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The Ones That Didn't Get Away

Art and science of taxidermy inspire wildlife sculptors

"We taught ourselves to sculpt fish," explains Galea. "We basically took our skills from designing and casting jewelry and applied it to this form of wildlife art."

Art and science of taxidermy inspire wildlife sculptors You've all heard the tale about the one that got away. This story is about the one that won't go away. It all started with a mounted musky that needed repair. It is a fish that holds great sentimental value, but is ugly as sin. Most importantly, it is missing its fins because they had been chewed off by a dog. (Don't ask!) But taxidermists are few and far between in Toronto. It isn't really a burgeoning field. More of a dying art, many would say.

It's not too politically correct to have a moose head hanging over the fireplace these days, concedes one taxidermist. That's where James McGregor and Shawn Galea, both 30, come to the rescue. The pair, friends since high school, have built an international reputation on building replicas of wildlife, but they do traditional taxidermy as well. Their shop on Weston Rd. is full of mounted fish, owls, deer and even the odd moose. Some of it is real. Other pieces are replicas, built from fiberglass moulds and artificial materials. All are extremely life-like.

On the floor leaning against a wall sits a picture of Premier Mike Harris and his son proudly holding a salmon from the Toronto Star Salmon Hunt. Galea and McGregor worked on the fish for the Premier and his son to keep as a memento. Meanwhile, Galea points out the flaws in the mounted Muskie. "The colour is wrong. The back's wrong. There is only one eye. The throat is anatomically incorrect. But probably when it was done - some 30 years ago - it was considered a magnificent example of taxidermy." He and McGregor agree to replace the missing fins on the faulty musky. But they suggest leaving the rest of the flaws alone because of the sentimental value of the fish.

The pair got into wildlife art and taxidermy almost by accident. They were avid fishermen in high school and decided to start building replicas of wild-life. They spent hours studying fish and the way they looked and moved. Then they set out to build replicas using skills they learned in a high school jewelry-making class. "We taught ourselves to sculpt fish," explains Galea. "We basically took our skills from designing and casting jewelry and applied it to this form of wildlife art." The duo started out 13 years ago doing trophy art for fishermen who wanted to release their catch back into the water. Over the years they have turned trophy art into fine art. "We've taken the time to study the fish," says Galea. "We know how many scales a fish has on its lateral line and what changes its moods and its colour patterns. To accurately reproduce it, you have to understand the fish."

Since then, their business -Advanced Taxidermy and Wildlife Design - has grown. Now they just don't do fish, but also create everything from sculpted Whitetail deer to dinosaurs and aliens for movies. Still, their hearts remain true to the animal kingdom. Their work space is full of animal models and replicas, including the odd elk and caribou head. Hundreds of fibreglass fish hang from the ceiling. The pair has even reconstructed a tiger or two. They are proud of the replicas, pointing out to an observer details such as how even the muscles and sinews of an animal are duplicated. Galea and McGregor also do traditional taxidermy - the art of preparing the skins of animals and mounting them in life-like form. It makes up about 15 per cent of their business, Galea estimates.

Because the industry is perceived by some as cruel, the pair is sensitive about any criticism. "The taxidermy industry isn't about stuffing fish or moose heads," says Galea. "It's not about blood and guts." In traditional taxidermy, explains Galea, the actual hide of an animal is tanned, and then put on a sculpture of what the animal really looks like. "That's where the term taxidermy came from. You're literally taxing the hide on to a mannequin." McGregor adds: "We take great care in the detail of the animal. If an animal is taking a deep breath, you can see that in our work." And that attention seems to have paid off. The pair creates about 600 pieces a year, spending on average 30 hours on each piece of work, casting, moulding, and sculpting.

No detail is too small. McGregor takes down an old deer head down from the wall. He compares it to one he and Galea have recently done, pointing out the differences in the noses. Theirs is by far more realistic, he says. "You see, it's even got all the bumps and pores that are on a real deer's nose." As for the broken musky, never fear. McGregor and Galea do their very best with very little.

Yes, it still looks like a huge, ugly, brown, four-foot-long fish that should have got away.

by: Debra Black, Life Writer

Tuesday, March 4, 2003

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