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Knowledge + Competitions = National Standards

Discussion in 'The Taxidermy Industry' started by Joe Kish, Aug 5, 2013.

  1. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member

    Way back in 1975 I discovered by chance that there was a brand new taxidermy association calling itself the National Taxidermists Association. Being a professional taxidermist and with no alternative association around, I soon joined up that year and attended it’s 3rd annual convention at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. While there I soon realized that I was in the right church but the wrong pew as I made three observations that stuck with me after I returned home. One was a well attended demonstration of how to stuff a squirrel skin with sawdust, then shape it from the outside. I didn’t bother attending the class because the excelsior wrapping method was superior and I didn’t think I would learn anything of value there. I also wondered if perhaps the instructor was putting people on by demonstrating an inferior and archaic method. That the class was crowded with enthusiasts however, spoke volumes to me.

    Another observation I made was of four or five exhibit boards where participants could hang their mounts just for show which I mistook to be a competition of sorts. When I inquired if it was indeed a competition, I kept getting puzzling responses until I spoke with someone in authority who made it clear “we won‘t go there.” As for the mounts hanging on those boards, anyone could see right off that those who mounted them never had any actual lessons or real coaching from someone of experience or skill. And thirdly, after I saw what was passing as taxidermy supplies in the commercial booths, I thanked my lucky stars that there was a Jonas Brothers Supply Company and a Robert J. Smith glass eye company on planet earth.

    Nevertheless, everyone was feverishly interested in all the goings on there, as keenly interested in taxidermy as I was. When one fellow in particular learned that I was working at the Denver Museum he must have presumed I knew more about taxidermy than he did (way more) and so began asking me lots of questions on how to do just about everything. Since he was singing my song I was more than happy to oblige with answers because I remembered my own young days of searing interest when no taxidermist would give me the time of day. During our conversation I began noticing that there was a crowd slowly gathering around us listening in on what I was saying as intently as a red fox listens for the sound of a vole under eight inches of snow. Our conversation slowly evolved into a mini lecture as I went on about methods and materials and plenty of other stuff which I later realized was way over their heads. One could clearly see these people were starving for information.

    At the time only Charley Haynes seemed to notice that there was a market for information and classroom demonstrations. It just wasn’t readily available to the average guy. That was back when the only two taxidermy magazines around were Joe Bruchac’s Modern Taxidermist and Tim Kelly’s American Taxidermist. Being familiar with both magazines myself, I understood why there was such a hunger for knowledge on the subject. Their circulation was too low to have any affect at all. To me Modern Taxidermist was little more than a continuous recycling of Leon Pray’s cartoons and material from the ’40’s and ’50’s and American Taxidermist didn’t have enough contributors of real expertise to do more than scratch the surface of what there was to know

    Having a proprietary interest in taxidermy myself, I understood that we experienced taxidermists had something of a duty to pass on what we knew to the next generation so they could carry forward the art and industry to the benefit of ourselves and those we were working for. And to me the NTA had the perfect forum to do just that. I also believed that an actual taxidermy competition could be a strong inducement to encourage eager beavers like I met at Bucknell to come to an NTA convention to learn up to date how-to methods.

    Recognition being the strongest craving of the human soul I was confident that if you offer it, they will come. After all, having your peers judge your work superior, was and still is a real ego booster and downright good for business. And those who didn’t place in a competition would still be able to see better work than their own, perhaps get a judge’s critique and have at least some standard to judge good work by, besides opinion, or by the work in museums which nobody ever seemed to have visited back then anyway. Museum taxidermists had always been regarded as masters of taxidermy but for various reasons they didn’t interact much with the commercial field. The museum guys had the prestige but the commercial men were making the dough.

    And I thought if participants attended a convention only for the competition it would be still be ideal for them to be able to attend classes to fill the time while the competition was being judged. The more I thought on it the more the competition idea seemed like a natural to me and the more I pondered it the more confident I became that I was on to something. So I mulled it over several times with my local NTA board member Onno Van Veen, the supply manager for Jonas Brothers Supply company at the time. I asked him to bring it up with the NTA board which he subsequently did by canvassing them by phone. I would have had better luck talking to PETA.

