Taxidermy isn't just stuffed deer heads and bass for grandpa's den anymore. In the last few years, the craft has gone through a resurgence, with a wave of young, hip practitioners putting a new spin on it.
"A lot of new taxidermy that we're seeing from younger people experimenting is them using the craft as a means to express themselves in a different way," says taxidermist Beth Beverly, host of the Philadelphia Alt Taxidermy Competition. "It's a canvas to make an entirely different kind of art. It's shifted away from being seen as a hunting-lodge kind of display to just another material and a craft to make whatever you're envisioning as an artist."
Beverly has practiced taxidermy since 2000 and owns Diamond Tooth Taxidermy, specializing in decorative and wearable works. She has also shown off her skills on AMC's competitive taxidermy series Immortalized. After a taxidermy competition she participated in in New York fizzled out, she decided "we should just have our own in Philly" and started one.
Now in its third year, the Philadelphia Alt Taxidermy Competition will have 10 to 15 contestants presenting and telling the stories behind their favorite pieces. (While they regale, you'll sip cocktails made by the Ruba Club staff.)
They won't be running a gauntlet of hard-nosed reality-TV-style judging, though. "I try to emphasize that it's more of a show-and-tell," Beverly says. "It's a really friendly environment. No one's going to come up with a microscope and inspect how well your lips are tucked or anything like that."
That said, the competition's three judges will be assessing and ranking the pieces, and giving out first-, second-, and third-place prizes, as well as a "Crowd Favorite" award.
But what will those judges be looking for? Here are a few factors that Beverly considers to separate good taxidermy from bad.
This seems obvious, but sometimes a piece of taxidermy isn't as well preserved as it should be.
"If it smells," Beverly says, "that's a definite red flag."
Some critters are harder to work with than others, and using one of those can catch another taxidermist's eye - even if they've seen it before.
"A lot of people who use taxidermy as a medium to make other things are self-taught, and they start with mice," Beverly says. "So you do see a lot of mice, but I find mice extremely difficult to mount, so I admire people who use them."
Other animals that take some skill to work with include certain birds and man's best friend.
"Quails have skin like tissue paper," Beverly says. "They're extremely difficult to skin without getting tons of holes in them.
"Domestic dogs and cats are tricky, too, because they're not something you can go to your taxidermy catalog and buy premade mannequins for. You have to sculpt or cast them by hand because there are no two cats or dogs that are the same. Those are pretty impressive when people do pets like that."
Obviously, a mouse should look like a mouse and a dog should look like a dog, but even if you're crafting a made-up animal, it should be a little more realistic than the monkey-and-fish "Fiji mermaids" you see at county fair sideshows.
"If someone's created an animal that I know doesn't actually exist, like a winged rabbit or something, if it looks anatomically convincing," Beverly says, "that's very impressive."
"I know from experience how difficult [facial symmetry] is to achieve, especially with larger mammals," Beverly says. Crooked mouths that make an animal "look kind of kooky, like it's smiling" are a common flaw that she has seen plenty of times.
If you throw a sloppy piece of taxidermy together at the last minute, it shows. But, Beverly says, the presentation is just as important as the work.