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The Snow White of the Dead

Does the word “taxidermy” conjure up images of camo-clad big-game hunters and tacky dioramas of card-playing mice? Not in Mickey Alice Kwapis’s world.

Photo Illustration: Jacob Watts; hair and makeup: nora hess

If you want to see God, peel the skin off a mouse’s tail. Inside, you’ll find a chain of almost implausibly minuscule bones, visible through the translucent pink muscle. There must be two dozen of them, some no bigger than a pinhead, meticulously linked like a miniature train. You can imagine the flesh going taut as the mouse scampers over rafters and in between walls, its tail flicking assuredly behind.

“You have this tiny little thing—and these are by no means the smallest mammals in existence—but they’re so tiny that you have to wonder, How do these teeny organs even keep this creature alive?” says Mickey Alice Kwapis, the 25-year-old taxidermist responsible for exposing this particular rodent. Even with her seven students surrounding her, she appears transported to an existential state as she marvels at the soft, shimmering body splayed before her on a blue plastic tablecloth. Beneath the membrane that separates guts from air, you can see the spaghetti-like curls of intestines and rows of filament-thin ribs. “It sounds so elementary to say nature is amazing. But I don’t know how else to articulate how amazed I am anytime I get to see the inner workings of some type of creature.”

It’s a bigger responsibility than you might think, holding a departed animal in your hands, then packing its coat with cotton batting and clay, lacing the appendages with wire, and molding it into a pose that resembles life. But one thing Kwapis hopes her students take away from her classes at the Niche Lab, her studio and curiosity shop in Humboldt Park, is a profound respect for these creatures. “People say, ‘Oh, you must be so creepy and depressed,’ ” she says. “It’s not about an obsession with death or even a love for death. It’s about giving the animal a new life.”

In Kwapis’s version of taxidermy, nothing dies only to be cut apart. The feeder mice her students practice on, which would otherwise have been destined for the belly of a reptile, get used for pet food or are composted. She has even coined a name for her approach: “sustainable taxidermy.”

You won’t see any mangy-looking rodents posed forever doing lines of coke in her collection. (Ready for nightmares? Search “taxidermy” on Etsy.) Instead, what Kwapis does is more akin to the work going on in labs at natural history museums and universities, where animals are mounted for study rather than stunt. In fact, over the past three years, Kwapis has been invited to teach everywhere from the University of Washington to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. And her weekly Niche Lab classes—the only taxidermy classes regularly offered in Chicago—routinely sell out. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that high-end taxidermy is in vogue these days, as tastemakers fill their living rooms with vintage finds. You can hardly walk down a posh residential block in Lincoln Park without spotting an elk head or a nesting swan through a window.

Kwapis’s friends call her the Snow White of the Dead, and not just for her ability to reanimate animals. With her big eyes, dark hair, red-lacquered lips, and penchant for vintage dresses, she resembles the fairy-tale princess by way of a Keane painting—but with a renegade twist, thanks to a septum ring and more than a dozen tattoos of beetles, birds, and other critters. “The No. 1 thing I hear is ‘You don’t look like a taxidermist,’ ” says Kwapis. “So I ask, ‘Oh, what does a taxidermist look like?’ Then they squirm while they think of something to say that’s totally not sexist.”

She’s on a mission to change such perceptions. But mostly, she hopes her students learn the value of a traditional craft that lies at the intersection of art and science. “When you say, ‘What’s your favorite type of art—painting, drawing, photography, sculpture?’ you don’t think about taxidermy,” she says. “It truly is a dying art. That’s why being able to give the industry a face-lift is so important.”

 
A hedgehog awaits skinning
A hedgehog awaits skinning in Kwapis’s class. Photo: Hallie Duesenberg
 

Kwapis’s garden apartment in Humboldt Park is a sanctuary of the macabre. On the kitchen stove sits a soup pot with a note in large black letters: “For Bones Only.” She displays prized pieces of her taxidermy collection on homemade wooden shelves above a gray sectional couch. The menagerie includes a young kangaroo whose freezer-burned ears poke out of a red baseball cap (a mount she did herself) and the head of a bear that her grandfather shot to feed his family one winter (one she inherited). Her freezer is currently stocked with enough animals for a miniature, if peculiar, zoo: 21 hedgehogs, four kid goats, a sheep, a coyote, a baby weasel, nine rabbits, 20 mice, 45 rats, and 12 skunks (more on them later).

