Advanced Taxidermy

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UNREAL!!

These fake fish looks so real they beg to be touched. And they last and last.

The guys at Advanced Taxidermy and Wildlife Design in Toronto really don't like to talk much about taxidermy. Ask about wildlife design, though, and you can't get a word in edgewise. The guys are Shawn Galea and James McGregor, and the biggest part of their business is capturing memories for happy anglers. They call what they do "wildlife design". Others call it reproduction- or replica taxidermy. A better name might be three-dimensional wildlife art. Call it what you will, the guys at Advanced are innovators and artists, right at the top of their trade. Comparing their creations to "stuffed" fish is like comparing a prime rib roast to Spam.

Their artificial representations of fish are so realistic they beg to be touched. It's no wonder their pieces are now gracing museum showcases, universities, conservation centers, corporate boardrooms and art galleries right across the country- not to mention the homes of some very proud anglers. When they talk about their work, it's difficult to separate Galea from McGregor. Ask a question and words tumble out from both. Like a long-married couple they complete each other's thoughts and sentences in a flood. They're young- both 25- yet they've been working to capture the essence of fish for more than a decade. "We've been fishing buddies for years," says Galea, or is it McGregor? "When we caught a trophy fish and wanted to get it mounted, we'd tour the taxidermy shops. Often we didn't like the work we saw, or more often, we couldn't afford to pay somebody to do the mounts, so we started to do them ourselves." They started out doing traditional mounts - dried, cured fish skin stretched over an artificial body and painted.

McGregor - definitely McGregor this time- says this kind of taxidermy more or less dates back to Roman times, when Caesar wanted to see this monster called the rhinoceros that his legions had discovered in Africa. He soldiers skinned one, then wrapped it around some trees and sent it to Rome. Early on, Galea and McGregor discovered some problems with traditional mounting. Over time, fat and oils work their way through a cured skin, eventually destroying the paint. The skin itself shrinks and distorts the mount. The problem is particularly acute with heads because of the amount of fat and tissue they contain.

Galea and McGregor decided to experiment with reproduction mounts. They began by putting reproduction heads- cast from molds of actual fish- on their skin mounts. "The new heads were so realistic compared to the skin bodies that we decided to use reproduction bodies too," says McGregor. The reproduction process actually begins with a real fish, which McGregor and Galea coat one side at a time in any one of a number of materials- polymer, rubber and latex among them- to create a mold. Its tricky work, ideally done in a 24-hour, non-stop marathon. The chemical reaction that hardens the molding materials literally "cooks" the fish, so there's no second chance to fix up mistakes. The art of making molds is continually evolving and reproduction taxidermists have their own techniques and trade secrets, secrets they guard so closely. Visiting taxidermists are definitely not welcome in some areas of the Advanced Taxidermy workrooms.

The resulting molds are incredibly detailed, clearly outlining each scale and even the lateral line of a trout. At any one time, Galea and McGregor have more than 400 molds on hand, covering virtually all freshwater fish- from hand-sized sunfish to four-foot musky- and many saltwater fish. They create new molds whenever the opportunity arises to work on a fish that wasn't released. Galea and McGregor can adjust a mold to the precise measurements of just about any specimen/. That way an angler who chooses to release a fish simply supplies length and girth measurements, along with some good color photos. "We really want to promote catch and release," says Galea. "We practice it ourselves and urge all our regular clients to do the same."

With the halves of a mold in hand, the next step is to make the individual fish's body- or blank. To do this, they lay a specialized glass fiber material into the mold to capture every possible detail- another process with its own secrets. Depending on the species, a mold can create 5 or 10 blanks before it begins to lose detail. Once Galea and McGregor have formed the blank, it's time to fit on the throat, eyes, fins and gills (open gill covers are an Advanced specialty) that they've molded in the shop. They use more than 20 separate pieces in the throats of some of their works. They create teeth- sometimes thousands of them- individually, by lifting a line of epoxy into tiny peaks. And they make fins from flexible materials to prevent the breakage which is all too common on skin mounts. Once the blank is ready for painting, it's a dull, flat white, awaiting the finish that will bring it to life- a crucial step in reproduction taxidermy and another one filled with trade secrets. Paint-by-numbers - this isn't and it's where Galea and McGregor shine. Both studied art in high school and picked up basic painting techniques there. McGregor also spent some time studying at the Ontario College of Art. Both still continue to paint or, as they put it, do some "flat art"- mostly fish and wildlife. But the techniques they use on fish are very largely self-taught, backed up by their own research. Galea and McGregor have thousands of photographs of fish detail: eyes, fins, edges of scales, single spots, all kinds of close-ups. There's also a 500-gallon aquarium in their showroom where they can study fish in their natural surroundings.

