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Video: Assembling “The Chase”

As I walked down the connecting hall from the Embassy Suites Hotel to the St. Charles Convention Center on Tuesday evening, May 3, 2011, something in my peripheral vision caught my eye. Even though scores of old friends and colleagues were milling about in the pre-function areas, an extraordinary vision was pulling my attention away from the people around me. As I turned my head and looked over, it took a moment for my brain to register exactly what I was looking at. At first glance, from across the hall and behind a crowd of people obscuring the base, it looked like a pack of flying wolves. “Whaaat?” I briefly thought to myself, but I was quickly caught up in shaking hands and greeting old friends in the crowd. Closer inspection of this perplexing sight would have to wait.

When I finally did get a chance to walk over to examine this piece, the grand scope became even more apparent. A lifesize moose in full gallop running down a snow covered hill was being pursued by wolves, leaping and snapping at his heels. The outcome of this struggle was not guaranteed, as the moose was throwing one of the wolves with his antlers, and a wolf in the front appeared to have already been thrown entirely off the habitat base! “Whaaat?” As if to add to the surreal blending of art versus naturalism versus display, there was a wolf in the rear, desperately climbing up the wooden base to rejoin his brothers on the habitat, complete with scratches in the wood as he tried to claw his way back into the World Taxidermy Championships entry. “Whaaat?” I thought, as my brain tried to wrap itself around this conundrum.

It was then that I realized this entry was pure genius. Not only was it a compelling piece of art, it had drama, it had humor, and it had levels of meaning which transcended the very nature of taxidermy displays. It displayed beautiful line, form, composition, movement, color, texture, negative and positive space, dynamics, subtlety, as well as world-class taxidermy skill. And it engaged me as a viewer.

This is what great art does. It challenges the viewer. It makes the viewer think. It makes the viewer see things in ways that he has never considered before. Great art engages its audience. “The Chase”, the Collective Artists Division entry from The Artistry of Wildlife in Sanduski, Michigan, certainly accomplished all of those things.

Artistry of Wildlife owner Dennis “Air” Harris is a pioneer in dynamic taxidermy displays. His mounts defy both gravity and engineering logic. He is known for invisibly supporting large animals with impossibly small attachments as he chronicles the drama of the complex interspecies ballet of life and death, prey and predator. If Dennis brings a piece to a convention, it is a show-stopper; 2011 was no exception. “The Chase” was a culmination of everything that Dennis had learned with dozens of previous impressive “air” taxidermy entries.

“The Chase” actually was displayed in the exact same location as The Artistry of Wildlife’s 2009 WTC entry featuring a zebra and lioness. The lioness was supported entirely by a tiny attachment point hidden in the middle of her tail and the front tibia of the zebra. From many angles, you couldn’t see any attachment point at all, making the lion appear to be floating in the air. I remember being drawn to that piece over and over. During the week of the World Show, I must have walked past the zebra dozens of times. Each time I walked by it, I was compelled to stop and look again. As with any great art piece, the more I studied it, the more I saw, and the more I was impressed.

The lion and zebra went on to win the Best in World Collective Artists title for the 2009 show and gave Dennis his first World Champion title. This piece also won the Second Place Carl E. Akeley Award, for the most outstanding entry that demonstrated taxidermy is indeed art. And, in perhaps the greatest honor of all, it was featured on the cover of Breakthrough Magazine issue 94.

Dennis had high hopes for repeating his World Champion win, as he and his studio concentrated on making “The Chase” as technically accurate as it was artistic, trying to surpass the quality of work of their previous entries. They achieved their goal, as the moose and wolves scored an impressive 97 points, which was a new record score for such a complex mount. But great work does not always guarantee great results in head-to-head competitions. World Title classes are single ribbon competitions, where sometimes excellent pieces are edged out for the top honors.

Dennis later said that he knew that he would not be repeating his World Champion title as soon as he saw Zimmerman Wildlife Studio’s Gobi Argali sheep which was also in the mammal category. Only one entry in the category would receive a blue ribbon for Collective Artists Lifesize Mammals. Dennis thought the sheep taxidermy was as clean and perfect as he had ever seen at a competition, and the judges agreed. Matt, Ken and Winston Zimmerman of Martinsburg, Pennsylvania were the 2011 winners of the Best in World Collective Artists award. Artistry of Wildlife came in a close second with “The Chase” (and they also came in a close third with a bongo mount). Either piece would have easily qualified for a Best in World title had the Gobi Argali sheep not been in the running.

On Friday afternoon as Larry Blomquist was preparing for the awards banquet presentation, his disappointment at “The Chase” not receiving a major award was noticeable. Larry has a steadfast rule against influencing judges’ decisions. In 20 years he has never asked a judge to change his score, or used his influence to alter the outcome of a World Show.

Larry is also the owner of the World Taxidermy Championships® as well as the Chairman of the show. “The Chase” inspired him to create an entirely new award, one that he had been thinking about for many years, but it only needed a final push to bring it to fruition. The moose and wolves provided the push that he needed, so he decided right then that “The Chase” would receive the very first “Chairman’s Award” for an outstanding piece with a dynamic impact upon all who attend the show, while exhibiting the qualities of world-class taxidermy, yet does not win a major award. “In other words,” Larry said, “A show-stopper!” The choice would be Larry’s decision alone.

The first Chairman’s Award was presented by Larry and Kathy Blomquist at the Friday night awards banquet to a packed house. Dennis was stunned as he walked to the stage to accept this unexpected award to thunderous applause from his peers.

Recently, I was looking through the thousands of photos that show photographer Glen Browning has taken at the 2011 World Taxidermy Championships, when I discovered that Glen had chronicled the complete assembly of “The Chase” as is was installed. I had never seen the installation process, and I found it fascinating as I looked through these photos, most of which had never been published or seen by anyone other than the Breakthrough staff.

I thought that this sequence of photos would make a good slide show, so I recorded some original music and edited the photos (Ken Burns style) into a short video segment that shows a dozen volunteers assisting Dennis Harris and crew to put this giant piece together. I hope you will find it interesting as well.

The Collective Artists Division at the World Show was introduced in 1997 and has quickly become one of the most anticipated divisions to see. The process of artistic collaboration gives birth to some spectacular creative pieces. These entries are displayed in the hall outside of the competition room, so they can be viewed at participants’ leisure, even when the competition area is closed for judging. The Collective Artists Division judges for the 2013 WTC will be Bill Brandenburg of Michigan, Jeff Mourning of Colorado, and Marcus Zimmerman of Pennsylvania.

Last year, The Artistsy of Wildlife again made history at the 2012 ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Out of 1,500 art entries chosen to compete in the largest cash prize art contest in the nation, “The Chase” was displayed in the lobby of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum for weeks, as over 200,000 people viewed the artworks and voted on their favorites. “The Chase” had a huge following and fan base, some local controversy, and ended up coming in sixth place from a field of 1,500 juried works of art.

Here are some photos of that installation: http://www.taxidermy.net/forum/index.php/topic,316621.0.html

Here is the ArtPrize page about “The Chase” including a gallery of photos and some videos from the World Show and an interview with Dennis Harris in his studio:
http://www.artprize.org/artistry-of-wildlife/2012/the-chase

The Artistry of Wildlife team members who produced “The Chase” are Dennis Harris, Andrew Harris, Joseph Miles, Jamie Outman and Paul Thompson.

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