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Taxidermy Artist

When I was in high school I did a jewelers design course, and I started casting little pewter fish. Then I moved on to casting real fish. My partner, James McGregor, and I registered the business when we were 16. I'm now 37. I've never taken a course.

The art of taxidermy is wrapping a tanned skin around an armature carved to look identical to the body of the animal, and then supporting the skin so that it has all the muscle tone and facial features that the animal would have. You force it into the details of the armature by gluing and nailing and pinning. Pretty much if a fellow can legally import it, we've done it. We've done everything from polar bears to a coelacanth- a prehistoric fish that was thought to be extinct. We've even done complete elephant heads. It doesn't matter how many times you work on an elephant, you just can't understand the size of it- the sheer mass of the animal.

When dealing with fish, we take a liquid cast off of a fresh specimen. It's a liquid molding material, so it picks up every minute detail- you can count the growth rings on the scales and figure out how old the fish is. We physically paint every single scale individually. If I based my income on hours, I'd get into a different profession. We have about 12 people on staff, usually nine doing wildlife design. My partner and I taught them everything.

Cabela's and all the Bass Pro stores. They give is the space and ask us to design something specifically to fill that area. In a store just outside Chicago called Lunker's, we built a winding river that was actually inlaid in the floor. It was four feet deep and 80 feet long, and it had polyester-resin ice and synthetic snow on the edges of the river. It had spawning beds. There were close to 100 molded fish, and docks and bridges, so you could actually walk out on them and look at the fish.

Right now we're working on a huge, 40-foot section of a sunken battleship that will have all the saltwater species- we'll probably do about 20 different types. You know how saltwater fish will take over an old battleship? That's pretty much what we're doing- it's all rusted out in areas and we have the fish inhabiting it. It's a work in progress. I'm not allowed to mention who it's for.

by Chris Nuttall-Smith

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