull I was telling you about.”

With golden curls that cascade down her back, tattooed menageries on her arms and curves that would make a pin-up girl jealous, Donegan, 35, perhaps doesn’t seem a likely vessel for the talent she possesses. And maybe, at first glance, dead animals don’t seem a likely medium for beautiful art.

Donegan, sole proprietor of Silent Grove Taxidermy, grew up in the Leesburg home she now owns with her husband, James, an arborist. Born into a family of artists and raised on 3 acres of lush grass and verdant trees, Donegan remembers being largely left to her own devices as a child. As an introvert in rural Virginia, friends were hard to come by. “No one really liked me, I guess,” she remembers. “I just wasn’t ever into anything that my peers were into. I never liked New Kids on the Block. I listened to Metallica, Journey and Van Halen in elementary school.” So instead, Donegan always had animals. “I don’t know how to pretend to be someone’s friend,” she says. “I like simple honesty. I guess that’s why I like animals so much—they are definitely no bullshit.”

And she always had art. For four years, her high school art teacher gave Donegan special assignments so that she could graduate with a portfolio. “It was a lot of still life, drawing eggs and crumpled paper. I hated it.” She laughs then says, “But it indeed made me a better artist.” Once she had command of the basics, she kept experimenting: stained glass, pottery, cross-stitch, needlepoint, crochet, knitting, sewing clothes and plush animals, needle felting, wood carving, frame work, welding, glass etching … “I could go on,” she says. “I grow bored and move on to a new medium whenever I feel I’ve mastered it. That’s the great thing about taxidermy and sculpture. I can never stop improving because the lines of perfection are endless when you’re preserving something that was once living.”

After high school, trade school for graphic design and photojournalism (“Too easy,” she says) and ventures as a veterinarian’s assistant, a personal trainer and a tattoo removal specialist, Donegan found taxidermy to be the natural intersection of her innate artistic talent and her passion for fauna. She understands that some have wild misconceptions about her profession. “People think I enjoy hurting animals because I work with them after they die,” she says. “But they’re wrong. I do this because I love animals.” If the sleeve tattoo of a fox, star-nosed mole, baby possum, black bear and rabbit surrounded by green filigree wasn’t proof enough, Donegan has a whole host of living animal friends on the property: three Chihuahuas, two cats, an exuberant German shepherd, a black Labrador retriever puppy, six chickens, a bearded dragon and two American red foxes named Luna and Banjo.

Preserving animal hide is a tradition that dates back thousands of years and crosses many world cultures. Early hunter-gatherers found that animal skins were useful for clothing and shelter, and embalmed animals have been found with Egyptian mummies. By the 1750s, most towns in the Western world had tanneries, and by the 1800s hunters were bringing their bounty in to be skinned, preserved, sewn and stuffed with rags. The increase in foreign exploration led to Victorian England catching a collective fascination with never-before-seen species, now on display right before their eyes. Thanks to pioneers in the field, taxidermy evolved to its present form about a hundred years ago. Instead of stuffing the preserved skins with rags, renowned taxidermists like Carl Akeley and Leon Pray created molds in the shape of the deceased animal and stretched the preserved skin over it. These days, the quickest way to annoy a taxidermist is to describe his or her work as “stuffed.”

As a full-time taxidermist, Donegan’s bread and butter are the local deer hunters. She doesn’t advertise the business in her basement, but friends and word-of-mouth brought her 25 whitetail bucks to mount last season. What happens is this: A hunter bags a buck and can take the deer to a butcher to get its head cut off properly or haul the whole carcass over to Donegan, and she’ll do it herself. “I don’t mind blood and guts,” she says. Once she has the head, she tags it with an ID card, skins it and cuts out the skull plate. Rather than tanning the skins on-site, Donegan sends it to a company who will tan it for her. Three or four months later, she gets the skin back. During the drying process, the skin shrinks and becomes thicker, so Donegan scrapes it thin so that it lies on the dense foam form correctly. Now here’s where the artist Donegan takes over from the craftsman Donegan. She always uses pictures of living whitetails as a reference, and she quickly noticed that the prefabricated forms made of polyurethane foam don’t result in a lifelike appearance. To remedy this, Donegan carves ridges into the form’s face and neck. She takes a drill bit and carves into each nostril. Sometimes, if the skin is a drastically different size from the form, she’ll carve the whole thing smaller or hack it into pieces and add more material in to make it larger. She sets glossy black eyes onto the form and sticks a small piece of clay onto the nose. When she stretches the skin over the form, the ridges now look like rippling muscles. The altered nostrils have a realistic flare, as though the deer is mid-breath, and the clay beneath the nose allows Donegan to use a tool to add small dimples back into the black skin. As a final touch, Donegan applies paint to the eyes and nose, and they glisten to life.

