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Making Money - Making Art

Discussion in 'The Taxidermy Industry' started by Joe Kish, Feb 25, 2020.

  1. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member

    I used to look forward to this particular time of year because it signals the beginning of the season when competitors begin feeling the first tingles of competition fever. Even though I don’t compete, I still enjoy talking and writing about the subject because I still have some things of value to say to those with limited experience in competitions or seriously considering taking a run at one.
    However it seems to me this year there’s a dearth of pre-season chatter on this forum about up-coming shows. I’ve noticed the chatter has been falling off yearly while the subjects which dominate are about business and money related matters. We can speculate about what this trending means, but two things seem clear: Making money is the main driver for those who practice taxidermy and winning in competitions will enhance one’s reputation toward making money as well as the chance of capturing some fat purses in competitions.

    There’s another possible factor in the lack of early chatter and that might be that these contests have evolved to where most everyone already knows what to expect, what it takes to win and even who is going to win. Or it might be partly because most know there are so many category awards, personality awards, supplier awards, trophies and bin loads of ribbons, the odds of winning at least something is practically guaranteed so what’s to get excited about? Maybe for those fairly new to competitions it’s about art, or the challenge to prove something to themselves, but for regular veteran winners, I’d say the money is the draw and they already know what it takes to win it.

    “Once money enters the picture, you can say good-bye to great art.”- Unknown

    We often say that taxidermists are an odd bunch but not necessarily in unique ways. For instance, they insist to a man that taxidermy is an art (so?), at the same time going on 50 years I’ve observed that there isn’t one in a hundred who knows even a basic vocabulary of art beyond the terms design, negative space and sweeping curve. There’s also the widely held belief that a piece of art is supposed to tell a story. Who in heck started that myth? It’s not that taxidermists have chosen to be ignorant of the subject, rather my theory is that they didn’t begin practicing taxidermy to create art, or becoming an artist maybe, but rather to make money regardless of whether they happened to be a hobbyist, a part timer, full timer or whatever. Once spouses, friends and customers see their handiwork and say things like, “That’s quite an art.” Or, “You’re quite an artist.” Presto! It turns out that all at once an artist is what an artist does. Artistic imaginations kick in and bingo, the guy who just wanted to make money to pay for his hunting trips is suddenly creating wonderful works of taxidermy “art”. It’s a good feeling knowing one is thought of as an artist.

    And, here’s the other big AND – the overwhelming majority of today’s practitioners didn’t teach themselves taxidermy the way my generation did, because with today’s abundance and availability of information on the subject, today’s learners know exactly where to find anything they need to know, often right at their fingertips. As for the art part, it’s like everyone presumes that people are born knowing what art is and how to make even a wild and crazy piece of it around a piece of taxidermy configured in such a way to maybe tell a story for good measure.
    Another side of my theory is that today’s generation of practitioners know of or at least suspect that they don’t have to study the principles of artistic design to win ribbons and make money at taxidermy, but think something like they can learn what is good to know just by doing what they’ve seen winning blue ribbons or what comes from out of the blue into their own heads. As the self-serving batch of hucksters in the NTA’s earliest slate of officers and BODs made clear to me back in 1975, “Taxidermy is an art and one person’s opinion of what is good art is as good as another’s.” Truth be told, art is arguably the last thing on a taxidermist’s mind when he’s turning out 1-2 heads a day and wondering if that new wholesale bird man he’s trying out will pan out.

    Consequently association program committeemen and magazine* and newsletter writers don’t bother producing classes or articles on the subject of general artistry as it pertains to artistic presentation of mounted specimens. While there is in fact much more good skillful taxidermy being done these days, its practitioners needn’t be particularly good at taxidermy much less art to sell their services any more today than they did back when. You’ll never hear of a taxidermist referred to as a “starving artist?”

    If one’s main associated connection to taxidermy is his participation in annual state and national conventions with no independent study of taxidermy or particularly of art, the odds of such a person creating solid works of art are unlikely to ever rise above inconsistent. I remember reading a post a year or so back on this forum from someone who wrote words to the affect that one could learn more from a single critique from a judge at a competition than he could learn from 10 years of independent study. Initially I thought the writer was exaggerating just to make a point, but you could tell from reading between the lines he meant it.
    Today there’s always a lot of blue ribbon taxidermy at every competition but from a design and composition perspective also an abundance of plain mediocrity. And of course there’s always the usual helping of the ludicrous, some rogue taxidermy and just plain schlock. And how is it some of the really poorly designed stuff nevertheless still wins multiple ribbons, awards and trophies? Like a half dozen at a whack is common.