As if all that weren’t enough, she holds up a plastic bag containing an immaculate rat carcass she spotted in the middle of Walton Street, near Sportsman’s Club. She scooped it up with what she calls the “Dexter-style murder kit”—knife, gloves, garbage bags—that she keeps in her car. It was quite the find. “He hadn’t been hit or anything,” she says. “There’s so much traffic in the city that almost everything I find is all squished way beyond repair.”

Her friends rib her that she has a gift for finding dead animals wherever she goes. But most of the large critters she mounts come from zoos, pet stores, or vets. Nearly all died of natural causes or were euthanized. A kangaroo farmer in Michigan gave her five carcasses, which she wedged, Tetris-like, into the trunk of her Nissan Versa. As she skinned them in her garage, she tossed the bones in the driveway. Two police officers soon showed up, responding to a call that someone was dismantling bodies.

For a person who enjoys carving open dead animals, Kwapis has a surprising affinity for live ones. She has a Dutch shepherd, Osiris, and two pet rats, Riff Ratt and Milhouse, who scurry around in a large wire cage. She regularly fosters animals, including a pregnant shelter cat that recently gave birth to seven kittens, all of whom died of feline panleukopenia. No, she didn’t use them as taxidermy projects. She has rules.

One of those rules is that she won’t mount pets, hers or anyone else’s. The reason: An animal will never look exactly the way it did when it was alive. That’s fine when it’s a random rabbit. But when it’s a pet, you won’t forget the curve of its paw or the way it puffed its cheeks. The one time she broke her rule, mounting a hamster owned by a friend, he was horrified with the results.

Then there’s the most important rule: sustainability. Kwapis has had a student drive skinned carcasses to a raptor rehabilitation center in Wisconsin, though these days Kwapis usually buries the remains in her backyard to fertilize the soil. (She later digs up the bones to repurpose for jewelry.) She invites students to take their leftovers home to cook or to feed their pets. In the class I attended, everyone declined.

Even going to such lengths doesn’t prevent backlash. When The Plain Dealer ran an article about a class Kwapis held in Cleveland in 2013, the response from online commenters was swift and vicious: “This is one of the reasons taxidermy is EVIL. Why don’t they stuff their dead grandmother? Go dig her up.” PETA sent Kwapis a letter, too, insisting that she stop killing hamsters by bashing their heads against kitchen counters. “A, I wouldn’t do that,” Kwapis says. “And, B, I wasn’t even using hamsters in class.”

 
Pheasant by Kwapis
Pheasant by Kwapis, 2015 Photo: Jacob Watts

It probably comes as no surprise that Kwapis was, in her words, “a weird kid.” Her parents divorced when she was 18 months old, and from then until she left for college, she moved 15 times, changing schools nearly every year, which left her constantly feeling like an outsider. Her mom was a farm hand in the Detroit area, which gave Kwapis an up-close look at the cycle of life—reaching up to her shoulder into cows to help them give birth, grieving over cats that pounced in front of moving tractors.

A quiet, creative child, Kwapis developed a love for crafts. She’d weave beaded Native American designs with a mini loom. At family gatherings, she’d find a secluded corner where she could crochet or make what she presciently called “mouse pillows” out of scraps of fabric stuffed with cotton balls. In high school, art class was her refuge from bullies—until a group of girls began destroying her projects. She takes satisfaction in the fact that some of her old classmates—even a few who voted her “most annoying”—now want to be her customers.

She studied printmaking, bookmaking, and analog photography at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, for two years before transferring to the University of Michigan–Dearborn as a prelaw major. That’s where her fixation with taxidermy began. In 2011, a friend who was enrolled in a mammalogy class had to create a “study skin”—a rudimentary taxidermy project that involved removing the hide from a squirrel and stuffing it with cotton so scientists could examine the animal’s markings and measurements. The friend invited Kwapis to help. They knocked back a bottle of wine, and by the end of the night, Kwapis’s passion for taxidermy had been born.

“If I learn something creative, I obsess over it,” she says. “I just kept thinking, If I apply this with my foundation in sewing and sculpture, I can make it look like a real animal again.” A few days later, she bought a dead rat for $5 from the Michigan Reptile Expo and skinned, cleaned, and mounted it using Borax, cotton balls, and other items she had around the house. From there, she worked on nearly any dead creature she could get her hands on. (Some early projects, she admits, wound up looking more like tube socks than rodents.) Four years later, she can skin a rat in 90 seconds and mount the whole thing in half an hour.

