In any creative endeavor, there is a specific moment of inception when the idea of a concept is born. This flash of creativity can feel like divine inspiration as it pops into your consciousness. It usually comes when the mind is calm and not while you are stressed out trying to solve a problem.
In todays’ fast-paced world with constant external stimulation, it is sometimes difficult to quiet the noise so you can listen for the thoughts within your own mind. It is impossible for your internal creative muse to have a voice when it is being drowned out by conversation, music, news, television and the internet. I have found that my most creative inspiration comes when I am not actively looking for it, like when I’m taking a shower or when I’m driving alone with the radio off.
Creativity cannot be forced. Staring at a blank piece of paper with the pressure of a deadline looming is not conducive to inspirational thought.
Visual art, like music, is largely non-verbal. So it is difficult to describe the creative process in words. The cartoon image of a lightbulb turning on to represent the “eureka” moment when an idea is born is actually quite appropriate. When the flash of inspiration hits, it does feel like a light has been switched on inside your brain.
Inspiration can come when you least expect it. In this edition of “Ken’s Corner” I will present three of my favorite works of creative taxidermy, along with the stories of the origin of their inception from the artists responsible.
Don Frank’s Redfish and Hands
At the 2015 World Taxidermy Championships, five judges secretly picked their top choice for the Best of Category in the Interpretive Art Division. The result of the balloting was an unprescedented unanimous win for the first place piece by Don Frank of Missouri.
Don had presented a reproduction redfish with enormous human hands revealing the sparkling colors of the fish as they passed over the surface. The meaning of this beautiful piece was left entirely up to the viewer. Were these the hands of a master taxidermist/artist? Were these meant to be the hands of God? Was the color being applied or revealed? Whatever the interpretation, the piece left a deep emotional response among viewers, which is what great art does.
The hands were beautifully done. They looked ancient, but impossibly large to be from a real person. The redfish itself was a thirty-incher, so you can imagine how big the hands were. If you have only seen this piece in photos, you may not realize the scale, as you might think the hands are normal sized and the fish is smaller. The flesh-colored skin was reproduced so awesomely and the incredible depth of the colors made it look as though blood was flowing through the veins beneath the wrinkled surface.
Don described how he created the hands: “The realism of those I credit to a good friend Gary Staab, a paleosculpter at staabstudios.com, who gave me some pointers on how to pull that off. I molded my mother’s hands (who is 88) and made a casting. I quickly realized they were much too small and quickly decided to model them larger than life-size when I made the decision to paint them realistically instead of just a bronze finish. They ended up almost twice the size of my hands.”
“I realize the creepiness factor of the hands. When I was moving the piece from being photographed at the show back to the spot where it was displayed, I passed a janitor pushing a cart. I watched as his eyes grew very large when he saw the hands. His face took on a very worried expression as he was trying to process if they were real or not. I started chuckling to myself when I passed him as that look was priceless!”
The colors of the redfish were so bright, clean and precise. They looked as if they were reflected off a mirror. The redfish skin almost seemed to glow with a brightness exceeding the ambient light. I can’t think of another paint job on any other fish that has impressed me more.
After the World Show, there was much discussion about this piece on the Forum, with a back-and-forth speculation on the meaning and its origin. Don would not provide any definitive answer on the intention of the piece, preferring to leave the interpretation of the message up to the individual viewer. (A very smart move in my opinion.) But he did have the chance to explain how he came up with this concept. It was an organic, serendipitous flash of inspiration than became the genesis of this powerful piece.
The week after Don’s good friend and fellow fish carver Randy Pike had suddenly died, Don was on a previously scheduled fishing trip with Bob Berry in Louisiana. Don told how the idea came to him:
“I got the idea for this piece on the plane ride home after a fishing trip in Venice, Louisiana. The fishing had been wonderful but my heart had been heavy from the loss of my longtime buddy Randy Pike less than a week before. We stayed on a houseboat in the harbor and the rear deck of the boat faced east. At sunrise I woke to find Bob Berry already setting in a chair taking photos of the sunrise. It was one of those rare mornings where the reds, oranges and purples are so bright and vivid from horizon to horizon with the patterns of the clouds intermixed. We drank coffee without speaking much and tried to take it all in.”
“Later that day I caught an especially beautiful redfish with the colors bold and distinct like they were painted over a chrome car bumper. On that plane ride home, as I reflected on those last three days, I remembered moving my fingers down the side of the fish trying to soak up all that I was seeing. It was a reminder that with the difficulties and sorrows of life, there are come pretty beautiful moments when we stop for a moment to appreciate them.”
Danny Owens’ House Sparrow
Danny Owens of Lubbock, Texas has won multiple state, regional and national titles for decades in taxidermy competitions. A respected bird judge, Danny is well-known to competitors everywhere. In 2015, he brought a simple house sparrow to the Texas Taxidermy Association convention and ended up winning the Texas State Champion Upland Gamebird title. The display featured a bible verse in a creative presentation.
When I asked Danny about the piece, he told me the incredible story of how this piece came into being, as you could almost say that the idea nearly fell out of the sky and into his lap.
Danny explained: “I normally don’t go hunting to get a specimen for mounting alone. If I’m dove, quail, or duck hunting and I happen to get a good bird or animal specimen, I may put it in the freezer with my other “when-I-get-around-to-it” projects and eventually mount it or throw the freezer-burned mess away.”
“One Saturday morning in February, I stepped out my back door to find as a dead sparrow lying on the porch at my feet. I picked it up, expecting rigor mortis to have set in and was quite amazed that it was pliable and appeared to be a fresh kill. I took it in the house and played with it for a few minutes. (I know that’s something no other taxidermist does, right?)”