    I ask you, what kind of wildlife art is it where artists club off the legs, especially on deer, and have these paraplegics floating down a rocky mountainside, (their unnatural habitat,) or gliding through a cornfield on two stumps where its legs should have been and with the back half of its body, or in some cases the complete bottom half of the torso, missing in action?

    Why are competition committees still categorizing a half lifesize as a shoulder mount when shoulder mounts are conventionally and traditionally completely legless? That means without the hot dog buns too. Why not one more new category for half lifesize? One more won’t break the bank on ribbons or prize money.

    Switching gears a little for a moment, here are two areas in which even national competitions fall short and that’s education and science. Along with wildlife conservation themes both are part of the values taxidermy serves. Yet you never see any categories relevant to these three purposes in all but the Michigan association’s competitions. (Educational Exhibit category.) It’s likely because a presumptive majority of competitors enter a customer’s specimen which they are paid to mount and which cannot be easily re-directed into a conservation, educational or science theme. Neither are the big money winners about to risk doing any unpaid work which would be a real challenge for many of them to even place much less win. Consequently the big winners who dominate association offices and boards aren’t about to create these kinds of categories.

    But practically speaking, if your main goal is to win big these days forget about art and just do what the big money winners do. With the right lifesize sheep, exotic or large predator going up or down a mountain side at a 45 degree angle, on the tiniest base you can possibly manage - with the right judge, and if Lady Luck is with you, you just might end up with one of those thousand dollar checks most of the supply companies throw around at the bigger shows. It’s doable if you keep the theme focused on truth and beauty and not on a blatantly obvious show of mechanical engineering skill. But take heed and be cautious you don’t paint a portrait of Elvis on a piece of black velvet which everyone can see was done strictly for money.

    It’s my wish (not hope) that some of the changes to rules and categories which I’m indirectly suggesting here might stimulate some renewed excitement in competitions. This forum itself is evidence enough that there’s a need. But like most of my past suggestions to refresh participation or excitement, they’re DOA as long as association officers and boards continue keeping rules etc. sewed up to their advantage like they have for years. Maintaining the status quo with the odds in their favor keeps them entrenched on an inside track and always in contention for the biggest money prizes.

    *Taxidermy Today Magazine has scheduled an article on taxidermy presentation for its May-June issue.
    FishArt and Micah Howards like this.
  2. 3bears

    3bears Well-Known Member

    From many angles, it does appear that a big percentage of the top winners in taxidermy competitions are often times the same people, with similar themed or types of mounts. These folks have learned what it takes to win or impress the judges, and they enjoy doing so for a variety of reasons but they'd be lying if ego didn't have a part of it. That's fine we all have one, how we show it or don't show it separates us.
    I also think that a major downfall of taxidermy expos is that they are often times geared more towards the competition side of things and less towards education. That's what brings the more experienced folks to a show, so I get it. Fortunately there are some other often times overlooked benefits, such as networking and the passing of info and techniques between folks. It is amazing what a person can learn if they are astute and pay attention at an expo, not by just viewing the work of others but also talking with them. Sure their are some tight lipped people in the trade but more often than not, I've found that if you ask many are willing to give you tips and tricks to improve your work. You also can't overlook the seminars, for me anyway, they are the drawing point and money well spent to attend.
    I used the term trade in the previous paragraph so I'll explain why. To many of us, what we do is a trade or business that gives us an opportunity to express our artistic skills or lack there of, by your suggestion. It gives us an outlet and just like all of the famous artist of today and the past, not every one of our pieces fit the classic perceived definition of art. Time and finances and the nature of the business side just doesn't allow that to happen on a consistent basis.
    In response to the part about wildlife conversation. What exactly is it that you think should be done? Many of us are active donors to multiple conservation organizations. They would likely be welcome to pay for a booth space and attend an expo.
    I can only guess that you may be referring to PA's educational exhibit or similar ones, I don't know, that is the only one I've seen and that was only photos. I thought it was a cool exhibit but I don't think it really fits as a category at most expos. I believe it would not draw many folks to compete in it. The time and resources to put something like that together eludes most commercial taxidermists and the sales market after the show is even more limited. I highly doubt there would be any folks wanting to commission such an exhibit.
    The "Status quo", what the heck do you mean by that? Since I did not make the rules I'm not certain but rules were set up to help level the playing field amongst competitors not to turn the tables in the association's favor. How would that even benefit the association?
    FishArt and Micah Howards like this.

