Tacoma 'rogue taxidermist' makes bone, skin art

3/6/2013 12:30 PM
By Associated Press

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — From the outside, it's a cheery Hilltop home painted green with red trim.

Inside, a mummified cat is mounted within a frame, boxes of skulls are stacked one upon another, bags of bones line a wall and trays hold collections of eyeballs.

It's not the set for a "The Silence of the Lambs" sequel - it's the home and studio of Acataphasia "Cat" Grey.

Grey, 41, is a rogue taxidermist; a term used to describe a hybrid artist and taxidermist who creates animals that never existed in the wild. And, hopefully, never will.

"It's the best canvas in the world," Grey said of her collection of taxidermy manikins. Her "paints" are dried skins and brownish bones. "I like animals when they are alive. When they die, I keep on liking them."

Grey likens the evolution of traditional taxidermy into rogue taxidermy to painting's transition from realism into impressionism.

Thursday, Grey and her work will appear on a new reality TV show, "Immortalized," on the AMC channel. The network that brought you "The Walking Dead" now brings you the stuffed and mounted dead.

"Immortalized" bears a resemblance to the popular reality show "Iron Chef" - only with preserved animals instead of food. Grey, a challenger, will be going up against one of the four in-house "Immortalizers" - a more seasoned taxidermist.

Each show has a theme. Grey's was "Your Worst Nightmare." She had a budget and a time limit to complete the project. The result was assessed for originality, workmanship and interpretation by a panel of judges.

The show was filmed in Los Angeles. Grey cannot reveal whether she won or lost before the show airs Thursday night. Grey decided "Your Worst Nightmare" meant it had to be her worst nightmare.

"But then I gave it loads and loads of layers of nightmares," she said. "I wanted there to be something for everyone."

She couldn't reveal the exact nature of her creation but said she didn't use any exotic animals.

"You can do a lot with cows and goats," she said.

"It's the biggest thing I've ever made," Grey said but added she wasn't completely happy with the end result.

"I had to redo it at the 11th hour ... (it) wasn't ideal to me."

The art in Grey's home is a mix of her paintings, sculptures and taxidermy work.

One item, "Robert, the best dead cat in the whole world" required little work. It's a desiccated cat, found under a house, and fixed in a black frame. A "Heads Up" ball, sewn from bone-colored rawhide, bears a striking resemblance to a human skull.

Grey's world is a malleable one - always ready to be picked apart and reassembled. That includes her name.

Tired of her given name (which she declined to reveal) Grey chose Acataphasia in 2004 when she saw it in a medical dictionary. "I was shopping for a new name and I knew it when I saw it," she said.

The term refers to the inability to correctly form verbal statements. It fits her, Grey said, because she realized she had the condition after being hit while in a crosswalk by a drunken driver.

A Washington native, Grey lived from age 7 to 14 in Australia with her family. Soon after returning to Washington state, Grey started tanning skins. But, as she says, "I've always loved bones" and quickly moved on to taxidermy.

Grey shares her Tacoma home with partner Mike West and their cat, Pete.

"He's the only living animal in the house," she said.

On a recent afternoon Pete was stretched out on a bed, occasionally licking himself. He didn't appear the least bit nervous.

The origin of all the animals she works with is important to Grey.

She doesn't hunt, but instead gets skulls from trappers, buys skins online or gets tips on road kills. If she is interested in just the bones of an animal, she'll bury it in her backyard in a "dead garden" and plant vegetation on top until the flesh has decomposed.

Friends often bring Grey their deceased cats to be immortalized.

"I identify with cats and it's upsetting to work them," she said, but "it makes (the owner) feel better to know the cat is living on in art." Sometimes the cat owner will ask for the skull back or a patch of tanned fur. She has a cat skin in her freezer, waiting to be worked on.

"I often have a cat in the freezer," Grey said.

In her studio Grey is creating an aardwolf, a small wolf-like African mammal. But she's assembling it without using any actual aardwolf parts. The creature has the head of an arctic fox, a torso covered with an opossum skin and bright red eyes. She's thinking about finishing it up with a zebra skin. Dr. Frankenstein would be proud.

Grey's home is chock-a-block full of animals in various states of reanimation, animal skins and cuddly stuffed animals. Cuddly until one takes a closer look.

An otherwise innocuous looking toy panda has been retrofitted with a set of dangerous looking teeth.

A shelf of bunnies is part of her "Unfortunate Animal of the Month Club." For her subscribers, Grey would merge a stuffed animal with real animal parts or whatever struck her fancy. Customers would choose a "morbidity level" from 1 to 5.

"When they find out what '5' is, no one has chosen it. A '4' looks sticky, smelly or looks like it will harm you. A '5' is actually one of those things."

Animals in her collection include Accusatory Pointing Bunny, Garroting Bunny, Spider Bunny, Six-legged Sheep and a cute little furry creature outfitted with a monkey's skull, dyed blue.

The creatures took off when famed author Neil Gaiman bought one and then urged Grey to start the monthly club. He posted photos of the creatures on his website. She made the animals for six years before moving on to less intensive work.

"I couldn't keep up with demand," Grey said.

Now she makes pieces for gallery shows and private clients. She also occasionally asked to make movie props.

In 2005, a representative from the Museum fur Naturkunde, otherwise known as Berlin's natural history museum, hired Grey to make a time lapse film of a decaying horse head.

"'How'd you find me,' I asked. She said, 'I typed "severed horse head" in a search engine and I got your site'," Grey recounted.


Information from: The News Tribune, http://www.thenewstribune.com

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