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The Art of the Matter

Taxidermists Shawn Galea and James McGregor are the Henry Moores of Musky, the Picassos of Pickerel. So when will they finally get some respect?

Shawn Galea and James McGregor met in grade 9 art class. They also both liked fishing. Taxidermy, of course, came next, and today, 15 years later, they do it for a living. That's a natural progression- from art class to taxidermy. Because taxidermy is an art. You see? It's not just a hobby, like macrame or model trains; it's an art. When you meet them, Galea and McGregor will make this clear to you, whether you ask them or not.

And they do suffer for their art- indignities mostly, but still. "People often treat us like weirdo animal embalmers or something," says Galea. Once, on their storefront window in Toronto's west end, someone scrawled "Stop killing dead stuff," and that was particularly irksome, illiterateness aside, and the fact that it was written in lipstick (made with animal byproducts) also aside. It was irksome because what they're known for doesn't involve dead stuff at all.

"Fish of the same species look vastly different depending on where they were caught," says Galea. "A Simcoe walleye looks a lot different than a French River walleye," he continues. "French River walleye have a big back, flat stomach and a huge head. And the caudal peduncle- totally different."...

"When people think art," laments Galea, "they think in two dimensions. But we do three dimensions, which is harder." There is no doubt in Galea and McGregor produce the ultimate mnemonic for proud anglers.

Like many modern taxidermists, they make reproductions of animals- fish usually, but also bear, wolves, and deer, whatever- made entirely from synthetics and plastics and epoxy. Not that they have anything against killing a fish or a deer, because they are fishermen and hunters and there's nothing wrong with that. It's that, here they are, Canada's premier animal reproduction artists, and someone tells them off for doing too good of a job. Which should be a compliment, but it's just irksome. "We are the ones promoting catch-and-release fishing," recites McGregor as he has many times before, judging by his practiced pitch. "Take a picture, release the big ones to go make more fish, and we'll create an exact replica for your living-room wall."

Exactitude, like their conversation ethic, is not something they take lightly. According to the Advanced Taxidermy & Wildlife Design brochure, Galea and McGregor offer polyester-resin reproductions that are "DNA accurate." A little advertising hyperbole, perhaps, but it can be forgiven on the grounds that their reproductions are very, very lifelike. The detail is extraordinary, even showing the growth rings on the scales. "You can age a fish by looking at one of our mounts," boasts McGregor. They have, over the years, proudly introduced many innovations to the industry. "Mounts that show fish with open mouths- that was us," says Galea. "Open gills, transparent fins, seamless moulds- we started all that, too."

Even if the wonderful fish you caught last summer at the cottage was not recorded on film, they can work with the details of your big-fish story alone. "Fish of the same species look vastly different depending on where they were caught," says Galea. "A Simcoe walleye looks a lot different than a French River walleye," he continues. "French River walleye have a big back, flat stomach and a huge head. And the caudal peduncle- totally different."

Devotion to authenticity has paid off for them. They process more than 600 orders a year, ranging in price from $350 to $2,000. The Royal Ontario Museum has commissioned them. No less a connoisseur than CTV's Dini Petty has raved about their professionalism. Former Ontario premier Mike Harris has Advanced Taxidermy Chinook salmon hanging in his den. Nelson Mandela has one of their rainbow trout. Pro hockey-playing clients are too numerous to list- "They have the whole summer off, so they all fish," says Galea- but they include Bobby Hull, Felix Potvin and Mike Gartner.

The duo also make fully articulated models for the film industry, notably the red deer that David Spade and Chris Farley nail with a vintage Chevy in Tommy Boy. They have also crafted their share of specialty props, including 750 pairs of the popular-among-thieves moose antlers used in the city of Toronto's tourism promotion. "We also did the trees for Nelly Furtado in that video I Like to Fly Like A Bird or whatever," says McGregor.

But respect is hard to come by. "When people think art," laments Galea, "they think in two dimensions. But we do three dimensions, which is harder." There is no doubt in Galea and McGregor produce the ultimate mnemonic for proud anglers. But is it art? Or craftsmanship? The answer, perhaps, hangs outside their shop above the door in the form of a two-meter long space small-mouth bass. "That thing," says McGregor, "has weathered snow, icicles, blasting heat and nesting pigeons for four years without a problem. All our reproductions are made the same way. They'll outlast this generation and the next." Everyone will agree; after all, that true art endures.

Summer 2002
SATURDAYNIGHT Volume 117 Number 3

Mike Randolph

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