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Sell The Sizzle, Not The Steak – First Impressions

Discussion in 'The Taxidermy Industry' started by Joe Kish, Dec 17, 2018.

  1. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member

    My forum post of August 18, Fads and Trends wherein I mused about the arch attributes of truth and beauty and how often or not they appear in top competition winning mounts, is steadily closing in on 5,000 views with 81 responses. That says that competitions are still the topic of overwhelming interest on this forum. Therefore I’d like to address the topic of competitions once more, make a few observations and offer a different wrinkle on how I think a competitor could boost the chances of wooing a judge in one’s favor.

    Responding to that post on Sept. 11, Georg Roof wrote an astute observation, “…know that much of taxidermy today depends on novelty in some sort of way.” (Emphasis added.) Novelty can catch a judge’s eye and even make a strong positive first impression. A good first impression puts any viewer’s mind in the competitor’s corner. Originality can also reinforce a good first impression even though it’s getting harder by the year to be original since just about everything has been done before. However those exceptional pieces that do exhibit a degree of novelty and originality become memorable, like the works of one of the best trend setters ever to participate in competitions, Bob Berry. Bob was the third person to be honored with Breakthrough Magazine’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 and the innovator of the Fish Carving Championships at the WTC. Ever the one to push the envelope, Bob took top place with a pair of sculpted and cast porpoises in the large mammal category in a TR competition in the late 1970s. Despite some grumbling from a few that his entry was hairless and not even skin mounts, there was no rule that mandated an entry could not be a reproduction. Bob followed that with his thinking-out-of-the-box ASOB Bird Challenge, thoroughly revisited here in previous posts.

    Action, mostly active not passive, is another factor even when it’s unnecessary or ambiguously designed in just to attempt to be novel. Nor is there anything novel in portraying large mammals, like predators and sheep in the act of traveling steep, steeper or steepest up or downhill just to create action for action’s sake. Such poses are no longer original, they’re actually quite passe. As a former judge, action on gameheads is a tough sell.

    Since novelty and originality are design factors, perhaps they could be added to the criteria on scorecards as bonus points with a value of one or two points max. A bonus point when warranted would rescue borderline blue ribbon mounts which are otherwise not quite flawless on some technical point like anatomy, symmetry, etc., but which nevertheless merit recognition for genuine overall artistic appeal. Any more than two points might be a little too contentious among those who otherwise scored not quite well enough but didn’t get any bonus points. Besides, minor technical flaws which result in a loss of a point here and there are mostly unnoticed by all but judges with flashlights, reference material galore and the mindset of a cop who says, “I don’t make the laws, I only enforce them.”

    Without discounting the value of novelty, originality and action, to win top honors one need not enter some exotic species, or perhaps portray any species in some novel way just for novelty’s sake, or in some artless gymnastic pose that doesn’t quite ring true to typical animal behavior plausibility. An entry should make a quick eye appealing first impression if one wants to catch a judge’s interest or at least win over the other contestants’ thumbs up if it is to be in the running for Best of Show or People’s Choice. And a piece has to have some universal truth as well as artistic appeal. To me, truth in competition mounts sells better than fiction.

    And that brings me to the subject of selling. Selling is pretty much at the heart of everything that pertains to human interactions, such as selling a product or service or persuading another to your point of view. If you google ‘define selling’ on the internet, one definition says – “….convince someone of the merits of, talk someone into, win someone over to, get acceptance for, win approval for,..” A competitor wants his piece to put those kind of thoughts in a judge’s mind in short order by creating a visual scene that will clearly telegraph whatever action, idea or pose that will predispose his honor favorably to maximizing the score.
    Judges and everyone else know a fine mount when they see it and I would be hard pressed to find a ‘bad’ mount in any competition today. Remember that judges are people too and can be persuaded if the merits of your entry are more compelling than any technical flaws on the specimen. But it’s the judges who get to determine which get the highest scores. And like most of us, judges are also curious and like to explore an appealing entry to find something especially good or intriguing worth pondering before the numbers start going down on scorecards. Predispose that curiosity by giving them something worth pondering.

