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David J. Schwendeman – Part 2

“Still Life”


Chapter 1: Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio

From “Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy” by Melissa Milgrom. Excerpted with permission of the author.

Continued from Part 1

David is extraordinarily unpretentious. People from the AMNH remember him as a humble, hardworking naturalist with an uncanny intuition for animal forms. For example, when Rose Wadsworth, the museum’s former exhibition coordinator for living invertebrates, brought him a flying lizard from Asia that he had never seen, he positioned it with the sensitivity of a local who had grown up with it in his own backyard. Indeed, to understand David you have to understand his deep devotion to wildlife, especially birds.

David is a purist: a birder’s birder. He loathes the term “bird watcher,” for instance, because it implies lists and rarity. David would rather observe a common species a million times, just to see the sunlight hit its covet feathers as it banks into a salt marsh, than to glimpse an exotic species for a nanosecond and then race off to see the next one. For David, the walk counts more than the birds. In this, he’s the definition of the old-school taxidermist — a field naturalist who believes the only way to replicate an animal faithfully is to study it in its native haunts.

The first day I met him, however, David wanted to talk about eating bald eagle. (Taxidermists love to joke about eating specimens, especially if a specimen is rare, endangered, or politically charged.) So what does it taste like? I asked.

“Like bald eagle!” he said with a chuckle.

Then he went over to the eagle carcass, glanced at it, and said, “Looks like ovaries. An adult female.”

He sat back down and rocked in the afternoon heat. The rocker is the center of David’s universe, the focus from which all the significant places in his life radiate, like the points on a compass: “up there” (the AMNH), “back there” (his house), “in here” (the workshop), and “the cabin” (the log house his parents built by hand and lived in until they died). Dressed in khaki from head to toe, worn leather work boots, and a leather belt with a brass buckle, he looked like a safari guide who got lost and ended up in New Jersey. He had folded paper for jotting field notes in his breast pocket and a small jackknife in his pants pocket, and he was smoking a pipe. He handed me a business card that said DAVID J. SCHWENDEMAN, CHIEF PREPARATORY TAXIDERMIST, AMNH, RETIRED.

“I was in my teens when I did my first mount. I mounted a starling,” he said.

“Mine was a grackle,” said Bruce. “Pup-Pup’s was a pigeon. Mum-Mum’s was a blue jay.”

“My mother was really a skinner; she could skin anything,” enthused David. He puffed on his pipe and continued. “She used to bake those pies. Is that what you’d call a blackbird pie?”

“Four-and-twenty blackbirds,” said Bruce as he fastened antlers to a deer head manikin he was filing into shape.

“When the blackbirds migrated, we’d get a bunch. We used to eat grackles by the hundreds. During the Depression, we’d eat anything,” said David.

“Heck, we do now,” said Bruce. “But we’re not a butcher shop! It’s a fringe benefit, not the norm.”

David got up and shuffled out of the workshop and into the yard. He checked his cage of promethea moths, then went over to see if his bamboo garden was producing. When he lifted a capful of O’Doul’s out of the soil to see if it had attracted any slugs, it was impossible to picture him in any city, much less New York. As far as David is concerned, the AMNH is a city itself. He simply bypassed Manhattan by riding the C train directly into the museum, commuting the thirty-five miles with a briefcase concealing dead beavers and shrews and the occasional poison dart frog. In twenty-eight years, the only city sidewalk he ever touched was the one he had to cross to go birding in Central Park.

Sometimes when David is feeling wistful, he grabs an old binder labeled “Taxidermy Notes and Formulae” and flicks through its yellowing pages. Whenever he does this, his eyes sparkle and it’s as if he’s back on the fifth floor of the AMNH in the exhibition department’s rich art studios. One day he grabbed the binder and with trembling fingers showed me his secrets for making lifelike plants and animals. It was astonishing to see his range of skills. The book was filled with handwritten recipes and experiments, things that evoked chemistry equations or a wizard’s book of potions. One entry had his “starfish solution” (equal parts formalin, water, and glycerin); another, “how to clean an oropendola nest” (make a spray from ten ounces of water, Elmer’s glue, and one and a half ounces of glycerin). There was his “formula for bleaching bones” (a paste of hydrogen peroxide and magnesium carbonate), his method for hatching snapping turtle eggs (Mortimer lived for fifteen years), and an entry called “how to make artificial frog eggs.”

