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The World Taxidermy Championships, a Super Bowl for handy people obsessed with bringing the dead back to some semblance of life, happened earlier this month. It has been held every other year since 1983, and attracts about 1,000 taxidermists from several...

Going inside the Super Bowl of taxidermy in Peoria

The World Taxidermy Championships, a Super Bowl for handy people obsessed with bringing the dead back to some semblance of life, happened earlier this month. It has been held every other year since 1983, and attracts about 1,000 taxidermists from several...

Going inside the Super Bowl of taxidermy in Peoria

The World Taxidermy Championships, a Super Bowl for handy people obsessed with bringing the dead back to some semblance of life, happened earlier this month. It has been held every other year since 1983, and attracts about 1,000 taxidermists from several countries, vying for $36,000 in prize money.

This year, there were more than 400 entries of dead waterfowl, dead cougars, dead bluegill, dead etc. If you are picturing hunters speed-stuffing squirrels with wood chips and crumpled newspaper, you couldn't be more wrong — likewise, if you are picturing pageantry and hype. As the Taxidermy Championships opened, the streets around the Peoria Civic Center were zombie-apocalypse silent. Larry Blomquist, the event's organizer since 1994, said the championship has been held seven times in Illinois because the state is less than a day's drive for two-thirds of the nation's taxidermists. Also, Illinois laws regarding animal skins and horns are agreeable.

Look, here come the stars now!

Best of the best: Frank Newmyer of Michigan, winner of too many championships to name. Travis De Villiers of South Africa, revered upstart. Wendy Christensen, former taxidermist of the Milwaukee Public Museum, known for works of elegance and ambition. James Newport, innovator. And hundreds more, grooming dead animals, blowdrying black bears, primping badgers. Rick Hummel of Marengo, who brought a specklebelly goose, said: "It's like your prom date. You pull out the tweezers and the magnifying glass."

"What prom did you go to?" a friend said.

Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

Fred Vanderburgh of Van Etten, N.Y. examines an African lion during judging Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at the World Taxidermy Championships in Peoria.

Fred Vanderburgh of Van Etten, N.Y. examines an African lion during judging Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at the World Taxidermy Championships in Peoria.

(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

They also said, in overheard bits of conversation: "Ever skin a kangaroo? Not fun," and "Need a box of ducks? Call me, but I'm not paying shipping," and "Truthfully, I have seen better mountain goats." If gymnasts have a lean, sinewy grace, and football linemen are anvils on legs, then competitive taxidermists, broadly, resemble bells, in cargo shorts, T-shirts and camouflage caps. They are white, balding, middle-aged; they have rich rural and Southern accents. They tow along deer and minks and turtles, in flocks, schools, murders, herds and crates.

To compete in such company, they are also good at what they do: Their skunks perform handstands. Their bezoar ibexes surf cascading avalanches. Their crows wrangle over snakes. Their squids struggle to free themselves from jaws of king eider drakes. Their animals come in wholes and halves and thirds, heads and shoulders, or simply heads, chewing, nuzzling, bellowing. Their owls, utterly still because they are utterly dead, nevertheless, project the watchful patience and potential for movement of live owls. Their bears are damp from trout, their mallards balance on feathers.

Though there are dozens of hyper-specific divisions of competition — the "turkey (strutting)" category, for instance — the goal is generally the same: make a creature look alive. Other rules appear more arbitrary. Shellfish are frowned upon in the "Best All-Around" category. Domestic pigs are OK, domestic cats are not. Bad taste is a no-no, yet one entry was a "Charlotte's Web" diorama, with a real piglet and mouse. Also, each piece is judged without an artist's name attached, but judges, themselves previous winners, zero in on artsy signatures: Newport, "Old No Legs," splits his deer horizontally — zoological ironing boards, basically.

Skip Skidmore, judge and assistant curator of vertebrates at Brigham Young University, took notes in a folding chair, examining a red panda, an endangered species. "I've seen them alive, so I appreciate the character in the face," he said. Taxidermy suggests a three-dimensional animal. It doesn't mean your animal has to be made from the same animal. The red panda was created with a coyote tail and the dyed hides of fishers (a kind of weasel). Indeed, extinct animals are often entered; past World Championships featured dinosaurs.