“I have always believed that God guides most of the decisions that I make in my life, both professionally and in everyday life. Well, all of the good decisions I make, anyway. It certainly was when I began to think about the dead sparrow in my hand. I had to mount it. I took it out to the shop and skinned it that morning.”
“I spent a lot of time thinking about that bird over the next few days. I pulled out my bible and read one of my favorite verses, Mathew 6:25-26: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?'”
“My wife, Kim, and I talked about the bird and the verse and I told her that I was going to mount it but that I didn’t know how I wanted to do it. Later that week, I asked Kim to stop by Hobby Lobby to pick up something I needed for the shop. When she came home, she had bought me a gift. She had found a picture in Hobby Lobby that was a sparrow on a branch and the wording on the picture was Matthew 6:26. I was in awe. I knew at that moment what I would do with the sparrow. It became a beautiful backdrop for my mount and won the Texas State Champion Upland Gamebird that year at the Texas Taxidermy convention.”
Danny continued: “I am sure that no matter what I am mounting, if I keep God in my heart and see all animals though his eyes, I can not do wrong in my depiction of that species. If I take on the attitude that I know all there is to know about my subject, I am doomed to fail. This has happened to me in several competitions!”
“I remember back in 1983 when Kim and I first started our taxidermy adventure. Kim, not being one to want ‘stuffed’ things in her house, asked our church pastor if what I was doing was wrong. He said, ‘Absolutely not, especially if he will always strive to mount them like the master who first put them together.'”
“I have never forgotten that. Have I failed at times? Yes, I have. Will I have other failures? Of course. But with God guiding my hands and heart, I hope that I will continue to be successful in breathing new breath into some of God’s greatest creatures.”
Rick Carter’s Pumpkin Deer
One of the most acclaimed and successful whitetail deer mounts of all time was created by Rick Carter of Bogart, Georgia. At the 2007 National Taxidermists Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky, Rick’s “pumpkin deer” won the Judges’ Choice Best of Show Breakthrough Award, the Joseph E. Bruchac Memorial Award, the North American Champion Whitetail Deer Award, the Van Dyke’s Award and the Taxidermists’ Choice Best Whitetail Deer sponsored by McKenzie Taxidermy Supply.
The display featured a pedestal mount whitetail in a pumpkin patch. Rick molded and cast the pumpkins, leaves and vines, and supported the deer with a large pumpkin that morphed into the back of the shoulder mount. One of the pumpkins had a bite out of it. Rick is a very creative person, but he is also a meticulous planner, so this piece was the result of both creative inspiration followed by strategy and engineering.
Here is what Rick told me when I asked him about his creative process: “Everyone claims to love creative people. I have had many acquaintances tell me they wish they were as creative as me. That may sound great on the surface but creativity does come at a price. I have always had trouble getting to sleep at night because I can’t turn off my imagination. I was constantly in trouble at school for not paying attention. More than one of my report cards contained teachers comments about my daydreaming. It even followed me through college. A psychology professor once gave the entire class individual MMPI personality tests. We would all get to share the results. He went through the class commending students on their loyalty, ethics, and healthy, normal personality traits. When he got to me the only thing he could think of was that if my imagination were any more vivid that I should probably seek psychiatric counseling.”
“When I worked at WASCO, my sculpting studio was often referred to as ‘Rickyworld’ because I would tune out and totally ignore ongoing situations and everything except for my latest idea. Some of my co-workers would make the comment that I was mentally in ‘Rickyworld’ whenever I was obviously not paying attention to anything except my latest brainstorm. Creative juices can take over at any given time whether I was in meetings or out in the plant, or even at lunch or in the car. It was fortunate for me that I was working for a business that promoted and relished creativity and was very tolerant of my frequent lapses of time and whereabouts.”
Rick explained the inception of the idea for the pumpkin deer: “You never know when or where the spark for an idea will come from. It can be very spontaneous or it can evolve from events of your past. The Pumpkin deer was a little of both. Halloween has always been my favorite occasion because it’s a time that you can be rewarded for letting your imagination run free. I always loved creating costumes and nothing is any more fun than carving Jack-O-Lanterns into pumpkins. One year I decided to grow some of my own pumpkins just to decorate and play with. The plants grew quickly and began venturing out into the lawn. Several pumpkins began to grow and produce in different stages throughout the vines.”
“One day I was looking out the window and saw several deer standing in the middle of my pumpkin patch. One deer was stomping pumpkins and another was eating them. I took off out of the back door to chase them away. One doe had a pumpkin about the size of a cantaloupe in her mouth and refused to drop it. She sprang across the yard and headed for the woods with that pumpkin in her mouth. It looked odd and I can’t really understand how she could get it in her mouth, much less run away with it. At first I was angry but then I became amused with the situation. From that point on I allowed the deer to come back several times and wreak havoc on my little pumpkin patch. They bit chunks out of the big ones and stomped others. They would return in a day or two and finish off the ones they stomped after they had softened up a bit.”
Rick said, “The idea for a deer raiding the pumpkin patch was just a gift. I allowed my imagination to kick in and the entire scene was quickly underway. I took my time and figured out how to make everything from scratch. The entire project was spread out over the course of about two years. Which turned out to be two years of additional trouble getting to sleep at night.”
When attending large taxidermy competitions, my favorite part is seeing the new creative ideas that have never been done before. After tens of thousands of entries, it would be easy to think that everything under the sun has already been created, but each convention brings new and fresh surprises. The joy in seeing a new idea that puts an ordinary specimen in a fresh unique display is something I never tire of. Creativity is a blessing, but it must be nurtured. If you are looking for inspiration, take the time to slow down, disconnect and maybe even schedule some time to kick back and daydream.