Jeff Lumsden stood at the sink of his Everett studio in late October, washing blood from his hands.
An award-winning taxidermist, Lumsden had been holding the carcass of a mule deer moments before. The blood almost looked like a vivid red paint.
His workspace, Still Life Taxidermy Studio, held an odd mix of items. On a table, there was a clutter of brushes and pencil sketches of animal musculature. In one corner, deer skins cured in salt. A freezer held venison steaks for eating and fish for mounting.
“It’s hard to say taxidermy is an art,” Lumsden said before washing up. “I don’t know if I could say that. But anything can really be an art, if you have a high level of interest and in-depth study.”
Taxidermy is a field of contradictions. Practitioners are part butcher, part sculptor, part painter. The field attracts an odd assortment of people, from basement-dwelling amateurs to professionals such as Lumsden, who spend decades perfecting the craft.
“The mechanics are something that you can teach most people, but the gift of bringing that animal or fish or bird back to life is something that can’t be taught,” said Greg Crain, executive director of the National Taxidermists Association. “That is strictly a gift. Either you have it or you don’t.”
The National Taxidermists Association, based in Louisiana, credits the birth of taxidermy to a Dutch nobleman in the 1500s, who called on Amsterdam’s alchemists to preserve his rare bird collection. Since then, the field has advanced by leaps and bounds, from insect-proofing mounts using arsenic to injection-molded acrylic lenses that create a more realistic false fish eye.
Specialized schools teach the craft, while books and videos can walk a person through the steps. Still, of the approximately 78,000 people practicing taxidermy, as many as 90 percent may be part-timers, Crain said.
“It’s very inexpensive to get involved in taxidermy,” he said. “You can start it on a very, very limited amount of funds.”
Some credit the field with advancing conservation efforts, as it preserves animals and invites closer inspection of wildlife. The so-called father of modern taxidermy, Carl Akeley, worked for the American Museum of Natural History, for instance, and often is noted for his conservation efforts.
Occasionally, taxidermy makes its way out of history museums and into art displays. “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” a well-known work by shock artist Damien Hirst, temporarily used a mounted tiger shark, before replacing it with a different, highly embalmed shark.
Some taxidermists focus on freakish aspects of the craft, for example patching together two roadkill squirrels as conjoined twins, and selling their creations online for $800 or more — more than Lumsden charges for a deer, which runs about $650.
“That’s called novelty taxidermy,” said John Janelli, a historian for and board member of the National Taxidermists Association. “You have that in all kinds of art, whether it’s abstract art or contemporary art or what have you. It’s a taxidermist who has a knack for that, that has found a niche.”
Generally, most items aren’t tiger sharks or Frankensquirrels, of course. They’re deer, fish, birds — animals killed on a hunt by people such as Mike Siders, an Everett resident.
Siders shot a four-point, 228-pound mule deer in October. He has friends who dabble in taxidermy but wanted this one mounted by a professional. Through a referral, he found Lumsden. While Lumsden takes about a year to finish a project, Siders is already as excited as “a little kid on Christmas Eve,” waiting to get the animal back.
For Siders, the finished piece preserves not only the deer but also the hunt: the 50-mile-per-hour gusts of wind he felt in Okanogan National Forest, the 4 inches of snow on the ground and the animal coming into his view after nearly a week outdoors.
“You want to be able to show it off and relive those moments over the years,” Siders said.
Despite the enthusiasm some show for the finished work, the job itself is a “tough racket,” Lumsden said, reliant both on a hunter’s luck and a taxidermist’s skill. Work can be spotty.
Lumsden, also a hunter, warms up to topics such as conservation and medical illustration. The 49-year-old said he began practicing taxidermy as a teenager, studying techniques from a book after taking a two-day course. Eventually he apprenticed in Seattle, at the now-defunct Klineburger Bros., where he worked on African animals, including elephants.
He excelled at mounting fish, a challenging animal because of the large amount of paintwork required. Since opening his own studio in 1982, he’s won dozens of awards, including national and world championships for his work on fish and birds.
That skill has elevated him to the level of minor celebrity in his field. He even has been featured in advertisements for the Wildlife Artist Supply Co., a Georgia-based taxidermy supply company.
Spending as much as 12 hours a day in his studio, Lumsden studies pictures of an animals, trying to set his mounts in natural poses — that is, not reared up on their hind legs, baring teeth.
“It’s all accuracy,” he said, standing in his barnlike work environment in the back yard of his modest home. “I’ve figured if I can get the eyes right, and I can get the nostrils right, and I’ve got a good form, and it’s accurate, it will look right.”
As far as artistry goes, Lumsden goes back and forth on the issue. Not all taxidermy is art, he said. Some may fail to make a deer look alert as it hangs from its perch on the wall. That’s Lumsden’s goal: to freeze a moment, to give the dead some life.
“That’s art to me,” he said, “and that’s definitely what I’m doing here.”
Reporter Andy Rathbun: 425-339-3455 or e-mail email@example.com.