The paint they use is automobile paint, the same kind used to create cars. Each fish receives between 30 and 40 separate layers of paint to create the shades of colors Galea and McGregor see in fish. They apply broad layers with air brushes, and do detailed work by hand with fine art brushes.

Of course, each fish, even within a species, has its own unique body shape, color and patterns. And that's why Advanced Taxidermy wants detailed color photos of a fish, close-ups if possible, along with the measurements. "Give is one more good color photo than you think we'll need and we should be able to make sure that mount really is your fish," says McGregor.

Galea and McGregor have become such experts on color and shape that they've learned the subtle differences between fish from different parts of Ontario- say walleye from the Bay of Quinte, Lake Erie, the Kawarthas and Georgian Bay. They like to try to surprise clients by telling them where they caught their fish. Galea says they don't really have any favorite fish to work on.

"But getting the color right on brown and speckled trout is a real challenge," he says. "And crappies- with all the detail- are also fun." Once they've finished painting, it's time to create the rest of the piece- the habitat. And this is often a work of art in itself. One of Galea's prize-winning creations- Midnight Rise- features a 22-inch Stoney Lake largemouth seemingly floating all by itself above a weed bed carved from wood. What's holding the fish up? A single reed brushing against the fish's tail is made of metal- more than strong enough to support the ultra light, hollow blank. So how long does it take to go from blank to finished creation?

"We hate to keep track of the amount of time we spend on a fish," says McGregor. "It just tells us how little we're making on an hourly basis."

But when pressed, he and Galea agree on a rough figure of 15 to 30 hours work for a straightforward creation. Special, they say, takes more time. Galea's Midnight Rise required about four months of work over a three-year period, and more than 100 hours in painting alone. Early in their careers, Galea and McGregor entered taxidermy competitions regularly. They're Canada's only world champions in reproduction taxidermy and between them have won six Canadian and six American championships, in both traditional and reproduction taxidermy. Galea was certified a Master Taxidermist at the age of 17 and began judging competitions at 18. "But competitions don't really mean much in terms of our customers," says Galea. "They want to see the work we do, not necessarily that we won this or that medal." In recent years, Galea and McGregor have focused mainly on the competition to develop new techniques to solve new problems. And they've tackled some unusual challenges, such as the fish that came back from extinction and the Walt Disney raccoon. The fish that came back from extinction was something called a coelacanth. Scientists thought this fish had been extinct for about 60 million years, but in 1938, a coelacanth was discovered off Madagascar. Since then, about a dozen specimens have been captured.

Three years ago, the Royal Ontario Museum approached Galea and McGregor for a reproduction of a six-foot, 200-pound specimen. The mount is now sitting in the museum. The Walt Disney raccoon job came up when a Disney film called for a dog to pick up a raccoon and run through a house with it. Obviously, the moviemakers didn't want to use a live raccoon and a dead raccoon or a conventional mount just wouldn't look real enough. So Galea created a replica with a latex body, articulated joints and a combination of fake and woven fur. Galea and McGregor say it's possible- as in the case of the raccoon- to do reproduction mounts of mammals and birds, but it's so labor-intensive and so expensive that they don't see much of a future for it except in very specialized cases.

And, yes, both Galea and McGregor still do some conventional taxidermy. But reproduction fish make up about 95 per cent of their business. Meanwhile, die-hard traditionalists who initially heaped scorn on reproductions as "fake" fish are slowly being converted. Galea and McGregor say that critics who visit their showrooms almost invariably pick out the reproductions as the most realistic and the skin mounts as "phony-looking".

And not only do reproduction mounts look better, they also won't deteriorate. In fact, each piece that leaves Advanced Taxidermy has a lifetime guarantee. And if you accidentally damage or even destroy your mount, Galea and McGregor can use photo records and files to create a precise duplicate. What about price? Words don't tumble out quite a quickly. That's not because the work is expensive- it's about the same price as traditional taxidermy for straight work. But the final price depends on what the customer wants, on the size and species of the fish and the complexity of the display. How about a starting price? Well, a basic mount of a reasonable fish begins around $150. And considering the number of hours it takes to make and the number of hours you'll enjoy that great fish you caught and released, that's a bargain.

April 1995
Outdoor Canada

Gary Ball

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