    And that brings me to a top salesman named Elmer Wheeler. Formerly from Dallas, Wheeler popularized the maxim, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” He also made much of his fortune training other salesmen. He may even have trained the ad agency that created the early 1950’s Chevrolet TV ad on the Dinah Shore Show. I remember seeing the show opening with an ad sung by Dinah herself…

    “Seeeeeeee, thaaaa, USA, in your Chevrolet…. America is asking you to caaall… Drive your Chevrolet through the USA, America’s the greatest land of aaall!”

    The visuals faded in and out of moving scenes of the latest Chevy cars cruising along past amber fields of grain, purple mountains majesty and odd clips of landscapes. They didn’t dwell on the mechanical marvels of their V-8 engines or how plush the seats were. The lyrics mainly associated the product with the wonders of this country’s national heritage, and of course, freedom of the road. That ad helped make GM the undisputed leader in sales for the rest of the ‘50s. Even as an adolescent, those ads started me dreaming of when I would one day have my own Chevrolet and head straight for the Rocky Mountains. It was the sizzle of those moving pictures and the images they conjured up in my head plus the appeal to 1950’s patriotism that I bought into, not the steak… I mean the cars.

    Admittedly I’m no expert on sales psychology, nor am I confidant that I can perfectly describe how to put sizzle in a taxidermy themed artwork. I’m also decidedly conservative when it comes to action mounts from years of working in a museum and exposure and study of the work and histories of most of the finest taxidermists of all time. But a picture is worth a thousand words, - even a word picture. So, if I’ve made my point clear enough so far, I’d like to make some suggestions for some novel or actioned (mostly passive) themed compositions to kick around to add some subtle sizzle that might ‘sell’ a judge on kicking your piece deeper into the blue zone.

    1. Picture it. A leopard half crouched on the edge of a low embankment, head low with eyes and ears focused like lasers directly over a wart hog hole in the bank waiting to ambush a hog when it exits. The warthog’s face can be seen less than a foot inside the entrance to the hole in anticipation of exiting. Some great photographer actually filmed this which I viewed on the internet. When the warthog at last made its exit, the leopard caught it with a lightning strike as fast as a trap catches a mouse. Picture the same idea with a lynx or bobcat on a rocky ledge freezing in stride with its nose in the air as it detects the faint scent of a snowshoe hare or cotton tail hiding under the ledge. I can’t picture a judge not clicking the ‘like’ icon in his mind.

    2. In the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia there is a diorama of a mountain lion crouched in wait behind a rocky wall on the left side of the window. The rest of the space depicts a band of mule deer walking toward the viewer oblivious to the lion waiting to ambush some venison on the hoof. To me this design is more intriguing than if the lion had already pulled down a deer and the poor victim was looking wild-eyed back over its shoulder in an anthropomorphic plea for mercy or as if it was attempting to fight back. Nothing for the viewer to contemplate there, for capture is already effected and the outcome is not in doubt. Whereas in the Academy version the outcome is in doubt and it allows the viewer to imagine that one of the deer might catch a whiff of mountain lion in time for the whole herd to bolt before one of them gets picked off. Plenty of drama there but not a lot of sizzle in the sense I’m trying to convey. But there’s no sizzle at all in a kill scene where the viewer isn’t invited to employ his imagination to guess where the action might continue. The lion is going to eat off the deer and bury the rest, not take it to a taxidermist to have the head mounted.

