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One Man’s ROADKILL is Another Woman’s Art

The strange and beautiful world of anthropomorphic taxidermy

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What was once reserved for proud hunters and bereaved pet owners has been recreated as art. Say goodbye to that trophy buck mounted above grandpappy's urn on the mantel, and hello to Thumper, the Easy Rider-themed biker, and all of the other machinations of Paige Olson's wonderfully weird mind. Olson takes dearly departed mice, rats, guinea pigs and rabbits-to name a few-and breathes a little life back into them.

Olson's wares are being sold at Riverside's 5 Points Vintage on Park Street, a place replete with relics and oddities spanning the decades. According to 5 Points Vintage manager Heidi McMullen, the reaction to Olson's art so far has been entirely positive, and she's happy to see that people aren't put off by taxidermied mice, pufferfish and the like, decked out in holiday regalia, costumes and more.

 

The collection of her art is just as odd as it is varied, taking inspiration from all over, Olson says. "I think I take a lot of it from what's going on in the world sometimes. I like to use a lot of humor. Also, just people in general," Olson explained. "I've got a lot of artist friends and just the things they create and I see. You know, just things that make me happy."

The shop's front window display is currently Christmas-themed. On Tuesday, we saw, at the feet of a female (human...mostly) mannequin, Santa hat at a jaunty angle adorning her rat head, a model train-piloted by a duckling, also in a hat, with various animals dressed like Santa as passengers-chugging a circuitous route through the display, to the surprised delight of onlookers. On one side, Ebenezer Rat is spotted next to the Holy Angel Rat. Toward the front of the case, a trio of rodent carolers greets window shoppers. In the back of the store, a display case holds Andy Warhol Mouse, a group of Santa-hat-wearing pufferfish and Chef Rat(-atouille, one assumes).

For Olson, working in anthropomorphic taxidermy was a natural progression in her art career. She studied at the prestigious Savannah College of Art & Design and has worked on a farm for more than 20 years. "I've worked with animals my whole life. I have always enjoyed bones and skeletons and those kinds of thing. I've pretty much seen everything and worked with everything," she said.

Olson says that though she's been a taxidermist for only a year, she already gets odd requests from time to time. It's not particularly surprising, given that her work includes such delightful creations as a taxidermied rat dressed as Miley Cyrus circa the "Wrecking Ball" video, wrecking ball and all. If Olson can create it, she's amenable to trying just about anything-the rare exception being an 11-foot-long alligator, a project she vehemently refused. One of the more interesting requests she's received might raise some eyebrows.

"The weirdest thing I've ever gotten was, I think, a stripper," said Olson. "And I've got one at the shop. A stripper rat on a pole. I made a bigger version of something similar."

Olson's technique and style are, in part, inspired by legendary Victorian era anthropomorphic taxidermist Walter Potter.

Potter is famous for intricate and elaborate scenes, called tableaux, depicting taxidermied animals doing everyday human activities. Examples include a squirrel smoking a cigar and playing poker, a cat playing croquet, and rabbits attending school and cheating off each other's work. One of his most famous tableaux, , from 1861, took almost seven years to complete in his spare time; it includes nearly 100 birds, a few of which are species now extinct. Potter's take on the artform rides that thin line between sweet innocence and creepy nightmare.

Using Potter's methods, Olson says, "On average, it takes about four hours for something like a medium-sized rat, but then you have to let it set. You just use borax and you strip the skin. I let it set that way. I don't use chemicals or stuff like that."

Though Olson considers Potter an inspirational source, her humor and pop culture influences set her creations apart from that world's creepy side-most of the time. According to longtime friend Frances "G" Swaine, a lot of people love Olson's art, but not everyone. "Some people think it's weird, of course," said Swain. "But look around, there's weird everywhere."

One of Olson's most loyal supporters, Swaine has a mantel in her home as a platform for her friend's first creations. "I have one of the first ones she made," said Swain. "He's a little rat and he's an artist. He's got his artist apron on, his easel and his paintbrush. He's usually on the mantel, but he had to be put away in order to make room for Christmas decorations." Swaine added that throwing a tiny Santa hat on his little rodent head isn't entirely out of the question.

Olson also finds inspiration on the farm. Teeming with life, and the inevitable death that comes with it, the farm is both a good source for artistic enlightenment and sometimes an even better source for subjects, she explains. "It's amazing, the wildlife that you find because Mother Nature just takes its course. We don't hunt here," said Olson. "We've got 1,500 acres. Everything is just kept natural. So I can find a lot of stuff that just naturally passes."

Olson might work with the dead, but when it comes to procuring artistic subjects, a killer she is not. She keeps a research lab on speed-dial, from which she collects mice, rats and various subjects- they kick the bucket. Though Olson says it's sad that they're being used in a lab, at least she's not explicitly going out of her way to kill animals for the purpose of stuffing them. For those who prefer the natural order, Mother Nature's route, roadkill is also a viable option.

Asked if she has people on the lookout for potential subjects on the road, Olson said, "I wish sometimes, but they all think I'm crazy. My brother, bless his heart, he's got a squirrel in his freezer right now."

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