Photo by Robert Merhaut

Rogue taxidermy is the manipulation of one or more animals into something purely from the imagination. The classic example is a jackalope: a jackrabbit sporting an antelope’s bony horns, found in antique stores all over the West. When done right, people should look twice. The grandfather of this medium is Walter Potter, a pub owner in Sussex, England, in the late 19th century. After being inspired by a book of nursery rhymes, 19-year-old Potter began preserving specimens and presenting them in dioramas of human situations. His first diorama was an elaborate funeral scene composed of 98 birds. Locals loved it, and Potter was soon able to make his living by stuffing and mounting animals for Victorian home decorations. On the side, he continued his dioramas—kittens holding a wedding, guinea pigs playing croquet, rabbits attending school—and eventually opened his own museum to house them. Mr. Potter’s Museum of Curiosities, as it came to be called, drew so much tourism with coach trips from nearby Brighton that Potter’s hometown of Bramber had to build an extension on its train station platform. By his death in 1914, taxidermy had fallen out of fashion, but his collection was shuttled around from museum to museum until 2003. Then it was divided up and auctioned off.

Like beards and beekeeping, rogue taxidermy now appropriates a vintage medium for a modern-day aesthetic. And as is usually the case with trends, the market is being flooded with subpar works. Search “taxidermy” on Etsy, and you get more than 30,000 results. A search for “how to taxidermy” on YouTube yields close to 50,000 videos. In addition to the deer mounts each hunting season, Donegan pursues nontraditional projects, too. Put simply: She legally buys dead animals, turns them into art and sells them. She has sold head mounts of smiling raccoons, of foxes and rabbits wearing bowties, of mice wearing monocles and top hats, of a five-point buck baring timber wolf teeth.

Last summer, she was commissioned to make what she deems the most difficult art of her career thus far: a unicorn. The hide came from the body of an old black thoroughbred horse named Lenny, who had to be put down “due to neglect issues,” Donegan recalls. “I was there to meet him, put him down, and every single step along the way—from skinning to tanning—was done by myself.” When she stretched the hide over a custom form, added blue glass eyes and a reproduction narwhal tusk, Vlad was born. He now presides over Unkindness Art, a tattoo studio in Richmond. The arduous process meant Donegan felt an intense bond with Lenny and Vlad. After visiting him in his new home, she said, “I only hope he gains the respect now he lacked in the end years of his life.”

In April 2014, Donegan entered her first taxidermy competition: the Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest at the Bell House in Brooklyn. Under its arched ceilings and glittering chandeliers, the Bell House usually hosts live NPR shows and small concerts. Carnivorous Nights saw hundreds of attendees and dozens of entries for the taxidermy contest. The judges were all pros in the field. One of them was Joanna Ebenstein, curator of Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum and author of a biography on Walter Potter. Under these expert eyes, Donegan took home third place for a grinning baby opossum hanging upside down by its tail from a branch.

At tattoo conventions—a popular place for artistic taxidermists to sell their wares—Donegan quickly loses patience with people who want to appropriate the oddities without appreciating their artistic merit. The first obstacle is getting people to recognize that she is the taxidermist. When her husband helps out at her booth, people automatically assume he’s the man behind the mounts. “Have your husband give me a call,” they’ll tell Donegan. Then there are the dumb questions: “Are those their real eyes?” And the absurd requests: “I will not do two animals humping,” Donegan says. “I think it’s completely disrespectful, so when people ask me I ignore them, or I give them what I call a fuck-you price.” And then, inevitably, there are the comparisons. “That guy charges $200 less than you,” they’ll say, pointing across the room. “And a little part of you dies inside,” Donegan says. “It’s like, ‘You can’t tell the difference?’”

In her basement shop, Donegan points out the difference on a completed head mount. It looks lifelike, and it’s because of the details Donegan puts into each piece. She shows me how she customized the foam form underneath—hacking, carving and drilling. She uses her pinky to trace underneath the deer’s eye. “I use lacquer here,” she moves her pinky to the nose—“in here and on here, to give it that wet look.” Then she holds up a fox squirrel in progress and points out the white lines around his eyes. “I haven’t painted this guy yet.” The difference is incredible—the lacquer brings life.

