A deer head mold in Gurtner's workshop.
Long after the blaze orange clothing has been shelved, taxidermists are hard at work immortalizing the thrill of the hunt. Whether it's the iconic bust of a proud whitetail deer or the menacing pose of a black bear, taxidermists throughout the area quietly blend artistic vision with Wisconsin's rich hunting tradition.
The gun deer hunting season naturally provides a significant source of revenue for local taxidermists. "This is our bread and butter, if you will," says Tim Gurtner, owner of Artistic Impressions Taxidermy in Middleton. He indicates that a typical deer mounting will cost approximately $450, while something more complicated, like a full-body pose, could run upwards of $2500.
The actual process of constructing a deer trophy involves approximately eight hours of labor, according to Gurtner. However, months can pass between the time a hunter drops off a dead animal and when he can pick up the finished trophy. This is due to the additional processes and components required for the statue. For example, hide tanning, the process by which animal skin is treated with tannic acids to both preserve the material and render it pliable, is generally outsourced to specialized facilities.
"My furs are sent to a tannery in Michigan," says Gurtner. "It can be almost four months from the time they receive [the furs] to the time I get it back."
The furs must then be mounted on carefully selected molds, a variety of which can be found in Gurtner's workspace. The molds or mannequins themselves are highly detailed sculptures, with careful attention paid to the delicate muscular structures of the animal. Gurtner's shop has a few mannequins awaiting completion, skinned animals lacking the color typical of muscles and ligaments.
Even from animal rights groups, the process of taxidermy draws a unique kind of criticism.
Angela Singer is an artist who uses discarded taxidermy to bring to light the violence humans subject towards animals.
"Taxidermy is shaped into serene poses," Singer says in a 2008 interview with the U.K.-based, vegan magazine Antennae. "We sentimentalize nature to keep from thinking about the human assault on it." Her works reconfigures old sculptures into works of art that embody a decidedly anti-cruelty message.
This certainly seems true about calmly mounted ungulates, but the mountain lion posed in the entryway of Artistic Impressions Taxidermy tells a different story. According to Gurtner, the client had actually shot a moose before the giant feline descended upon the fresh kill. The creature is mounted in a ready-to-attack position, with Gurtner preparing to build a rocky habitat around the bare wooden frame. "It's becoming much more of an art form now," he says. "It's not gory. We don't get into guts and blood or anything like that."
Rick Bogle, co-director for the Madison-based Alliance for Animals, has a greater issue with the circumstances under which the animal is collected. "Taxidermy can be an art and it can be cruelty-free," says Bogle in an email. "It crosses an ethical line when it involves killing animals specifically because one wants a trophy or a mounted specimen." Gurtner does not posit as to whether or not the mountain lion had to be shot.
Regardless of the candor and beauty with which the deceased animals are presented, a taxidermist always seems to be nurturing a balance between a love for art and a love for hunting. In addition to taxidermy, Gurtner also leads regular black bear hunting expeditions. In his living room are mounted the massive busts of two Elk, personally shot by Gurtner. Meanwhile, Gurtner's Middleton-based contemporary, Frye's Taxidermy Studios, was unable to offer his views on the practice. He was out hunting for the week.