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Ethical taxidermy turned into art

It’s not every day you find yourself trying to pull teeth out of an elk skull. One student, Alinnea Christiansen, a third-year justice studies major at Westminster College, has always had a fascination with bones and postmortem aesthetic. Now Christiansen uses taxidermy to make pieces of art.

Taxidermy is the craft of preserving an animal’s body for display. There are multiple styles of taxidermy, but people like Christensen are reinventing where the animals are sourced from.

“I think it’s neat what she’s doing,” said August Henry, third-year neuroscience major biology minor. “I like that she finds the animals instead of killing them.”

Christiansen suffered a knee injury while snowboarding in November that led to a self-proclaimed “ego death.” She said she needed to find another outlet of expression while her snowboarding career was on pause.

“I think it’s [taxidermy jewelry] such a unique idea,” said Anna Zielinski,
second-year accounting major. “I love the concept so much. I probably would never wear it but I think it’s such a good idea.”

Maybe animal remains are still widely stigmatized in Western culture. Christiansen remained committed to sharing her art, while also hoping to encourage others to rethink their relationship with death.

The Forum sat down with Alinnea Christiansen to talk more about her art medium. Some answers have been lightly edited for conciseness and clarity.

Q: What would you call this medium? How did you get into it?  

A: So essentially, this is taxidermy in its biggest form. Bone cleaning can sometimes be referred to just as bone curation or the skull cleaning and mounting is European taxidermy or European mounting. And the jewelry art I make with these materials is post-mortem artwork.

I got into it because I’ve always kind of been like a bone kid. I’ve always been into the outdoors.

And as I was growing up, I would like to just look for bones, and kind of had a fascination with that sort of aesthetic of the postmortem. So when I hurt my knee back in November, it kind of just stumbled into my lap. 

I had a friend text me and ask if I wanted a female elk skull that she found at her construction site. And I said, ‘Yeah, why not?’ I ordered my first colony of Dermestidae beetles and I just hit the ground running from there.

Q: Can you explain the process, the beetles you’ve mentioned, and kind of how you go about cleaning everything. If you decide something’s worth keeping or not.

A: So actually this elk skull came in totally smashed. So if it’s not a full skull, it’s not usable. But with that elk skull, I’m actually pulling its teeth out and that’s elk ivory, which sells really high in the jewelry world.

Taxidermy earrings made of ethically-sourced mummified chickadee claws.
Taxidermy earrings made of ethically-sourced mummified chickadee claws. Alinnea Christiansen says making taxidermy art has helped her feel comfortable with death. (Photo courtesy: Alinnea Christiansen)

So, I’m currently processing the elk ivory and I’m going to make some jewelry with that. Processing the ivory is just a process of a lot of boiling, ammonia bleaching repeat.

When I have fresh specimens, it can go one of a few ways. 

It can go to the beetles. They’re called Dermestidae beetles. They’re flesh-eating bugs that eat dead things only. They wouldn’t eat something living. I put a lot of my delicate bones, like bird skulls in there.

Otherwise if it’s, not as fresh, I’ll boil it down. I have an outdoor boiler and a turkey fryer and I let it boil down outside. 

Or if I’m not stripping the flesh at all, and I’m going to be mummifying the animal like I did with my bird earrings, those are mummified feet. I start the embalming process and I locked him in a saltbox for a while.

Once they’ve been defleshed, which can happen through any of those processes, they again have to go through another boiling. Then I get ammonia to bleach them and process the bones for a few days.

Sometimes I’ll sun bleach, just leave them outside for a few weeks. You can even bury your animals and just leave them for a season. They’ll come out, looking a lot more earth-torn.

Q: Why do you think you’re drawn to taxidermy

A: We live in a Western culture that likes to act like death isn’t real. Death is something that isn’t taboo to be discussed. And Western culture is one of the only ones that does that because we’re all going to die.

I see this as a way to a) become more comfortable with the concept of death and b) to honor something in its post-life. The expression of art from something that has passed on, it’s just a new renovation of that life.

