Taxidermy first took off in the 19th Century, when a Victorian Era fascination with science, combined with a steadfast Industrial Revolution belief in man’s supremacy over nature, led to mounted birds being displayed in nearly every British home. The skinning, tanning, stuffing and molding trade — taxidermy in Greek literally means “arrangement of skin” — further exploded when exotic big-game hunting became the ultimate sign of affluence.
As a result, a display of taxidermy today is often conflated with the size of one’s ego. But there’s a strain of the art, called anthropomorphic taxidermy, that briefly sprouted in the steampunk shadows of the 1850s, ’60s and ’70s — animals dressed up in human clothes and shown in human situations, like Hermann Ploucquet’s tea-drinking kittens, Walter Potter’s school-going rabbits or Edward Hart’s boxing squirrels.
Anthropomorphic taxidermy quickly faded from public view but, 130 years later, the genre has been reborn and revamped in the hands of New Smyrna Beach artist Ryan Hanley, who injects heavy doses of black metal, biker punk and even S&M influences into his pieces. Hanley’s mounted squirrels rock leather jackets and electric guitars, hold guns and flip middle fingers and, in homage to Hart, don boxing gloves and drink from whiskey bottles. In a controversial move akin to Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan’s 1996 sculpture of a squirrel slumped over a table with a pistol against its head, some are even nailed to crosses.
A Florida native, Hanley specializes in Sunshine State species. Armadillos are fashioned into lamps and wrist cuffs, frightening-looking raccoons are strapped down to bondage tables — stickers advertising those shocking pieces read “I DIE FOR TAXIDERMY” — and garfish clutch antiquated light bulbs in their jagged jaws. Paws of all kinds are transformed into simple yet shocking keychains.
Hanley will display several of these pieces and others, which sell to collectors all over the world, at Anchor Boutique in St. Augustine on May 31.
Hanley isn’t all high art, however; he still does standard taxidermy work — mounting alligators for hunters, sportfish for anglers and deceased pets for grieving owners. But it’s his cutting-edge work that has attracted the most attention — and the most sales via his wife Jen’s online Etsy shop, The Wild Few.
Evidence of Hanley’s trade adorns the walls of his and his wife’s New Smyrna Beach home, which is covered from floor to ceiling with shoulder mounts, skeletons, full-body bear rugs and turtle molds, voodoo trinkets, demonic masks, old records and books, vintage photographs, junkie art and other tchotchkes. While he handles most of the gruesome intestine removal, flesh curing and carcass disposal in his fenced-off backyard, Ryan performs the rest of his craft at an impeccably clean table on an airy sunporch attached to the house. The setup seems benign, until closer examination reveals a fleshing wheel, skull repair tools and teeth and eye molds — along with a freezer in the corner stocked with unusual specimens like otter, bobcat and coyote.
Though genial and, at times, excitable, Hanley prefers to let his finished products do the talking. During an interview, he kept most answers to clipped statements like “When I started making my squirrels, there was nothing else like it, which I guess is why it sold so good.” He does deliver a solid zinger, however, when asked about the hours he spends looking for fresh roadkill, cleaning carcasses and refashioning cured flesh into collectible art (“I guess I’m kind of making life last forever,” he says). “I love working with animals,” he says, laughing. “Probably way more than I like working with humans.”
Hanley can trace this feeling back to elementary school science camp, when he was fascinated with finding and reconstructing animal bones, even convincing a teacher to let him work with hydrochloric acid and a pig fetus. The journey to taxidermy wasn’t direct; from age 18 to 27, Hanley worked as a garbage man, played guitar in a punkabilly band, constructed cabinets with his father and built up a successful office-cleaning business. The cleaning, done mostly at night, afforded him time during the day to apprentice with Robert Bishop of DeLand’s Quality Taxidermy, where he spent 18 months learning the trade and impressing the hard-to-please elder craftsman.
“He was a hard-ass — a crazy motherfucker,” Hanley says. “I had to do five alligators on my first day, and I didn’t take the fat off the first two. So he made me work harder. But he could see that it wasn’t just a job to me; it was something I loved to do, so he treated me like I was his own son. He didn’t even charge me the normal $2,000 that he makes people who want to learn pay. He’s proud of where I’ve taken it.”
Hanley admits he wasn’t looking to turn his taxidermy into a paying gig. But Jen, who buys vintage biker fashions from area flea markets and upcycles them for a profit on Etsy, says that as soon she posted one of Ryan’s heat-packing squirrels on her online store, followers immediately asked where they could buy one. Learning that a strapping, 6-foot-tall, 32-year-old who sports black jeans, metal T-shirts and slicked-back hair did the work only added to its allure. “When you picture a taxidermist, you think of a 65-year-old redneck with a beard,” Jen says. “But even the rednecks think Ryan is crazy.”
“People can never believe I’m just over 30,” Ryan adds. “And everyone thinks we live in New York or L.A. — not New Smyrna Beach.”
But rednecks are far from Hanley’s only constituency. He’s done a pigeon in full death repose for artist Nate Lowman, who installed it on the floor of Peter Brant’s gallery in the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, Greenwich, Connecticut, underneath Maurizio Cattelan’s pigeons, which are permanently installed in the rafters. Fashion-forward magazines from Australia to Russia have featured his work. And Sweat Shop Media, which produces reality TV shows for Spike, True TV and History, is even in the process of turning Hanley’s story and work into a pilot called Roadkill, Inc.
Yet Hanley’s only local exhibitions have been at St. Augustine’s Anchor Boutique, owned by Laurel Baker [Cover Story, “I Want to Rock,” Nick McGregor, April 24, 2013]. As he did last year, Hanley will bring along homemade French macaroons for his May 31 show at Anchor; asked about the incongruity of a taxidermist making baked confections, he says he tried a $3 version once in New York, liked it, and figured he could make them better (and cheaper) himself.
That internal stereotype-defying motivation drives Hanley’s taxidermy, too. “People always told me, ‘You can’t do a gar,'” Hanley says. “Now I catch them all the time and have 20 done up with light bulbs that sell well. [Hipsters] are into it, which is good for me, because I can make a lot of money on them.” Pressing a finger to his lips, he jokingly whispers, “Just don’t tell anybody.”
But Hanley deserves credit for more than just turning cast-aside dead animals into scintillating (and lucrative) collectibles. He’s revived a forgotten 150-year-old art form — and a staid, often-misunderstood modern trade — by embracing his own love of biker, rock ‘n’ roll and sexual imagery. “Boring taxidermy is everywhere,” he says. “Nobody wants boring. They want to see cool shit.”