    Speaking for the whole board, Onno made it clear their unanimous opinion was that taxidermy was an art, and on that subject everyone had his own opinion on what is good or bad “art.” No two were ever going to agree no matter who judges the work. (emphasis on ‘ever’ as in not ever.) That’s just human nature he said. He even mentioned that one of the board members said he could guarantee that a competition would result in actual fist fights between the judges and losers. That wasn’t the real reason they were unanimously against the idea but that was their story and they were sticking to it.

    So I asked Onno to make an official inquiry in writing with the board, to study the question formally and if they were going to reject it, I would at least know exactly why. Naturally I volunteered to chair a committee and do all the leg work myself. I don’t know why I thought NTA board members whom I didn’t know personally were spokesmen for the whole industry, but their organization was the only logical one to host such an event at the time. Bob Davis was the president then and he wrote back and told us, quote: “The NTA doesn’t need that kind of a problem.” I was stunned. But I was not dissuaded. Their short answer reinforced my growing suspicion which was just dawning on me that any definitive attention drawn to excellence in taxidermy mounts would be a direct reflection on the quality or lack thereof of the forms and other supplies used to mount them. The majority of NTA board members just happened to be suppliers and they least of all wanted attention drawn to their third rate, but nevertheless profitable forms.

    Besides Jonas Brothers, few taxidermists made their own forms in those days except large commercial shops like Frontier Taxidermy in Cheyenne and several others in Wyoming. For competitive reasons none of those larger studios sold forms except Jonas Supply. That meant that the industry at large depended heavily on NTA board member suppliers for the forms they would use in competition mounts. I happened to know the owners of Frontier personally and when I spoke with them about a competition they didn’t think much of the idea either. They left me with the impression that for business reasons it was just too risky to take a chance of being bested by a competitor. They were only a hundred miles from Jonas in Denver and the two were serious competitors. I suppose they figured that if they didn’t enter, they couldn’t lose. In fact almost every taxidermist in the Denver area I discussed the idea with was of a similar opinion. The very idea of a taxidermy competition rattled the whole establishment and posed a real threat to the status quo.

    About the same time I began realizing that suppliers were simply scared of losing money, especially since back then none except Jonas had the ability to sculpt new or better forms. I knew of none others who were sculptors or bothered to learn the skill, so they mostly cobbled together their lines of forms. I ultimately concluded that if suppliers couldn’t recognize a good idea staring them in the face, I could just as easily put on a competition myself and present some experienced instructors to give away all the secrets. I knew enough experts in the Denver area who knew their stuff and could be persuaded to accept an offer to teach it. And as a further inducement to come to learn and mix it up with other enthusiasts, why not throw in a competition with rules, judges and perhaps some prizes for the winners. I knew museum taxidermists who I could call on to judge a competition. Maybe suppliers might also be persuaded to donate supplies as prizes for the winners. Naturally there was a place for suppliers. (But it took some tall selling later on to get suppliers to donate forms for prizes until I offered free booth space to those with guts enough to take part.)

    So I went ahead and held the first annual Taxidermy Review Seminar and Competition in 1976. It attracted about 80+ participants. It was a smashing success. The NTA board of course, gave me no support whatever. Not so much as a letter of congratulations for doing something beneficial to the NTA’s own purpose and mission. It was like I somehow was not a member in good standing much less even a member of that organization. I think the general consensus was that I represented competition and at the very least I might dilute their potential market by half. I held a second convention the following year and attracted around 125 registrants, a 50% increase over 1976. By 1978 the NTA finally came around and held it’s first competition a couple of weeks behind the TR show in the very same hotel in Denver! You could have knocked me over with a feather. I suppose it was their way of showing me who was boss by boldly working my side of the street. But did I gloat? Maybe a smidgeon.

    The rest is history. In looking back, the most likely thing that brought the NTA board around was a clamor from the membership. I can only guess that the rank and file knew a good thing when they saw it and they wanted to play too. However, I’ve always thought another thing that brought the NTA around was having a live sculpting contest in my shows and encouraging suppliers to sponsor their own entrants so that when they won the supplier could share in the honors while offering the winning entrees in their own supply lines. They responded to it cautiously but well enough. All except Dan Chase that is. He cried foul and railed and ranted worse than a screaming spoiled brat when his guy didn’t win. But Onno Van Veen and Bert Van Dyke were smiling.