Within six months of that first rat, Kwapis began marketing herself on Instagram (she has more than 12,000 followers, though the account she set up for her dog and rats has more: nearly 60,000) and cold-calling stores that specialize in the handmade and bizarre. Still in college and working at H&M, she traveled across the country—Atlanta, Seattle, San Francisco—to offer taxidermy classes. She taught in backyards and basements and slept on strangers’ floors. “Honestly,” she says, “I don’t know how I didn’t end up hacked up in someone’s freezer.”

 

Her perfectionist streak and knack for handiwork made her a natural at taxidermy. “She knows more about some of the fundamentals than guys who have been doing it for 30 years,” says her mentor, Chuck Testa, the owner of Ojai Valley Taxidermy and one of the best-known practitioners in the country. You may recognize his name from a deadpan-goofy 2011 commercial he starred in that racked up more than 16 million YouTube views and spawned the “Nope! It’s Chuck Testa” meme. When Kwapis first called him to ask, in her young-sounding voice, if she could meet him, he figured it was just another of the many prank calls he got after the video went viral. But on her second visit to Testa’s studio in Ojai Valley, California, Kwapis impressed him with the way she effortlessly mounted a deer head, even though she’d never touched one before. “I could talk with her like a person who’s been doing it for decades,” Testa says. “We could talk the same language.”

Now Kwapis travels to California several times a year to work with Testa for weeks at a stretch. He teaches her techniques and secrets of the trade. Like when you slice open a bird, you want to do it from the back so the breast is left unblemished, and you want to stitch from bottom to top so the feathers lay better. Or if you are tanning the pelt of a large animal, you want to soak it in a bath of chemicals to permeate the whole thing, rather than just coating the top, like you would do for smaller pelts. A few months back, Testa gave Kwapis the shabby hide of a fennec fox that had died at a zoo to see what she could do with it. He watched as she spent two days patiently combing out the matted fur and repositioning the pelt to cover bald spots. “It’s just a bizarre relationship, because we’re so different,” says Testa, who is 59 and sports a scruffy white goatee. “I’m older and more conservative, but the passion for taxidermy eliminates any differences like that.”

After a brief stint in Cleveland, Kwapis moved to Chicago last January to set up a studio. Culturally, it seemed a good fit: In America’s third-largest city, there are plenty of people who have the disposable income and curious temperament to take up taxidermy. Between her teaching and the business she set up online to sell jewelry (including necklaces laced with bones salvaged from her taxidermy projects), she’s able to make a living—if a frugal one, since she has to pay the lease on her storefront.

Kwapis opened the Niche Lab in October with a now mostly silent partner, her friend Amy Martiny, who works at the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, a nonprofit that prepares cadavers donated to science. In the store portion of the studio, a mounted moose head and Canada goose (not for sale, Kwapis points out—that would be illegal) hang on the wall across from wool-felted sculptures of pig fetuses in jars. Embroidery samplers featuring detailed outlines of animal skulls stretch across wooden hoops, like the work of a demented Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Classes at the lab aren’t limited to taxidermy. Guest teachers offer sessions in everything from terrarium building to bookbinding. It’s the type of place Kwapis would have begged to visit as a kid—and where she might have discovered that she wasn’t so alone in her quirky interests. “Maybe at some point,” she says, “some other little girl who grew up like I did, loving princesses and the color pink, will see me and say, ‘She looks like what I want to look like and dresses how I want to dress when I’m a grownup, but also does something that’s not stereotypical.’ ”

 
Kwapis shows a student how to slice into a rabbit.
Kwapis shows a student how to slice into a rabbit.  Photo: Hallie Duesenberg

The seven students in Kwapis’s class—six women and one man, who each paid $110—sit around two long folding tables that have been pushed together in a windowless white room at the Niche Lab. Death Cab for Cutie plays on an iPhone at full volume. In front of each person rest a scalpel and a pair of latex gloves. Dead mice are still thawing on a counter in the back as Kwapis begins her lesson. If they get too warm, she explains, clumps of fur will fall out when the students manipulate the pelts. (“If you’re not working on it, put the skin down,” she will later warn.)

Eventually, Kwapis sets a tiny white body, slightly squashed from defrosting among 49 others in a plastic bag, in front of each person. As instructed, the students daintily stretch their specimens out on the table, spread-eagle, and part the fur along the spine with the scalpel so they can make a clean cut. When they make that first incision, she tells them, they must be careful not to pierce the membrane that separates the mouse’s skin from its innards. From there, well: “Then I’m basically taking its pants off,” Kwapis says as she demonstrates how to fold back the skin and push it off the mouse’s rump. (Pulling could tear the fragile hide.)

