Meddling With Nature

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure to attend an artful workshop at The Art Academy of Cincinnati by taxidermy artisan Jeremy Johnson and his team at Meddling With Nature. This workshop was geared toward professional medical illustrators but as a member of the broader illustration community here in town, I was able to take part just for fun, to photograph, sketch a bit and learn about a different form of sculpture.  When I attended art school, sculpture was where my heart was at the time.  Add to that a deep love of nature and the out-of-doors and this class was something I looked forward to for weeks!

We started the morning by watching the above video, to get a sense of the scope of the work these folks do.  This is not just taxidermy for the local hunter looking to mount the head of a recently obtained backwoods buck.  We talked about how Jeremy and his team come to obtain their specimens and life and death in general. One thing I love about people who operate at the crossroads of art and nature is that there is little ‘front porch talk’.  They go straight for the real.  Meddling With Nature presents around town to schools and community groups and often must contend with overcoming the ‘ew’ factor of the average audience.  But this group, being scientists and artists, was full of wonder and appreciation for the specimens shared and the activities presented to us.

First up was entomological preparation. We were given a lovely pamphlet to peruse…

goat reading

But in the end, it’s just best to dive into the activity hands-on.  And so we did.


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We were tasked with taking these insect specimens, rehydrated a bit in their shriveled state, and reigniting a sense of life in them by posing them for eventual display.

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The pins act as a sort of scaffolding to the structure of the insects without pinning them through like you might see in other displays.  It was tedious and tiny hand work which I soon lost myself in.  My first specimen was a goliathus beetle from Africa.

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I had to carefully manipulate the joints of legs and wings to open him up and show off his gorgeous wings which reminded me a bit of a bat wing.

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There were many bugs available to mount.  And even a few to eat.  Yes.  Eat.  I tried a cheddar flavored meal worm.  Just one.  And that was enough.

I moved on to opening up my second insect specimen…. A Thorny Devil.  At first glance these guys look like little green tacos.



But eventually, the wings can be opened up, revealing under-wings the likes of which the fairy folk might encounter in their world.  I could just imagine a wee saddle placed just so to avoid the thorns.  (Thorns being a handy defense for airborne battles…)

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While we manipulated our insects and pinned them into place, the lecture moved on to bigger beasts.  Jeremy shared with us a bit of what he might do with a bit of road kill in order to preserve and prepare it for taxidermy or to harvest the bones for an articulated skeletal specimen.

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cat arm

This was all very fascinating.  The medical illustrators were asking very detailed and smart sounding questions with words I do not know.  I observed, worked on my bugs, and did some sketching.

sketch 3We learned about how to properly prepare bones for keeping and displaying so that they might last a good long while.  It’s an exacting list of steps requiring great patience and a bit of a strong stomach for some of the larger things one might want to keep.  But the patience is worth it.bones 1Many of these processes are what the museums and zoos use to preserve things for the public to handle and gawk at.  I have always liked the Victorian’s notion of keeping a bit of a museum of curiosities in one’s own home.  And now I have a bit more knowledge and a few skills to continue my own collection.collectionJeremy et al have the opportunity to work with a variety of local and more obscure specimens.  Below is a cast of the palate of a tiger who passed away from diabetic complications.tiger palateI have always been in awe of the patterns to be found in the natural world.  And there are some things which are objects of artful beauty without much ‘preparation’.black swan heartThis was a truly informative and thought provoking workshop.  A most inspiring portion of the presentation was a series of photos about dissection.  You can see them here.  As much as I love the natural sciences nowadays, I was never much of a student back in school and so there is much I do not know.  For example, that the color of a healthy gall bladder is a most elegant and gorgeous green color.  The photos on the Meddling With Nature dissection page call to me to make large scale juicy paintings.  I hope to get to this one day…

But for now, my sketch book calls.  I am weeks away from leaving for New Mexico to teach again and so must continue to work in my own little books to practice.  There is much in the garden to sketch.  (and, frankly, many weeds to pull and plants to divide.)  I will do what I can amidst the day to day.  It was wonderful to sit back and be a student for half a day.  Many thanks to Jeremy Johnson and the other artists from Meddling With Nature. What a treat!!



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