Again, in our Western society that acts like death isn’t a real thing. To surround yourself with it, to become familiar with it, to become comfortable with it, is incredibly important. And the more you try to deny that phenomenon, it’s going to become even more difficult for you. So I just feel uncomfortable with it and I think it makes the whole life process, the circle of life so much easier to come to terms with.

Q: I know you’re on the snowboard team. How does the energy you bring to your art compare, contrast to the energy you bring snowboarding?

A: If you think about a massive snowboard jump and a dead animal, both of those things would probably scare you a little bit.

The way that I attack things that I’m scared of, is just head on full force. I just have to conquer this and then I’m going to feel so good about myself. 

I really feel those similarities through my art and my snowboarding. This is so scary and weird and like, what’s going to happen next and just having that sort of elated feeling when I’m skinning an animal or going off of a jump.

Q: What parts of your life inspire you to create? Specifically the jewelry pieces you mentioned. Where do you pull that inspiration from? 

A: So, a lot of it comes from global cultures. There’s obviously a lot of cultures around the world that will use animal remains as body decoration, jewelry, clothing, material. It can be ritualistic, it can be religious, and it is more normalized around other places of the world.

We as a culture need to be more okay with death. So it’s not something that we’re in denial about. It’s not something that we need to scorn and call gross or disgusting or scary because it’s natural and it’s going to happen to all of us. 

The more that we embrace it and see the aesthetic value of it, I think it can just help to ease the pain for when death does occur in your life.

Q: With creating your jewelry pieces do you feel like you create this for yourself? Or do you make this, your art, to share with others?

A: It’s definitely a ‘Me process’ because there are people that don’t even want to look at my art. There’s people that think, ‘That’s so disgusting. Don’t even talk to me about this.’ I love the people that are on board with it.

It really started as something I did for myself, just because I’m so fascinated by the process.

But as soon as I started the jewelry production, I guess it is a little bit more for other people just to kind of spread my message of comfortableness with death. 

I also did not mention in the beginning of this, I will not taxidermy anything that hasn’t died organically. I’m an ethical taxidermist. All of my specimens have died on their own, little birds that hit windows. I’ve been called to pull out a fox from under a porch. I’ve been called about rat traps and mouse traps. That’s another part of that embracing the actual circle of life. 

I know a lot of people will taxidermy stuff that got hunted. I don’t really like that. 

I think I would like it to be something that I could share more, but I am met with a very negative reaction when I share my art with people. I’ve been called Dexter. I’ve been asked if I’m a serial killer, I have been asked if I could find a new hobby, these kinds of things. 

I think people are really uncomfortable with the fact that I do this. I think they find it very strange, but that’s more fuel for me to share it with the world.

Q: The field of taxidermy, as a whole, I’d assume is pretty male-dominated. Do you think the fact of being female contributes to the backlash you receive?

A: Absolutely. And I think people think with the feminine stigma that we’re dainty and small and adorable and cute should not be playing with dead things. 

It’s so typical for a man to go out and shoot a deer, bring it home, skin it up and that’s considered manly.

But when a woman does it, that’s especially when I get met with those, ‘Can you find a different hobby?’ and, ‘Have you tried crocheting?’ And yeah I have, it was fun, but it’s not for me.

It’s so rare to find a woman in taxidermy, I’ve only met one other woman in Salt Lake. It really is hard. I do know that’s a lot of reasons people get uncomfortable with the fact that I do this, girls shouldn’t play with dead things. 

Q: Is there anything else you want people to know?

A: I just want the message to be, that it doesn’t need to be something that’s disgusting, or fearful to people. I think that’s the main message that I want to convey with my art. 

And my process is this doesn’t need to be something that’s labeled and stigmatized as disgusting, horrendous and repulsive. It’s just not it’s life, and a new way to honor it and an artistic aesthetic value. 

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Emmaline Russell is a senior communication major from Cincinnati, Ohio. She is heavily involved in Westminster College's athletic community. Emmaline is captain of the women's lacrosse team and serves on the SAAC board. When she is not on the field or in the classroom, you can find her enjoying a nearby trail or crag. If it's rainy, your next best bet is searching Salt Lake City's museums and art galleries.

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