He pointed to a section called “scorpion experiments,” then to “how to anesthetize a lizard” and “relaxing bat study skins.” There was a section called “how to make a Plexiglas water line for wading wood storks,” his “snake-tanning formula,” and instructions for how to fasten a diving cormorant to the wall so that it looks as if it’s flying. And there was more: How to “clean live coral. How to make “slushy snow”: combine clear resin, a touch of white pigment, and cabosil (a thickening agent); add enough small glass beads to create the consistency of cream (gives it luster); add ten drops of catalyst; let it set up for fifteen minutes). How to “set up earthworms for casting”: inject the worms with vinyl acetate before molding. How to “make artificial algae”: boil Angora goat hair with yellow-green fabric dye. And on and on.

David Schwendeman took Melissa Milgrom, author of Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy, through the difficult process of mounting a squirrel, that she could enter in the World Taxidermy Championships. Photo courtesy www.melissamilgrom.com.

David was born in 1924, three years after his father sold his first deer head and Lillian skinned her first pheasant. The original workshop was in the family home, in what is now David’s kitchen. It sold bait and tackle and was open 24-7. People would ring the buzzer at three A.M. looking for shiners, and David would trudge down in his pajamas to fill orders, sarcastically mumbling, “I’ve been waiting up all night for you.” In the early years, their customers were local hunters who wanted their pheasants and small mammals mounted, and the place took on the seasonal rhythm of a farm: rails, grouse, quail, and pheasants in early fall; deer and ducks in mid-fall; turkeys and bears in spring; fish and woodchucks in summer. Before they had a freezer, Lillian would skin the birds while the hunters waited, and she’d hand back the meat wrapped in paper. (Now Bruce tells his customers to get two: one for mounting, the other for dinner.)

As a boy, David hung around the shop, cleaning deer skulls and getting in his father’s way. He loved to wander outdoors to listen to spring peepers (little frogs), green frogs, and katydids. Mostly he trapped foxes and went frogging, birding, and hunting for tree stumps. Sometimes he’d grab a camera and wade into the swamps behind the house, looking for red-winged blackbird or least bittern nests and grebes. He’d come home sopping wet, and Arthur would scold him by saying it was okay to watch birds now, but as a man it would be a problem. He never stopped. Once, when he was fourteen, he sat by the old dirt road that ran by their house sketching a little green heron. A man rode by on horseback and took him for a Boy Scout. David was infuriated. “You had to be a Boooooy Scout to look at birds!” he says with a mock whine. “Now it’s strange here,” he says reflectively. “I think they spray. I haven’t seen a bat all summer. Used to see them flying around. Now it’s all houses; it’s all gone now.”

Birds are the workshop’s specialty. However, the first animal the Schwendemans mounted for the AMNH was a venomous lizard: a Gila monster. Gila monsters are classified as Heloderma suspectum. They have forked tongues and scaly bodies that are typically two feet long. Arthur’s brother boxed up the live lizard and mailed it to Milltown from Arizona. Arthur put it in a cage and kept his distance, in case it spit poison. “Boy, did I want to touch that thing, but we weren’t allowed, because we didn’t know if it was alive or dead,” David recalls with boyish enthusiasm. It was dead, so Arthur mounted it, and the uncle called up the museum and asked if they wanted it. They did — and then they offered Arthur a job. Arthur hated cities and said he would work from home. But when David turned eleven, he begged his mother to sign him up as a museum member. It was 1936 — the heyday of the diorama — and that year “members day” fell on the museum’s most momentous occasion: the ribbon cutting for the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

For taxidermists and curators alike, African Hall represents taxidermy’s highest merger of science, art, technology, and institutional support. Carl Akeley, the taxidermist whose dream it was to build the hall, was also a hunter-naturalist, whose adventures in Africa had made him an American legend. For young David, whose parents hadn’t begun to use manikins yet, African Hall — with its startling dioramas and eight trumpeting elephants — was the taxidermic equivalent of shooting a rocket to the moon. The taxidermists who had worked on the exhibits had actually gone to Africa to collect the flora and fauna, which they painstakingly preserved over twenty-five years. David rode home from the opening dazed. “What we did wasn’t like that,” he says. He began dreaming about becoming a big-game taxidermist, just as other boys dreamt about becoming Babe Ruth. A while later, a local butcher gave him a calf head so that he could pretend to be Carl Akeley. But when he pulled the head out of the burlap sack, it had been bisected and was rotting. David dug a hole and buried it. He also buried the museum taxidermy idea.

