Chris Barnhardt, American Original

Last month there was a unique and touching service in central North Carolina, that looked like it might have taken place in the 1800’s. When hundreds of mourners showed up at Chris Barnhardt’s taxidermy shop in Concord, North Carolina on January 26 to pay their final respects, many had traveled hundreds of miles. Some had arrived the day before when they found out the weather on Saturday would not be good for driving. Friends and colleagues from neighboring states felt compelled to attend in order to be a part of Chris’ funeral.

As a tribute, or maybe out of courtesy, many of the visitors were wearing brand new overalls, as it seemed that Chris wore nothing else. When his simple barnboard casket was slowly carried by horse-drawn wagon from his shop to his final resting place, the wheels rolled past outbuildings decorated by Chris to recreate storefronts of an old town main street. The mourners followed to his graveside service beside a pond in back of his property, and said their final goodbyes.

Chris wouldn’t have believed the huge turnout, as he was humble to a fault. His humility never allowed him to quite grasp the full impact he had on his friends through the years. Everyone liked Chris. Everyone admired Chris. He was talented without ego, and generous without expectation. Chris would do anything for any of his friends without the slightest thought of receiving something in return.

When word of Chris’s sudden death hit the taxidermy industry on January 22, the wave of shock flowed across the nation like a tsunami. Friends attending the SCI show in Nevada were numb when they heard the news. His death became the main focus of all conversation. Chris was such a good guy. 45 is way too young. He was multi-talented on so many levels. He was a great artist. The cyber network of taxidermists weighed in with their disbelief in Forum postings.

Chris Barnhardt was never afraid of hard work. By the time he was a teenager, he was already an experienced stonemason and brickmason. But he realized that for his long-term future, he needed a career that produced less wear and tear on his body. Chris loved the outdoors, hunting and fishing, and he had a unfulfilled artistic flair that needed to be released, so at age 23, he enrolled in Montgomery Community College to learn taxidermy. The instructor at the time was Mike Gillis, who before coming to work for McKenzie, taught the taxidermy curriculum there for seven years.

Chris made an immediate impression on Mike, who taught many forgettable students through the years. Mike noticed that the majority of students seemed to be just marking time, and only a tiny percentage ever went on to have a career in taxidermy. But Chris was different. Mike said, “From the beginning, Chris was very talented. He was never late, never missed class, and really had an enthusiasm for learning taxidermy. He thought it was fun and he loved it.” After graduating, Chris and Mike kept in close contact, and became lifelong friends.

Chris Barnhardt became close friends with his first taxidermy instructor, Mike Gillis. In this photo from the 1990’s, Mike presents Chris with the first ever Roger Martin Mammal Award ever given at the North Carolina Taxidermy Association.

Once out of school, Chris initially worked at McKenzie in the target production department for a while. When Dennis Smith offered him a chance to work in a real taxidermy shop, he worked there for a couple of years before leaving to open his own studio.

This swimming otter mount by Chris Barnhardt from the 1990’s showed his flair for artistry and drama.

In 1999, Roger Martin hired Chris to help him with sculpting and product development at Martin Industries. Here Chris was introduced to the mechanics of moldmaking, sculpting, and got the incredible chance to collaborate with one of the most gifted taxidermy artists of our time. With Roger as his mentor, Chris’ creativity flourished and his technical knowledge increased by leaps and bounds. In 2001, Martin Industries was sold to McKenzie and Chris became a McKenzie employee again. Until 2004, Chris would help Roger write articles for magazines, develop new products, sculpt new mannikins and create beautiful taxidermy work.

Chris Barnhardt in the McKenzie studio.

After working with Chris on a daily basis for five years, Roger Martin had a unique insight into the character of Chris. Roger made the following statement:

“Chris Barnhardt was a man from days gone by, from a time when a man’s word meant something and a friend was a friend through thick and thin. Chris was a humble man of great talents. Chris was a teacher and a student, freely giving of himself yet willing to listen to the ideas of others thus adding to his own wealth of knowledge. Chris was proud of his children and loved his wife Cindy, who he often described as the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Roger continued, “I will always have fond memories of the years Chris and I worked together. He was a hard worker striving for excellence. We were always looking for a better way. We collaborated on many projects through the years and it was always fun, it never felt like work. Chris loved the outdoors and all its creatures. He dedicated his life to recreating them with paint, pencil, taxidermy and sculpture. Chris made significant contributions to the taxidermy industry and will truly be missed.”