    3. I’d love to get an order like this: It’s never been done in a competition that I recall. A pack of two or three wolves (or better, coyotes) comfortably arranged together on a single base intently focused on something in the distance. On a separate base, 25-30 feet away, a whitetail (buck or doe) has been grazing and snaps to extreme alert upon sensing danger with ears fully cocked. And maybe with a sideward glance or in that foot stamping mode and with that head shift kind of thing where the animal moves its head to one side or the other to perfect its view without moving its body. Position the two bases with the animals each looking at each other. Vary the elevation on one or the other ground work. Most wealthy clients have trophy rooms that will accommodate the needed space as do competition rooms. I got this idea from Akeley’s lifesize bronze sculptures of Nandi Spearmen, both at the Field and American museums in Chicago and New York. The sculptures consisted of three separate pieces: Three Nandi spearmen (Grp #1) are depicted prepared to receive a charge from a pair of lions, (Grp. #2.) a pair of lions posed at the instant they spring into a charge, and (Grp #3) with the men standing victoriously over a speared male lion. The first time I saw these bronzes I noticed only the lions because of all the people in the museum. I walked over to study the sculpture closer. Akeley posed the lions fiercely aggressive. There’s a long spear stuck in the ground beside the male lion. I was soon wondering why or at what they might be about to charge. It was the spear that brought into the picture a human factor and made me look almost subconsciously in the direction the lions were facing from whence a spear could have been thrown. As the museum visitors shifted away, it was then I saw sculpture No. I of the spearmen at the ready about forty feet away. Suddenly the two pieces came together and I thought what a great way to portray an unfolding drama that Akeley had witnessed himself many times in Africa and memorialized in bronze. I noticed the third sculpture accidentally nearby as I wasn’t expecting anything more of a theme that was thoroughly holding my attention already.

    Nandi spearmen.jpg

    Nandi spearmen - 1.jpg I don’t expect any of my ideas to be any better than many of yours. But I would be interested to hear some of your ideas for new or clever ways to depict competition entries. I presume that those with plans to enter next year have been ruminating on a few ideas since the last competition ended this year and will be keen to show their stuff again. I will also remind those who have good novel, original ideas, if you plan to make them into entries for next year, keep mum for now. I don’t have to tell the old-timers. Know that when you prematurely reveal your plans to others, your plans will often become a factor in their plans. I’m holding back on my best idea. I suggest you do the same unless you don’t intend to enter next year. And if you don’t intend to enter, spill your guts! Just about everyone has witnessed something on a hunting or nature outing that was the darndest thing and maybe worth portraying in a competition entry. Remember the words of our venerable old friend, Bob Berry: “No guts, no glory!”
    magicmick and George like this.
  2. Skywalker

    Skywalker Well-Known Member

    A big Green Basilisk running on the water!
    Monte likes this.

  3. George

    George The older I get, the better I was.

    Joe, that is exactly what an artist's mind's eye sees. For years I've told clients that just like Christmas, the anticipation is much more exciting that the actual opening of presents. I use that analogy in discouraging "past tense" diorama mounts. I found it interesting that Ken would comment. Some years back, I took my late wife, Connie, to the NTA Show in Waco, Tx. As she knew a bit about what went with actual work, the competition venue was totally new ground to her. We walked in to the show room. I tried to explain the artists intent, the presentation, as well as the goods and bads of the mount. A life-size tiger was drawing all the attention in that show, and we dutifully made our way down that row. Connie was admiring it and commenting on how big and powerful the mount was. I wasn't looking at it, however. On the opposite side of the aisle was one of the absolute best mount presentations I'd ever seen up to that time. I grabbed her shoulders, turned her around and said, "This piece is going to win everything." About that time, a big tassel headed guy came up to me and said the damnedest thing. He said, "Are you George Roof? I've been dying to meet you." You might imagine my shock at a hack like me having that said to him by a world class taxidermist, one Ken Walker and the mount was his.
    The piece I was telling Connie about was a small ringtail cat suspended on its tail reacting in shock to a giant tarantula spider that it had seemed to have stumbled onto. The story was a snapshot in time, frozen for eternity. The cats eyes were laser focused on the spider which had already raised it's legs in defense of this threat. The entry won everything and made the cover of BREAKTHROUGH. The tiger was pictured on page 3.
    Last edited: Dec 18, 2018
  4. Brian Reinertson

    Brian Reinertson Well-Known Member

    I’ve been to many showrooms and the one piece in the past 8 years that really “did it” for me was the coyote pup Carolin BD did at the last world show. Everyone’s eye and taste is different but it has to have that “it” factor.
  5. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member

    Here's an idea I've never seen in a competition with but one related exception. It's an interpretive exhibit without labels. It presents the same possibilities with fish and mammals. (With or without labels.) Can anyone tell the source of this photo? If you can you'll reveal yourself as an oldtimer like me. I'll give it some time for viewers to see it, then tell you the source. Clue: It's not in a museum.

