I frequently visit a shop here in Portland, Oregon, called Paxton Gate
, “a store known for its magical mix of neo-Victorian delights, eclectic animal and plant ephemera, taxidermy, exotic plants—including the carnivorous variety—framed and mounted insects, jewelry, unique gardening tools, affordable art, vintage scientific instruments and more.
|from Paxton Gate Website
I love looking at the shells, insect specimens, plants, fossils and rocks. They also have a collection of animal taxidermy. I’ve asked about them and found that they are part of modern ecological ethics and taxidermists use reclamation from institutions and zoos as a way of keeping dead creatures around for study and aesthetic pleasure. I’m not drawn to it, but I was glad to hear that there are standards for such things.
I took some friends there once to show them the great collection of plants, science toys, and weird art — they have knitted dissected frogs and animal skeletons in Victorian dress. I think of this as typical Portland weirdness, but they also have splendid scientific prints, books, inks and journals.
Both of my friends expressed some distress at the taxidermy. They thought I was naïve to think that the taxidermy didn’t come from thoughtless killing of animals.
So I was much relieved, when I got the beautiful book Biophilia
, the art of Christopher Marley
, published this year by Abrams Books, to find a few page dedicated to “Reclamation and the Pursuit of Karma-Friendly Taxidermic Experience.”
His father was a breeder of Australian parrots. He began to use specimens from his father’s collection that had died of natural causes. Then:
“I suddenly realized that my dilemma of wanting desperately to work with organisms of all kinds but not being willing to kill them had found a limited solution….After months of methodically working through all of my years of accumulated contacts, I was over joyed to find that there were other individuals and institutions, breeders, aviaries, aquariums, sanctuaries, and zoos that had similar practices. The opportunity to preserve rare and exotic birds, reptiles, and other vertebrates was suddenly becoming a reality. I was ecstatic.”
From Christopher Marley’s website:
“Specimens are reclaimed, bred or harvested from dozens of countries on every inhabited continent. Our vertebrates are always reclaimed organisms that come from institutions and breeders here in the U.S. after they die of natural or incidental causes. My work preserves for generations what would otherwise be discarded and lost forever. The invertebrates are sustainably collected in their various countries of origin – offering local catchers a powerful financial incentive to protect and guard their habitats to ensure the continued survival of the very species they collect.”
Whether I’m naïve or not, the artwork of Marley is exquisite and inviting, it honors nature in a way I’ve never seen before. He uses actual specimens, preserves their structure and color, arranges them, frames them and brings them back to life in a way that only art can. Though he is working with their bodies, he captures their spirit. And like when I spend time at a natural history museum, or in a garden, I always come away from his art wanting to draw.
Biophilia means love of life, “an instinctive kinship with the rest of the living, breathing world.” Marley says:
“As human beings, we are at the top of the food chain in every ecosystem that we inhabit, yet we retain an innate affection for the rest of creation. I have never met – indeed, I cannot imagine – a person who does not derive stimulation and fulfillment from some form of life apart from our own species, one who cannot and does not appreciate a single plant or single nonhuman animal species.”
I like that he works with bugs, spiders, and reptiles, because so many of us find them creepy. We’re afraid of them. In Marley’s art, they are presented like jewels and a sense of awe over takes fear. He has work that combines the colors of insects with the colors of minerals and gems. I realize how fear interferes with our ability to see the beauty around us.
I think as we teeter toward our own extinction, we’re learning that we’re part of a larger ecosystem and even these humble creatures like beetles and urchins are a part of the health of our planet, the health of each of us. We need ways of being less fearful. In Biophilia, Marley frames a new way for us to see beyond fear and find wonder.
Christopher Marley is an artist, designer and photographer. His first book, Pheromone,
focused on his artwork with insects. He maintains design studios in Oregon and Kuala Lumpur. You can see more of Marley’s work at his website: http://www.pheromonedesign.com/
And remember, as Bill Waterson said, “There’s treasure everywhere.”