Cary Cochran, 69, of Ohio, a taxidermy judge for decades, left the bust of a whitetail he was studying and, sidling up as if to convey a secret, said: "When I was young, people who knew how to do this would not tell you anything. Information was slim to none. Now, to win at the Worlds Championships, you got to be good at painting, molding, sewing, casting, zoology. You got to know that animal. Don't put him on a mount with a habitat he doesn't exist in. You're trying to make it like the good Lord made it, but I'll tell you: Can't do it. No matter how good the work is. It's like seven rotting heads of cabbage: the least rotten head wins."

Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

Cary Cochran examines a deer while judging Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at the World Taxidermy Championships in Peoria.

Cary Cochran examines a deer while judging Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at the World Taxidermy Championships in Peoria.

(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Once the taxidermy is set up and artists escorted out, the doors to the exhibit hall are closed. A security guard is placed outside, refusing entry to anyone but judges, who pick over the pieces in silence for a couple of days. The hall is large and chilly, the scene is otherworldly, a haphazard zoo suspended in time, bald eagles perched beside African lions reclining beside wild turkeys standing beside trunkfish swimming alongside cape buffalo and snow leopards.

A judge hovered before a Labrador duck.

It's an extinct bird, meticulously re-created from feathers of other birds. "Pretty damn weak," the judge said. "That tail, way too high — do I even have to score this thing?"

Three wolves — two spooning, one lolling on its back — patiently studied three judges. The men circled them, examining their ear canals with flashlights, prodding the consistency of their fur with pens. "Nothing wrong here," one judge decided. "Nothing right, either." Watching them judging taxidermy is like watching most sports championships: Differences between winners and the merely great is invisible to the naked eye.

And what do the taxidermists do while they're waiting?

By night, they occupied the hotel bars of Peoria. By day, they took in a trade show. Big Taxidermy peddled everything you need to bring the zoological dead back to life: glass eyes for gorillas and barred owls, rubber noses for bears and swines, moisturizers for your sockeye salmon, full-size molds of mountain lions and pheasants, cream-colored, hairless objects, alien shape-shifters in mid-shift, waiting for skins of their avatars. Then, when the trade show closed, taxidermists filled seminars, where they sat (dude style, with an empty seat between them) and learned how to mount a ruffled goose or paint cold-water fish. Between sessions, they talked shop, arguing about the proper "transition points" in a bison bust and the "virtual flow of motion" for a cougar descending a mountain. They philosophized on the "idea of the animal," and sweated whether their work sufficiently "told a story."

They were museum curators, cartographers and homemakers. But mostly they were professional taxidermists who ran small studios in far-flung corners of the globe. And they were friendly. Jeremy Miracle of Tennessee, a mountain in overalls, said his black bear, curled on a wood pedestal, surrounded by Joseph Cornell-like artifacts (antique eyeglasses, pencil shavings), meant to "capture the essence of the species." Despite the image of a taxidermist as a foreboding backwoods Norman Bates, your average group (gaggle? flock?) of taxidermists here appeared to contain far fewer murderers than your average group of random citizens.

Meet Ashley Friendshuh of Minnesota, who is 29, has three children and several more dreadlocks: "I have a ball python in the show. Someone's pet died. They gave it to me. It happens now: 'Hey, my hedgehog is dead. You want it?'"

Meet Gene Smith of North Carolina, two-time world champion, whose whitetail in competition was inspired by Bible verse ("he makes my feet like the feet of a deer"): "It's so hard to do something original. There is an industry attached now, offering tools and animal molds, saying there's one way to approach this work. I create from scratch and sculpt my molds. You are capturing a moment in time for this animal. I believe we honor these deer more if we believe they are with us now."

Wouldn't you be honoring them more, I asked, by not hunting them?

He couldn't answer.

He's far from alone. The history of taxidermy is a history of wrestling with purpose. The medium was popularized by Victorians as a way for wealthy classes to keep a piece of the untamed world in their sitting rooms. Taxidermists were tailors, upholsters. Then, as nature museums were founded in the 19th century, the form had a renewed goal. Carl Akeley, the Field Museum taxidermist in the early 20th century (whose signature fighting elephants remain a draw), the godfather of contemporary taxidermy (who has a top award at the championships named for him), stressed sculpture over stuffing an animal, anatomical precision over kitsch.

