You never forget your first deer, especially when it took several days to skin, stuff and dye the fur pink. It was 2013 and Allis Markham was working as a director of social media strategy at Disney in the Los Angeles area when she decided to spend two weeks in Montana to learn the art of taxidermy. At the time, she was interested in creating avant-garde pieces that merged her love of wildlife with her passion for art, hence the pink deer.
She went on to volunteer at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and studied under Tim Bovard, the museum’s head taxidermist. “I volunteered so long I think they were embarrassed to not pay me anymore,” Markham remembers.
Though she says she would have paid them for the experience, she officially became part of the team after a year of apprenticeship. Her time there shifted her focus from “rogue taxidermy” to creating works that were true to their natural state. (She gave the pink deer away.)
Today, you can find her work in museums and nature centers across the country, as well as in the lobby of the NoMad Hotel in Los Angeles, on television shows such as “Bates Motel” and in an ad for a fragrance company in Vanity Fair. She collaborated with famous floral designer Eric Buterbaugh on rooster diffusers for his perfume line, curiously named “Flock of Coqs.” The two previous production runs of the diffusers sold out at $3,900 each, and Markham is currently sourcing fowl for a third collection.
A petite woman who sometimes wears vintage Victorian lace gowns, Markham is not the image of a traditional practitioner of taxidermy, long a male-dominated profession. But she enjoys turning any expectation you have about taxidermy on its ear — then skinning it, stuffing it and making it into a piece of art.
In October, I went to meet her at her studio, Prey Taxidermy, in L.A.’s hip Highland Park neighborhood. Reanimated animals inhabit every corner: an opossum made by her perky assistant, Paloma Strong; a mountain lion being prepped for a nature center; and many species of birds.
Markham is a self-proclaimed “bird nerd” who loves commissions for birds that allow her to explore creatively. Her favorite specimen in her studio is an African jacana that earned her the incredible distinction of third place at the 2017 World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships. The “creepy-looking” bird, as she describes him, stands suspended in a slick pool of resin. He forever levitates one of his Edward Scissorhands-like claws, mimicking the movement he once made as he traversed lily pads in sub-Saharan lakes.
Perched serenely on her worktable is a rare albino raven named Pearl, who lived her life as a bird educator at a wildlife rehabilitation center before meeting an untimely end when she escaped and was shot just a few hours later. A lifelong bird-watcher, Markham was touched by Pearl’s sad story and took on the case pro bono so Pearl could return to her mission of education.
Markham’s current project is a peacock for a private client in Chicago that comes with an added challenge. The client’s small children present a feather-plucking or pedestal-tipping risk to floor or table perches, including her classic Victorian glass dome displays. Fortunately, this home has a two-story-tall entryway, which allowed Markham to dream up a ceiling-mounted, deconstructed perch.
The Prey Taxidermy process always starts with the base, which can be made from upcycled, vintage materials — pieces of wood or old bases — that Markham sands and shapes with her favorite band saw. For small birds, she often uses a porcelain display called an Aves diorama, designed for her by the popular ceramist Heather Rosenman. For the peacock, she’s using a custom plastics company to produce the perfect foundation.
Once the sketches for the perch are approved, Markham dreams up her design for the bird’s pose. This peacock will appear to be flying up the wall, thereby drawing the eye upward and enhancing the grand entrance of the home.
Next, she needs to source the perfect bird — and timing is everything. “They need to be in good feather,” she explains. This means that it has to die and be properly preserved in fall, winter or early spring when its feathers are full for keeping warm and mating. If she can’t find a single bird with the right look, Markham can make what she calls a Frankenbird, an amalgamation of two or three birds that she hand-stitches together, but it’s always better to sculpt from a single specimen. For private clients, she might need to call her contacts to locate the ideal animal, but she also keeps an inventory of more than 1,500 skins sorted between three freezers in the studio.
Most of the specimens she works with died of natural causes or accidents. (It’s very important to Markham that people know she and her clients aren’t killing animals for art.) She chuckles thinking of the weird phone calls and texts she receives. This morning she woke up to a woman offering her a dead marmoset. Calls come from zoos, rescues, breeders and farmers. “Wherever you have livestock, you also have deadstock,” Markham says.
Generally when she gets a specimen, she prepares it for storage herself. Markham, who also teaches taxidermy classes, explains the skinning process matter-of-factly: “Imagine peeling an orange in such a way that you’re making as few cuts as possible to the skin so you can easily remove the tasty orange on the inside.” The delicious fruit in this case is everything inside the animal that would attract pests and decay.
Next, she may add clay to create a particular expression or wires inside to hold the head at a curious angle, then she always finishes her birds with a fabulous blowout to fluff the feathers. Every custom item is made to museum standards. “I’ve helped restore pieces that have been around for 100 years,” Markham says. If she does her job right, her creations should last forever.