Entombed in porcelain, her squashed hedgehogs live to fight another day

Click to follow
The British are great animal lovers. They treasure their collections of miniature ornaments; their mantelpieces are lined with china badgers, owls, foxes and weasels. Sadly the roads are all too often decorated with nothing but the carcasses of the real-life versions.

Peggy Atherton, a 27-year-old protest artist, feels that the number of "road-kills" flies in the face of any suggestion that we are fond of our furry friends. To ram home her point she turns the dead animals into art.

Her "ghostly ornaments" which are "so much more beautiful", even when dead, than more-usual china equivalents will form part of the forthcoming anti-car exhibition to be held at Newbury, Berkshire.

Art Bypass: Road Works, which takes place this Sunday on a mile-long stretch of unspoiled farmland adjacent to the proposed Newbury bypass route, is designed to highlight the destructiveness of the car.

Miss Atherton, a Bath College of Higher Education graduate, scrapes off the road any animal that she finds run over - be it a squashed frog, sparrow or hedgehog, or something larger like a fox or badger - and takes it back to her north-London studio, where she dips it in porcelain and fires it in her kiln at 900C. Any flesh, feathers or fur burns to ash and the ceramic retains the exact shape of the creature inside.

Cast in the positions in which they died, some of the animals are too mangled to recognise.

"I get really upset," said Miss Atherton. "I find it really tragic, especially when I find owls and badgers and hedgehogs. They just don't bring any grief to anyone yet they seem to be killed constantly on the road because of careless driving. I've never actually seen an owl or badger alive. I feel really sickened and it drives me on."

She has cremated more than 100 animals since she started peeling her subjects off the road two years ago. She said: "I was driving down the countryside one day and saw so many animals and thought 'I want to do something for them'. I'm trying to give them their last rites. I suppose it's like a tomb. I was trying to think of a way of giving them a ceremony and linked it with the idea of ornamentation in the home. We have animals as ornaments but we treat the live ones with such little respect and don't really think anything of their environment."

Before her present exhibition at The Cut Gallery in London, Miss Atherton would always return the ceramic animals to the place where she found them. "It was my own little protest," she said. "I wanted to capture the moment of the 'road kill'. I wanted the person who ran them over to drive back along the same road and see the animal on the road. It's like a memory which will prick people's consciences."

So far she has sold two works - a weasel for pounds 350 and a blackbird for pounds 300 to a couple from London. "They just [thought] they were so beautiful," she said. "Rather than having a fake animal they wanted to have the real thing. They wanted people to think 'It's a road kill' every time they saw them."

Art Bypass, organised by Friends of the Earth and the Life Arts Research Centre at the University of Brighton, plans to include sculpture, performance, land-art and film which will provide "an interactive journey through a virtual motorway experience". Christo and Jeanne Claude, famous for the wrapping up of large objects, such as the Reichstag, in Berlin, are among the participating artists. Their wrapped Volvo 122-S sports sedan will form part of the show.

A Friends of the Earth spokesman said: "Art Bypass asks fundamental questions about our relationship with the motor car. By staging this significant arts event adjacent to the bypass route at Newbury we hope to explore [with a] wider audience the reality of what nine miles of motorway will mean to this landscape."

Meanwhile, Miss Atherton cannot see an end in sight. She does not think she will ever be able to stop cremating animals. She keeps finding them on the road and is riddled with guilt if she ignores them. "It's taken over. It's quite strange, if I don't pick them up I feel like I haven't given them their last rites."