Bushbuck and wallaby customer mounts from Chris Barnhardt’s studio.

Lifesize sable mount by Chris Barnhardt.

Chris had a knack for anything artistic, including flat art. Mike Gillis told a story about describing the location of his first bear hunt in Maine to Chris one day. Mike was so inspired by the habitat, which was unlike anything that he had ever seen before, that he described in detail how the stand overlooked a beautiful beaver pond surrounded by mountains in a forest, to try to give Chris a sense of the visual aspect of the experience. It must’ve worked, because a week later, much to Mike’s surprise, Chris showed up at Mike’s house with a finished painting of the exact scene that Mike has described to him. To this day, that painting of Mike’s Maine bear hunt habitat is one of his most prized possessions.

An innovative artist, Chris was always willing to experiment with new techniques. Once Chris took a piece of sheet copper and painted it black. Then he used a needle tool to scratch off the highlights to create an etched image of a giraffe family. Mike was so impressed with the results and made such a fuss over it that Chris gave Mike the giraffe etching for his next birthday.

Mike Gillis was a collector of Chris Barnhardt’s flat art as well. He bought these paintings at NCTA auctions or received them as birthday presents from Chris through the years.

Every year Chris would create a new painting for the North Carolina Taxidermy Association to auction off at their annual convention. Mike Gillis would always try to outbid others for a chance to add to his collection of Chris Barnhardt artwork.

Chris won the National Champion Gamehead title with this blue wildebeest in 2001.

In 2001, Chris made his name on the national stage with his first major award win. This blue wildebeest pedestal mount on a warthog skull won the National Champion Gamehead title at the NTA convention in Columbia, Missouri. Chris also entered it in the Professional Division at the 2001 World Taxidermy Championships® where it won a first place ribbon.

In 2005, Chris Barnhardt won the WASCO Award at Piedmont with this zebra colt. It also placed 2nd in the Master Division of the World Show that year.

In 2005, Chris Barnhardt won the WASCO Award at Piedmont with this zebra colt. It also placed 2nd in the Master Division of the World Show that year.

This black wildebeest won Chris the coveted North American Champion Gamehead title at the National Show in 2007.

In 2007, Chris took this black wildebeest to the National Taxidermists Association convention in Louisville, Kentucky, where he won the coveted North American Champion Gamehead award.

This coyote mount was awarded the National Champion Small Mammal award at the 2008 NTA Show.

This “chillin'” coyote mount on an original mannikin was awarded the National Champion Small Mammal award at the 2008 National Taxidermists Association Show.

Chris’ 2009 entry in the World Taxidermy Championships® Master Division.

In 2009, Chris competed with this beautiful zebra mount at the World Taxidermy Championships® in St. Charles, Missouri. In the tough single ribbon Master Division competition, this piece was awarded 2nd place.

Chris was a complex man. Besides being a Master Taxidermist, he was also a sculptor and painter with pieces on display at the Smithsonian Institute and Bank of America Stadium. His strong faith was evident in his many sculptural art pieces. He was a world traveler and especially loved Africa. He enjoyed playing the banjo and farming, having recently bought a new tractor. He loved creating things with his hands, but lately the increasing pain of arthritis had begun to take its toll on the hands that he relied upon.

Chris is survived by his wife, Cynthia Christina Whitley Barnhardt; son, Joshua Barnhardt and wife, Anna Harris Barnhardt; daughters, Samantha Shue and husband, Brandan, Kristina Mae Barnhardt, and Kendyl Jane Barnhardt; grandchildren, Michael Reily and Sophia Jane; mother, Betty Jane Cook Barnhardt; sisters, Beverly Miller, Kimberly Wilder, of Florida, and Debra Barnhardt; and many nieces, nephews and good friends.

This winter has been especially bleak for losses in the taxidermy industry. So many of our brightest stars and most talented and selfless individuals have been taken from our midst. As we attempt to derive meaning or purpose from life’s devastating tragedies, we try to make sense of the senseless. It can be overwhelming. At the end of the day there is one quote from Mike Gillis that we can all agree upon: “Chris was a good guy, and a lot of people are going to miss him.”

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