During World War II, David joined the Marines, and from 1943 to 1946 he was stationed in Guam. “Should I tell her what I did?” he asks Bruce. “Big, bad Marine!” Bruce chides. While other soldiers admired pinups, David watched butterflies. He wanted to preserve a few spectacular species, so his parents sent him his collapsible butterfly net and cyanide killing jar. But when they arrived, David was too embarrassed to run around the military base waving the butterfly net.

After the war, when he got married, his wife said she hoped he didn’t expect her to do what his mother did. He didn’t. “Most men wouldn’t do what my mother did,” he says: skin a bear with a single-edge razor blade; shoot blue jays from the kitchen window; wade into ponds in a long dress and chest waders to collect geese that she was raising and selling; chip ice off the roof of her log cabin at age ninety-one; use her skinning knife to stab an apple slice after the knife had been in arsenic and minimally wiped off on her apron. The Schwendemans credit her longevity to arsenic exposure: they say she stored it in her fatty tissues and reabsorbed it as she aged. When they told me this, I shot Bruce a sidelong glance, and he said defensively, “Arsenic is an overrated poison!” by which he meant that people who are not taxidermists tend to view arsenic myopically: nothing more than a deadly carcinogen.

Taxidermists typically overcompensate when defending their maligned profession, but arsenic as elixir was exceptionally suspect — at least to me. To Pat Morris, a retired University College London zoologist and taxidermy historian, it had some merit. In 1982, he compared the life spans of thirty-two nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century taxidermists with their civilian counterparts. The taxidermists outlived the civilians by forty-two years. According to Morris, the average taxidermist in 1901 lived to 76.4, whereas the average male lived to be 34. The alleged reason: metabolized arsenic. Also, as Morris surmises, job fulfillment. The Schwendemans, who resist change, used arsenic until the mid-1980s.

One day in the late 1940s, a local taxidermist showed up at the workshop with a bag of pheasants and grouse. Arthur mounted the birds in Milltown, and the taxidermist brought them to the AMNH, which hired Arthur to preserve study skins for its ornithological collections. Soon Arthur and David were delivering batches of birds to Seventy-ninth Street and Central Park West every month. “Just like we do now,” Bruce says.

On one delivery trip, the head of exhibitions offered David a summer job. Work was generally slow in the workshop during the summer, and his parents said they could manage, so he took the job. He went “up there” for two months, and he stayed for twenty-eight years.

It was 1959, “the beginning of the end” of the old-style natural history museum. Back then, displays were permanent, mostly dark galleries of dioramas, not the blockbuster traveling exhibits popularized during David’s lifetime. Dioramas are perhaps the most laborious form of exhibition design, and therefore they cost millions of dollars to make. In the 1950s, museums had to compete with new sensations such as television and air travel for the public’s attention. When David showed up at the AMNH, the major halls were undergoing renovation, and only two taxidermists remained on staff. They were making artificial plants. One of them greeted David by saying, “Quit while you’re ahead! Taxidermy’s lousy.” David changed out of his commuting clothes (a suit and tie), put on his khaki uniform, and got busy preserving study skins. “It was the heyday of ‘quality comes first,'” Bruce recalls. Up there, David quickly learned the difference between a commercial taxidermist’s trophy and a museum taxidermist’s scientific specimen. A trophy is a generalized depiction (it could be any zebra), whereas a museum specimen is a specific individual (that zebra). A commercial taxidermist must work quickly to turn a profit; a museum taxidermist must bring the latest phylogenetic information to life and receives all the time and scientific data he needs to achieve his goal. A museum taxidermist must know how to mount the rarest and most exotic species — even extinct prehistoric creatures. He has to “relax” (soften and rehydrate) one-hundred-year-old study skins and articulate intricate skeletons. A museum taxidermist’s mounts must last indefinitely and will be seen by millions of people.

