Emily Mayer, 38
Taxidermist and sculptor
Taxidermist and sculptor - they're a bit different, aren't they?
Not really. In both cases you're working in 3D. Although I only formally trained as a sculptor when I was 25, I feel that I've been doing it all my life. My sculptures tend to be of animals, what's beneath the surface and the way they feel to me, so there is an overlap with taxidermy.
How did you get interested in dead animals?
It was a childhood obsession. We lived in London and I was always hanging around the Natural History Museum and was fascinated by animals, dead or alive. My dad brought home a dead wild rabbit for me to work on - quite how he found it in central London I don't know. I must have been about 12. I had a weekend job working in a pet shop and they gave me dead birds to take home. You know when you're at school and they ask you to list careers? I put down taxidermy as number one followed by jack-of-all-trades and then pig farmer. I haven't worked as a pig farmer but have always enjoyed variety.
Quite. What sort of training do you need?
There's very little training in this country. I did an apprenticeship but the people who were teaching me knew bugger all so I gave up after eight months. I learnt by practising in a shed and, more importantly, by joining the guild and learning from people who knew what they were doing. It organises workshop demonstrations but there isn't much in the way of formal training.I went to the States and studied informally with a commercial taxidermist in Maine. Unless you're very determined you don't get far. Everyone has their own ideas and it's constantly developing.
What unusual animals have you stuffed?
They're not stuffed: you have to replace the inner structures and this will vary depending on the sort of animal or bird you are doing. I've done a couple of bears, an albino hedgehog I found flattened on the road, an albino grey squirrel, a tortoise and two severed cows' heads for Damian Hirst. I tend to do one-off commissions. Sometimes people want me to do their pets. Generally I talk them out of it but it can be quite a challenge trying to get the character back.
Where do you work?
I live with my husband in what was a workhouse hospital. He is an artist, a non-figurative colourist, and we both have separate studios. His is very tidy and organised while mine is a glory hole about 50ft by 16, full of whatever I'm working with. With the sculpture I use only recycled materials: steel, wood, leather or plastic so there is a lot of this all over the place, plus glass eyes and surgical equipment used for the taxidermy. I spend an awful lot of time in here because I like it.
What's an average day?
I wake up to Radio Four at seven and have a quick cup of tea and let in our four dogs. I work in a T-shirt and jeans. I entrench myself in the studio, often forgetting to eat lunch. When this happens I make a peanut butter sandwich around four. John usually cooks the evening meal - we have fish at least once week but sausages feature large. Sometimes we get hare or pheasant off the road. We eat in front of telly in the evenings, then I return to work and potter around. The last thing I do is put the dogs out.
How does John feel about what you do?
He's my second biggest fan. We don't tend to converse much about each other's work, but we are supportive. We haven't got kids but John has two children from a previous marriage and they're about my age - I'm a step-grandmother. We have been together eight or nine years but got married only two years ago.
Why was that?
I fancied a big party. It was a chance to get all the relatives together. It's the only time they get together unless you die.Reuse content