De Villiers, the taxidermy wunderkind, the sort of ruggedly handsome competitor any sport would promote as its future, sounds like a descendant. He brought a stillborn zebra. He set out to capture a life it never lived. His zebra, which looked slightly wet and a little bloody from its birth, didn't stand tall but rather, its knees knocked at odd angles and seemed to struggle for footing. "My personal belief for doing this," he said, "is that a lot of animals won't be around in the future. You want people to understand the nature they have. So I just don't get the more far-fetched pieces here. Nature doesn't need their modification."

Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune

Wendy Christensen examines a wild boar while judging Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at the World Taxidermy Championships in Peoria.

Wendy Christensen examines a wild boar while judging Wednesday, May 17, 2017 at the World Taxidermy Championships in Peoria.

(Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Like any art, as taxidermy publications were established and schools founded — the Northwestern School of Taxidermy in Nebraska once offered a home course that inspired many an older taxidermist — traditionalists were met by boundary pushers. For instance, "rogue taxidermy," a surrealist movement started in Midwest art circles that aligns itself with fine art, making mythological beasts, cyborg sheep, anatomical Peeps. Gustavo Rojas, a Los Angeles real estate agent who took up taxidermy as a hobby, wandered the show floor and described a piece he made named "Roadkill," featuring a coyote mounted on a hubcap.

It's not in the show.

A few championships ago, Blomquist created an "interpretative" division, to allow room for a "fertile imagination." Progress and tradition, in any art, need each other. But the man himself, a former schoolteacher who carries himself with seasoned authority, said: "I don't believe we should go beyond nature." Some of the judges roll their eyes at even the mildest ambitions. They argue for craft over invention. Dawayne Dewey of Wyoming pointed to a laterally split boar: "See, this is offensive to some taxidermists. That's how conservative this can get. It's like any art: You got your avant-garde, then you got your people who have done it a certain way for a long time. The sides don't agree. I have seen weird stuff, though.

"For example," he said walking to another piece. "I have still not worked out the thinking behind this." It was an otter swimming around a statue of a boy speckled green with algae and oceanic age. I said, maybe it's an otter swimming through ancient underwater ruins?

He considered that.

Another judge came over. "Dude, tequila was involved here," he said.

"My interpretation," Dewey said, "is an accident-prone kid slipped into the water."

Then a third judge: "Slipped on his own blood, and that is — a vampire otter."

With a dry irony, Dewey said: "I guess this is what art does — it makes you think!"

When the judges finished, and the hall reopened to the taxidermists, and a crowd filtered in, a former studio set designer from Los Angeles took in the frozen menagerie: "Just ... wow."

Divya Anantharaman of Brooklyn, a fashion designer and taxidermist (whose red-legged honeycreeper would win a second-place award), stood transfixed before a crate of newborn rabbits, translucent and pink. As she stepped aside, Rodney Schreurs of Wisconsin, the creator, leaned in to examine the state of his stillborns and, without irony, said "They survived."

Schreurs, well-regarded by professional taxidermists for his ability to surprise, had a high voice and shallow-set eyes and wore a fedora. He looked around the exhibit hall, full of deer and bass and porcupines. He said: "I'm no taxidermist. I'm a ceramic tile contractor. The mainstream guys, to compete with them, you have to look for something fresh. And you don't have to do a 12-point buck to do this. I like sophisticated work that celebrates the seemingly insignificant."

He moved on.

A pair of women stopped. They looked at his rabbits. Then they looked at the next piece, a jar on its side, dirt and night crawlers spilling out. This was Schreurs' too. "Worms," one women said.

"Yup," said her friend.

"There's a red panda there, and I have no idea how you even do that. And this guy, whoever the idiot is who did worms — he's like, 'I think I'm going to taxidermy worms.'"

Her friend turned to her. "I like the worms. You know? It's new, different, and as far as I'm concerned, all these largemouth bass and the whitetail deer, they can go to hell."

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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