David relished every moment of every job. Mostly he loved the stimulating atmosphere. Up there, he met famous scientists and artists whose fidelity to nature was even more extreme than his own. One of those people was the landscape artist James Perry Wilson, who worked at the museum from 1934 to 1957 but never stopped visiting it after he retired. Wilson was a Columbia University–trained architect, an amateur meteorologist, and a self-taught artist who painted thirty-eight diorama backgrounds at the AMNH. He was so talented that people at the museum said that he could paint atmosphere. “He could paint the feeling of the temperature of a hot climate,” says David. One day David experienced Wilson’s exactitude. David was installing bobolinks (small, sparrowlike birds) in a diorama when Wilson showed up to have a look. The diorama depicted the birds migrating south through a night sky illuminated by a crescent moon. Wilson asked about three things: the locality, the time of year, and the direction of migration. The diorama artists told him the birds migrated east of the Great Plains and wintered in South America. Wilson thundered, “Well, the crescent is facing the wrong way! It should be reversed!” They reversed the crescent.

At the museum, David got to open all the doors of the most amazing cabinet of curiosities in the world. He got to visit the museum’s gargantuan freezer (“As big as this whole building!”) to select, for instance, penguin skins from the quarry collected on one of Robert E. Peary’s polar expeditions. While inside, he’d steal a glance at the huge stacks of folded elephant skins and the full-mounted tigers and pandas. Soon he befriended the collections manager of ornithology, who let him select his own skins from the vast storerooms filled with more than a million preserved birds.

His primary pleasure, however, was learning how a diorama is made. Dioramas are three-dimensional time capsules of vanishing landscapes. Like meticulous stage sets, they simulate reality with dreamlike precision. Dioramas depict places in the world that are no longer as beautiful or as “natural” as they used to be. From 1890 to 1940, dioramas were the primary way American museums educated the public about the ecological interdependence of species and their habitats. The AMNH’s dioramas were (and still are) considered the most magnificent in the world, and David has repaired and restored them all.

His favorite diorama is the Yosemite Valley Group in the Hall of North American Mammals. It’s not the coyotes or the Anna’s hummingbird that draws him to it, but the background painting of the meandering Merced River as it flows through Bridal Veil Meadow on a bright June morning. The river winds down from glacial mountains and forms a clear pool in a landscape of azaleas, rhododendrons, and mariposa lilies. Wilson painted it in 1946 after he spent two days in Yosemite searching for the perfect spot. “By God, it looks like if you walked in there, you’d get wet!” David exclaims. “I mean, you can see through it! You can see the bottom! The effect is so fantastic!”

The first diorama David worked on was the Japan Bird Group in the Hall of Birds of the World. One day he described the process for me. As taxidermist, David was an integral part of the exhibition team, which included a background painter, a foreground artist, and an ornithologist who oversaw the scientific accuracy of the display, selected the species, and approved the final mounts. Most of the work took place directly inside the diorama shell, as they installed the exhibit from the curved back wall to the front window.

While the background artist painted the scenic backdrop (using a grid system devised by Wilson for translating two-dimensional studies and photographs onto rounded contours), David was up in the fifth-floor studios animating pheasants and sparrows in a way that brought the ornithologist’s vision to life. After the background was painted, the foreground artist added layers of wire, burlap, and plaster to mimic the surface of the land. As the artist carefully put his mosses, grasses, and shrubs on top of his topographical stage set, David installed his birds in batches, as specified by the ornithologist. Finally, after everything, including the intricate lighting, was adjusted to suggest sun and shadow, the case was tightly sealed with a thick plate-glass window, tempered to reduce glare. “It was a beautiful exhibit, a beautiful diorama,” he says.

Museums often credit their patrons, scientists, curators, and artists by posting their names in their grand galleries. For the Japan Bird Group, the museum listed, among others, the background painter, the foreground artist, the person who collected the birds — everyone, it seemed, except David. “They didn’t have my name! You know, the taxidermist!” he says. “And you look at the damn thing — I’m sorry — and you look at the diorama, and you see the birds. Who cares about what kind of moss they have? . . . I complained to the birdman — the ornithologist, who I worked with more closely than anyone else, . . . and after a while, they did change it and put my name on the group.”

While David was telling me this, Bruce flushed, then said, “Can I interject? This points to a couple of things. One is that the taxidermist was overlooked. They did admire his expertise, but he wasn’t the scientist, and he wasn’t asked to go on the collecting expedition, and his name was often left off of the diorama. And yet the birds were the stars of the show!”

Other bird groups followed, including the Chilkat River Bald Eagle Group in the Hall of North American Birds. David had to create the illusion that the eagles were soaring down into the river to catch salmon. To capture the drama of eagles in flight, he devised a method for inserting threadlike steel wires into their pinion feathers, so the birds would appear to be resisting the wind.