    The sculpting contest was intended as a live demonstration for budding taxidermists to watch and see exactly how a shoulder form comes into being and to encourage them to try their own hands at it. It was the perfect opportunity that brought new talent into center stage. It worked so well that the suppliers ended up discovering that there were taxidermist/sculptors out there who had the know how and could be hired. Better still, a number of sculpltor/taxidermists didn’t see any reason to work for established suppliers and soon started their own supply companies, like Mike Frazier and Forrest Hart did. Men like those two quickly became the leaders in their field and ultimately out competed the old guard who didn‘t see that train coming until it was too late even to jump on board. (Nanny, nanny, nooo, nooh!)

    In clarifying my goals and endeavors in those earlier years the main thrust of what I was hoping to accomplish was promoting the concept of national standards. Just getting the establishment to recognize that national standards was key to everything meant bucking everything from conventional wisdom to special interests. Financially it ended up being a bust for me but I managed to persevere through seven annual competitons long enough for men like Larry Bloomquist and Terry Ehrlich to pick up the ball and carry it into the end zone. I was kept motivated by the continuous moral support of regular men and women taxidermists who understood the value and wisdom of such a goal. As it turned out, I, you, me, we… accomplished that in one generation. We now have universally accepted national standards in taxidermy art. Competitions are largely responsible for that by providing the ideal incentive to do one’s very best work. So much so that we’ve stopped using the term museum quality and now call perfection in taxidermy a blue ribbon mount.

    Competitions have also become the central feature of every taxidermy convention ever since. A thing I honestly never intended. But all past arguments as to what constitutes a fine clean mount is no longer a matter of opinion. If a mount doesn’t measure up to a true to life representation of the live critter, one’s peers will invariably point it out, in or out of competition. Opinion is no longer the standard. Nature is finally, once and for all the universally recognized standard. It has always been even though it took a few years of competitions to prove the point.

    —Joe Kish
  2. Well stated Joe. Thank you for not taking "no for an answer and then pushing ahead to make the competition and convention a reality. I enjoyed meeting you at the World Show Banquet, albeit briefly, and again express my appreciation for your long standing contributions to our industry. I really appreciate the history lesson.

  3. Mr. Kish,

    I see this was your first post on Taxinet. My husband and I are brand new to taxidermy. We attended your seminar in Texas at the TTA show. I have since read 2 of the books you mentioned. History is a part of living, and living history is the best teacher. Thank you for sharing this story. As a newbie, the pains and trials that other folks learning this trade had to go through to finally "get it right", are unbelievable to me, but I'm grateful that they did. I am most proud that the standard of "nature" became the accepted interpretation. I hope you will post more "lessons" in the future.

    Randy and Brooke Beason
  4. Skywalker

    Skywalker Well-Known Member

    Good to see you on here Joe. A big thanks for all you have done and all you are going to do!
  5. grumpa

    grumpa Member

    Joe, Great to hear from you, and welcome to TNET. And thanks for everything you've done for the industry and the encouragement you gave a bunch of dummies so many years ago. Frank
  6. i didn't compete, but i am glad I attended that first competition in 1976. It changed my life!
  7. Rick Carter

    Rick Carter Administrator

    Good post, Joe. The system is still not as good as it could be but you did manage to make everybody try.
  8. fishmaster

    fishmaster Well-Known Member

    Joe, Thank you for sharing that slice of taxidermy history!
  9. James Marsico

    James Marsico Well-Known Member

    Thank you Joe for all you have done for taxidermy and for me and also so many others on a personal level.
  10. Bill Yox

    Bill Yox Well-Known Member

    " Nature is finally, once and for all the universally recognized standard. It has always been even though it took a few years of competitions to prove the point."

    Joe, I know youve never said anything controversial (lol) but I agree with this and have said the same many times. Get ready to be told youre wrong. But, I agree. Maybe now others will too.

