Sat, Apr 18, 2015 - Page 7 News List

Museum’s classes offer slice of life and death

NY Times News Service, NEW YORK

Down in the basement, dead pigeons lay on their backs, wings splayed, their bodies sliced open at the breastbone. White powder, an abrasive, was sprinkled liberally over the carcasses. Then a hand carefully reached in behind each of the birds’ knees and tugged, patiently pulling the torsos free from the wings.

This was not part of some kind of odd ritual or a scene from a disturbing horror movie. It was just another Saturday afternoon taxidermy class at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn. Other classes, which typically sell out in advance, have featured chipmunks and the heads of mammals, like coyotes or foxes.

“We started offering taxidermy classes about five years ago and they were an immediate and insane sensation,” Joanna Ebenstein, the museum’s creative director, said. “At one point we had a 600-person waiting list.”

Katie Innamorato, 25, one of the two taxidermists who teaches the classes, said most students had a serious interest in taxidermy or loved nature and the natural sciences.

For women, who represent a vast majority of the students, taxidermy is also a chance to learn a new and unusual craft.

“There is something taboo about this, so it’s as if we are expressing our repressed tomboy nature,” she said.

Innamorato, who prefers the larger mammals (“Squirrels are as small as I like to go”), said men tend to show up for a chance to slice into the heads of larger animals.

Some smaller animals, like mice and rabbits, often end up wearing clothes and posed in atypical positions — this is called rogue taxidermy.

“I think they get the anthropomorphic treatment because they’re cute and they’re featured in stories when we’re children,” she said.

Divya Anantharaman, the other taxidermist teaching the classes, said she preferred “the small, overlooked animals we don’t value as much.”

She came by her fascination early.

“My mom was a biology teacher and she had skins and lamb’s brains in jars in her classroom, so that had a huge influence on the way I saw nature and wildlife,” Anantharaman, 30, said. “I was able to see anatomy as something that isn’t gross, but that is pretty cool.”

Anantharaman’s first attempt at animal preservation failed.

“I was five or six and saw a lizard had died in our bug zapper,” she said. “I put it in my box with my collections of rocks and seashells. Of course it stunk after a few days.”

Her mother explained to her how animals were best preserved, but barred her from bringing home any roadkill. After Anantharaman moved from Miami to Brooklyn to study fashion and art at Pratt Institute, she worked as a shoe designer, but taught herself taxidermy and then studied with a taxidermist in upstate New York.

Two years ago, she became a full-time taxidermist, selling art pieces and later becoming a taxidermist in residence at the museum.

The museum, which opened in Gowanus last year as an outgrowth of Ebenstein’s blog, library collection and course offerings, explores the rituals and oddities surrounding human life, and especially death.

The six students in the fancy pigeon class ranged in age from 17 to 57; all but one was a woman.

“It’s kind of weird I’m the only guy here,” said Danilo Miglietta, who lives in Brooklyn, and who “likes to support my local creepy places.”

Half the students were from Manhattan, though Hanna Cable, 17, had traveled from Lexington, Kentucky, saving her money and persuading her mother, Katrina, to drive to Brooklyn during her spring break.

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