In the late 1960s, he worked on the first renovation of what is now called the Millstein Hall of Ocean Life. When the hall first opened in 1933, its dioramas depicted the fragile marine habitats of walruses, elephant seals, and other large mammals hunted to near extinction for their fur, their environments decimated by the petroleum industry. In 1969, the museum gutted the hall, replacing its original seventy-six-foot great blue whale model (designed in 1908 by the legendary paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews) with the ninety-four-foot fiberglass model that dominates the hall today. David made the replacement whale’s huge fake eye. Mostly, however, he recast plaster fish in lightweight fiberglass so they’d be able to hang from a boom. (Taxidermists don’t use actual skin for fish mounts anymore, because the skins curl, ooze grease, and ruin the paintings.) By the early 1980s, David’s taxidermy jobs at the museum had dwindled, and he was mostly restoring faded old mounts. For the Hall of Biology of Birds, he had to revive five hundred birds preserved in the 1930s. The heron’s wings had snapped, the Andean condor had shriveled, and ultraviolet light had discolored the crimson breast of the trogon and turned the pink flamingo white. “Capturing the iridescence of the colors with paint is the most difficult part of the work,” he said at the time in the employee newsletter. Other jobs followed: tail extensions for Carl Akeley’s elephants; feather cloaks for the Hall of Pacific Peoples; and gardens and gardens of artificial plants. When he retired in 1987, his colleagues threw him a big party and baked him a cake in the shape of a muskox. “And they did a nice job on it, too!” says Bruce.

After he retired, David put on a denim apron and joined Bruce in the family workshop, mounting specimens for the AMNH, which no longer had a taxidermist on staff. In 2002, they preserved cormorants and a sea otter for the second renovation of the Hall of Ocean Life. Bruce had to implant 120 monofilament whiskers into the sea otter by hand, something he calls “a cold-sweat job.” They also preserved the laughing gulls in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. The gulls sway above the maniraptor case like a fantastic mobile. If you walked into the hall and gazed up at them, as I have done many times, you’d realize that taxidermy is indeed magical. When the birds arrived in Milltown, they were frozen and bloody; missing feathers, feet, and eyes; and marred with bullet holes (airports shoot down nuisance birds before they fly into airborne planes and cause crashes).

In 1995, Bruce mounted forty West African mammals and birds for the Hall of Biodiversity, a new-style diorama that takes you through an African rain forest. Some of the primate skins were one hundred years old and arrived at the shop without reference. “Reference” is the scientific data taxidermists use to make their replicas. It can be photographs, skeletons, diagrams, even DNA sequencing, anything that helps them sculpt forms that support the biological narrative. Every detail of the animal’s anatomy must be convincing in order to pull off the trick: a jaguar’s whiskers can purr or roar; a hunting dog’s perked ears can sense danger or sniff prey. Taxidermists call this “translating reference.” They translate reference all the time. Without a skeleton, however, they have to improvise. When taxidermists improvise, they often turn to the natural world. David walked over to his garden, clicked open his jackknife, and chopped down bamboo stalks of varying lengths and widths to mimic primate femurs and tibias. Then father and son sat side by side and made skeletons out of homegrown bamboo.

At first I just liked to hang around Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio and listen to David and Bruce banter back and forth. Then I started to notice that each time I visited, they were working on a different species that required an entirely new set of skills and anatomical knowledge. During these visits, I began to realize that these two taxidermists, often stereotyped as “animal killers,” were teaching me to see the infinite variation in all living things. I figured that if I hung around the Schwendemans long enough, maybe they’d open up to me, and eventually they did.

Soon it was evident that taxidermy was a thriving subculture that extended far beyond Main Street. Some 100,000 taxidermists, mostly commercial practitioners, exist, and they come alive in Taxidermy Today, Breakthrough, and other trade magazines. I wanted to meet them. I wanted to find out if they shared the Schwendemans’ extraordinary skills and fascinations. So in April 2003, I left Milltown and the cloistered world of these taxidermologists, with their eagle dissections and stories of Mum-Mum the skinner, and booked a room at the Crowne Plaza in Springfield, Illinois, where taxidermists across the globe were gathering to strut their stuff as celebrated animal artists.

Author Melissa Milgrom poses with her mounted gray squirrel at the World Taxidermy Championships. This mount was the subject of the final two chapters of her book, “Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy”Photo courtesy Breakthrough Magazine.

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