The carcasses don’t smell bad per se. Since the mice were raised as food, they haven’t been processed with chemicals such as formaldehyde in the manner of pigs and frogs meant for science classes. And they’re not rotten, either. They just smell like … meat. The procedure isn’t overly bloody, but there will be a few red smears in front of each student by the end.

Though Kwapis isn’t keen on what’s known as “anthropomorphized taxidermy”—think rats in eyeglasses or rabbits with hats—she doesn’t judge students who bring props to class. One woman found a teeny bicycle for her mouse to ride. Another plans to balance hers on two legs next to a block of cheese.

The skewed female-to-male ratio in this class is the norm at the Niche Lab. Though most taxidermists are men, Kwapis estimates that 90 percent of her students are women. Tom Britton, 34, who works in advertising and happens to be the only man in class, came here at the behest of his fiancée (now his wife), Amalie Brettschneider, 28, a former aspiring mortician who now works as a copywriter at Leo Burnett. (“Morticians are always the best,” Kwapis tells me. “They use the same stitch as I do.”) Over the summer, Brettschneider learned to embrace Britton’s obsession: pro wrestling. Now it’s Britton’s turn to be a good partner.

The students work quietly as Kwapis darts among them, helping them press through a stubborn bit of leg fat here, deftly cutting around an eyelid there.

Once each mouse’s bottom is free of its pelt, two small, vaguely stomach-turning snaps come next as the students slice through the anklebones with a scalpel. The feet, still attached to the pelts, dangle while the students work on the tail.

“I should have cut my fingernails before class,” Kwapis laments, struggling to wiggle the skin off the tiny line of bones in one piece. After a tense moment, the tail finally slides free. But it’s about to get a lot worse for some of these carcasses.

“If you have a male, you have to yank out all of the little parts,” Kwapis announces.

“That’s just adding insult to injury,” Britton quips.

This is Patty Ni’s second time taking a class with Kwapis. The 25-year-old medical illustrator, who enrolled because of her fascination with all things anatomical, mounted a baby prairie dog the first time. She had planned to display the bones from the spent carcass, but it remains in her freezer at home. (“Where can I bury it that won’t look suspicious?” she asks.) Ni had been looking to take up taxidermy as a hobby when she stumbled across Kwapis’s class. “I think Mickey’s superpatient and explains things pretty well.”

Ni pauses. “Just don’t come in hung over.” At her first class with Kwapis, one man did. Let’s just say that hair of the prairie dog isn’t the ideal cure.

 

“You can pet it if you want.”

“It” is a baby skunk. A dead one, its skin mounted on an armature Kwapis made of wood excelsior (a more delicate version of hay) wrapped and laboriously shaped with layers of string. She artfully carved a block of dense green foam into the shape of a head and added, just so, two black beads for eyes. Its four legs tethered by wires to a wooden plaque, the skunk stands in the lab, impotent. Kwapis removed and discarded its scent glands on a sunny afternoon in October, figuring the neighbors would think the smell, if she’d happened to nick one of the fragile sacs with her scalpel, was just some overzealous pot smoking. A month before that had been the nerve-racking ride back from Wisconsin, where she had picked up the skunk and 11 others from animal control: Kwapis wasn’t quite sure how she’d explain either the smell or the mere presence of a dozen lifeless skunks if she got pulled over.

Distracted from our conversation, Kwapis stares intently at the creature’s small black face. It’s the same trancelike state that overtook her in class. She mounted the skunk just a day and a half ago. The pelt-drying process normally takes more than a week, but to her surprise, it’s already time to remove the pins that are keeping the skunk’s features from twisting into a grimace as its skin desiccates. “This is so exciting,” she murmurs as she pulls out the pins and places them on the table, the heads perfectly aligned. Precision, after all, is key when your business is slicing apart dead things and sewing them back into a semblance of being.

In a few minutes, she’ll leave for her best friend’s birthday dinner at a sushi restaurant in Wicker Park. She’s already dressed for the night, sporting a cozy mustard-colored sweater and rainbow-hued scarf, and fully made up with red lipstick and impeccably drawn cat eyes. She and her friend will wander around the neighborhood and stop by Myopic Books to buy each other presents, two 20-something women having the time of their lives.

But for the moment, the prospect of a delightful evening doesn’t matter. Right now, she’s enchanted—just a girl and her dead skunk.

 

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