Those guys who charge $200 less? Donegan calls them “fly-by-night taxidermists.” They sell cheap and quick, and “they’re what’s wrong with everything.” Donegan estimates she takes twice as long to complete her pieces. Sure, she admits, some of that is due to procrastination, but mostly it’s her dedication to perfection. “I don’t cut corners. Everything I do, part of me goes into it,” she says.

Yes, she is speaking metaphorically, but she has also devoted countless hours of her life to honing her natural skills. In the beginning, she was self-taught, referencing decades-old how-to guides someone uploaded to the Internet—books that even include instructions on how to catch and kill an eagle and preserve it with arsenic. Before long, she recognized she needed mentoring from an expert, so she packed up and went to Kooskia, Idaho, for two weeks. There, she learned one-on-one from Troy Rose at the Artistic School of Taxidermy. Rose is so good that the state conventions in Utah and Oregon have asked him to judge rather than compete because he kept sweeping the awards every year. Even with dozens of awards to his name, he just achieved what he says is his proudest accomplishment: In July 2014, his work was featured on the cover of Breakthrough Magazine, a trade journal for taxidermists. After her schooling Donegan wrote, “Troy knows when to look over your shoulder and guide your hand, but he also knows when to go away and leave you alone so you can zone in on what you are doing.”

Donegan is always innovating, even when old-school taxidermists tell her she can’t. While with Rose, Donegan worked on a rooster who had an undeveloped comb—the flappy red skin on top of the head. “I’m going to make him one,” she told Rose. “You can’t do that,” he said. “It won’t look right.”

Undeterred, Donegan used clay, tin foil and paint to sculpt a comb and attach it to the rooster’s head. The result was indistinguishable from the real thing, and Rose was forced to eat his words. But by his own admission, this is what Rose wants to see in his students, and he’s hopeful that there are more like Donegan out there: “There are more true artists in the industry than there ever have been,” he says. “This has raised the bar to all-time highs.”

Even the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships are making room for imagination. For more than two decades, the annual four-day event has been a place to celebrate and reward excellence in traditional taxidermy; between 550 and 700 pieces are entered every year. In 2013, a new category debuted: Interpretive Taxidermy. “The goal should be to convey the essence of the species,” says the call for entries. “It should be presented in a style that provokes thought and wonder.”

In Donegan’s office—a moss-green room lined with friends’ artwork and sundry skulls and skins—she shows off two of her first pieces. One is a full red fox sitting upright, its fluffy tail to its right. “This is the first fox I did,” she says. “It’s not very good.” To the untrained eye, it looks perfect. She runs her finger along its nose. “See how flat it is here?” She picks up a piece of white plaster from a nearby shelf—a death mask of the snout of another fox—and holds it next to the stuffed one. “See, this one turns up a little bit. Most taxidermists think fox noses are more pug-like than they are.” Then she turns and points to a crow on a piece of deadwood. “That’s the first crow I did. It’s terrible. I forgot to put fat in its legs.” It’s a minute omission, but it irks Donegan to no end. Has she ever had to scrap a project? “Once, when I first started, I did a rat and retained its skull but didn’t clean it enough. After I mounted it I noticed a wet spot under its eye. After a few weeks the spot hadn’t dried, and I realized I didn’t take enough brain out. So I had to toss it.”

At the root of Donegan’s passion is an insatiable curiosity and the drive to create. “If I don’t do things, if I don’t create, I don’t feel like a worthy human being,” she says. With hunters, she has found a need she can meet, and with artists and collectors, she has found an aesthetic taste she can please. Surrounded by bones, preserved organs and mounted heads in progress, she says, “I’m not obsessed with death. If anything, I’m obsessed with science.” In fact, it was a scientist who gave her a collection of rhesus monkey skulls that line the cabinet in her office. She pulls one out and turns it over in her hands. “[The scientist] was a client of mine a few years ago, back when I was a personal trainer.” Then she looks up, the next thought seemingly coming to her for the first time. “I guess everything I’ve done has been restorative.”

She doesn’t foresee ever getting bored of taxidermy, and she still has so much she wants to do. In the immediate future are a dozen bucks to finish, a horse head to start, a baby alpaca skull to send off to a lab for cleaning, a duckling to preserve. She plans on building her own form for the alpaca, and she wants to save up enough money to buy a dead peacock. After the old-school craftsmen are gone and the fly-by-night hipsters have tired of the trend, Donegan will still be here—restoring the dead to bring joy to the living.

( March 2016 )

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