    Welcome to the forums too.
  11. tomdes

    tomdes Me my dear and Fall BAZZ!!!

    Joe, you were a rebel with great vision and tenacity, I'm glad we have you! Thanks for the great article..
  12. LordRusty

    LordRusty If I agreed with you, we'd both be wrong.

    Agreed ... Nature should and must always be the measure by which all mounts are judged. Not because someone thinks it looks better this way or that, or be arrogant to the point they think they can improve on Nature. It is our duty to recreate Nature's gifts to the best of our ability to make them accurate representations of these gifts. Unfortunately this is not always the case, and in that regard there is a long way to go.

    Welcome, Joe. It was wonderful renewing our acquaintance ... nay, friendship, at the World Show this past April. It will be good to read your words again, mi Paisano!
  13. Kerby Ross

    Kerby Ross KSU - Class of '83; U.S. Army - Infantry (83-92)


    Joe, that was a fantastic read! Thanks and hope to hear more from you on taxi.net!


  14. antlerman

    antlerman NTA Life Member #0118

    Well, since you are a newby here, expect to get your chops filleted and your arse handed to you. So here it comes......Who do you think you are to come on here and suggest you know anything about being a taxidermist? You act like you been around for 100 years you 1 post wonder. LOL

    All in fun Joe. Thanks for a great post.
  15. Instructor

    Instructor Member

    Thank you Joe for all you have done in this industry,You are truly an Icon!
  16. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member

    First, let me say thank you to each all for your gracious and kind remarks toward myself and my article. I can read between the lines too and wish to say the respect and affection is mutual.
    Secondly, that piece was intended for publication in our state association newsletter until I discovered we don't have one after which it occurred to me that the Forum was the next logical place to run it. Ken walked me through the process, did all the posting and such and without his help I don't believe I would have figured all out myself. I'm amazed at the scope, reach and influence of this venue.

    The purpose of the article was to set a stage for subject matter I would like to address in the future. And of course, to stimulate discussion on topics of mutual interest. I understand that I am in a unique position by background and experience to stir the pot but I'm only one of many who has an equal proprietary interest in taxidermy. I don't lead the field in anything anymore,( if I ever did,) but I have an abiding interest in the future of the art and it's practitioners. Therefore, as long as there's an interest in what I wish to say, I will continue from time to time. I thank all of you who took the time to read such a long piece. My sincerest best wishes to each and all. - Joe
  17. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member

    Thank you readers.

    First I wish to say thank you to each and all for your gracious and kind words toward me and my first article. I wish to say the respect and affection you've shown me is mutual.

    This piece was written and intended for the Texas state association (TTAI) news magazine until I discovered such publication is infrequent to the point of non-existence. As an alternative, I thought of the Forum and contacted Ken who hooked me up and posted it for me. I appreciate that because I'm totally unfamiliar with the mechanics of this routine. If the article provoked some thought it was worth the effort. If it was also informative or entertaining, all the better. I have more I wish to say on various topics of interest and will post more by and by provided I get the hang of how it's done.

    Although I'm not active in the taxidermy scene as I once was, I still have a proprietary interest in the art and industry as keen as always. I also wish to say that I'm quite impressed at the scope and reach of this venue. I personally never imagined such a clearing house of information. I thank all of you who took the time to read my long winded piece, but won't promise that any future ones will be much shorter. Thanks again for the wonderful comments. I'm still laughing over the funny ones!
    best wishes, Joe
  18. Over the years I have had the pleasure of talking with Mr. Joe at many shows. Never have I walked away without learning something or at lot of something from him.

    I can't wait for him to stir the pot!!! I think we all will learn a lot.

    Talked with Mr. Joe for a good long while at the Texas Show this year, went to most of his seminar and all I can say is he still knows more about taxidermy than the rest of us may ever know!
  19. wildart

    wildart New Member

    welcome and very well said joe. without competitions and conventions we would still be working in the back room with a no admittance sign on the door. there's still a few of us that remember the old days, and welcome the new ; ;D. thanks again bob

    TIMBUCK Active Member

    And a legend> Thank you for taking the time to post and for taking the time to share you knowledge and experience with me whenever I see you at the Texas shows.