  6. Monte

    Monte Missouri fur-Limited hair-tanning

    These are stellar jays shown in the Jonas technique book
  7. Carolin Brak-Dolny

    Carolin Brak-Dolny Active Member

    Thanks, Brian.

    For me, I like the mount to tell a story, but all the parts have to match. Meaning eye expression, body posture , muscle tension or lack of, and if the story regularly happens in nature. I find game heads the hardest medium to tell a story.
  8. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member


    I forgot you were out there Monty and would know right off where this exhibit was shown. You also remember it was in a glassed-in case in the stairwell leading upstairs at the 1037 Broadway, Jonas Studios in Denver.
    The only other competition entry of note that was also an interpretive exhibit was Stephen Roger's winning entry at a previous NTA competition in Seven Spring, PA.

    Taxidermy table set-up Jun 9 2016.JPG
  9. Tanglewood Taxidermy

    Tanglewood Taxidermy Well-Known Member

    This exhibit is one of my favorites. I read an article on how he put it together and it really impressed me.
  10. Dave York

    Dave York Well-Known Member

    George it just isn’t fair with the talent he got dealt out compared to the rest of us. I’m still suspicious that when it was being handed out he cut in line ahead of us for seconds. I knew I was in trouble for getting any because with a last name starting with Y I knew there wasn’t going to be much left. I sware I saw Walker way up there in the “As” twice and a third in the “Ws”. By the time I got there the talent pool was dry. The poor guys after me are now politicians and lawyers.
    Skywalker, George and EA like this.
  11. Monte

    Monte Missouri fur-Limited hair-tanning

    It seems like I remember an exhibit with the beaver in it done by someone I know

    Also I remember the miniature sculptures and miniature dioramas in the Jones show room done by Louis Paul
  12. Allie

    Allie Active Member

    A wise guy who has won quite a few ribbons once told me, "Never do a piece for a judge. If you start letting too many outside influences – you know, the winning or losing aspects – get in the way of what you decide you're gonna do, you lose the art."
  13. vic h

    vic h Active Member

    You are exactly right Allie. Years ago I was gifted a prime frozen whole Mt. Lion,and right away decided to do it for the WTC. Sculpted it myself, my first large mammal sculpture. When I first mounted it everyone who saw it thought it was great, these people were not taxidermist. When they found out what I was designing for it's base/habitat they instantly turned into critics. All thought it was the worst idea ever and would never win a thing but I didn't change anything. The rest is history. I won the Masters of Masters and by my own admission it probably wasn't the best by scoring sheet numbers but all the entrants of the master divisions chose it and that makes the WTC medal I received my favorite. I'm sitting on the couch now at my daughters house so I can't look at the plaque to remind me of the year,and any photos I might have of it are also at home. I'm pretty sure none of those will look very good changing them to fit this format so I hope Ken Edwards can find the photo he published in Break Thru and post it here. It will prove a great photo makes things look better!
    By the way to people who think competing doesn't help business. That was my second Mt.lion I mounted. The next year I mounted 6 six lions on wagon wheels and probably a total of 15-20 more over the years even though I had my shop in Missouri.
    Lastly, I sold that mount to pay for the birth of of my daughter and when she gets her lazy butt up I'm telling her she owes me breakfast!! Don Frank of fish fame saw that mount and texted me last year. He said the piece was in good shape, no cracking or shrinking that he could see after over 30 years!
    NAILED IT!!!!!!

  14. Ken Edwards

    Ken Edwards Taxidermy.Net Administrator Staff Member

    Here you go, Vic! 1986.Masters.jpg

    ...from 32 years ago!

    Skywalker and EA like this.
  15. vic h

    vic h Active Member