  3. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member

    Well 3 bears, between the two of us we just upped the chatter by over 2,000 words. I trust there's more to come. You covered some points I didn't but basically I'd say we're on the same page. Your last paragraph needs a response however. I thought the subject matter there, conservation themed exhibit, would. I'll do it but it will have to wait for now. And of course your last two sentences require an answer. Give me time.
    FishArt likes this.
  4. FishArt

    FishArt Well-Known Member

    Great post Joe and well, I'll only add maybe another 40-50 words (not counting these - ha!)

    I've always stated that this is not true Art. Too many limitations, confinements and too many reasons why but many touched upon above. Competitions maybe you're close but still confinements and often no statement. But, I'll keep it simple because I recently PROVED (that taxidermy is NOT Art) in a recent post on a different matter. A post inquiring about taking photos for customers of their mounts before shipping. Many were fine with it and the main reason was so that they could tweak things if their customer wanted minor changes. True Art is DONE when the Artist signs it. You don't "tweak" Fine Art!!!
    Micah Howards likes this.
  5. Joe Kish

    Joe Kish Well-Known Member

    I will presume you meant it is not a fine art. However it is an applied art which I described in previous posts. I went in much greater detail on this subject in my book, which I'm guessing you have not read. Since you like this post you'll like my book even more. I suggest you read it, it got great reviews.
    But you certainly got it right when you wrote: "True Art is DONE when the Artist signs it. You don't "tweak" Fine Art!!!"

    Also the great Bob Berry once said to me,

    “Art is not meant to be judged. Artists cannot be told what to do.” - Bob Berry, master taxidermist, writer, illustrator, renowned fish and decoy carver.

    And let me offer praise again to your Michigan Taxidermist Assoc for your Educational Exhibit category. I know you don't get a lot of participation in it, but that can be remedied.

    Micah Howards and FishArt like this.
  6. Fermis

    Fermis Well-Known Member

    To those who can't do it...it is art!
    I certainly fall into that category (I am not a taxidermist...just a dude that wants to do some repro fish for myself). I'm blown away by most of the pieces I see...to me, it's definitely art!

    My background is in scale models (military, mostly aircraft). I don't think of it as art...it's just what I do. When others see my work...I hear the term "art".

    Relating to the original post, regarding competitions.
    There seems to be a lot of similarities to model competitions/conventions. The same people winning...and amazingly, a lot of ego pumping (how someone gets a big ego over building plastic airplanes is beyond me!). I started entering, mainly to LEARN, so I could improve my craft. I learned what it takes, and started winning on the local, then regional level. I set goals, for myself, and met those. Then more goals for the National level...met those. I really don't care about trophies or "atta boys"...it was all just for the challenge. I still build, but challenges met (right up to the top), I don't enter anything anymore. A new challenge is needed...so here I am...just wanting to do some nice fish for my wall. Once that challenge is met...who knows?!!!
    drob and Micah Howards like this.
  7. FishArt

    FishArt Well-Known Member

    Not to get too far off topic, but I personally think with repeat winners especially it's less of an ego thing and more of a competitive "what do I do next" thing. Been there, done that in sports. If you've ever worked very hard to achieve something and spend years, sometimes MANY years trying to reach that goal, and then finally reach it. It's almost a let down after the initial dopamine rush. You oftentimes end up getting right back into the ring simply because you don't really know what to do next. And it's the next logical step to another dopamine fix! That's why you see so many star athletes falling into drugs or drinking because they don't know what to do to get that feeling back after they retire. Or they un-retire/retire and un-retire again and again - lol!
    drob and Micah Howards like this.
  8. Fermis

    Fermis Well-Known Member

    There certainly is "all types" in there, and not just ONE single reason to continue in competitions. I do still go to the model shows (less frequently)...still learn stuff, I just don't enter any more. Mainly there for the vendor room! If there was prize money involved...that'd put a whole new paint job on things!
    Whatever the reason...be it ego, atta boys, trophies, camaraderie, money, education...all are okay by me! (ego, less so!)
    drob, Micah Howards and FishArt like this.
  9. Cory

    Cory Keep an eye on quality!

    Could you please elaborate on this quote? It seems theres an axe to grind here of some sort. As far as my home state is concerned, any and all members are allowed to attend and voice their opinion on how a show is ran. This along with requesting any and all seminars that they would like to see. So if only the board members show up to these meetings, then whos fault is it that the shows "appear" to be ran by only the board members. Not only that, generally speaking, the board members are the more seasoned veterans in the competition rink, which alone figures into them winning a bit more often. But compete long enough, and you will see these guys fade to black while the new members step in and take charge. It is they it should be.