Interview by Filep Motwary
It seems a sense of frightening realness is the essential quality that makes for a supreme piece of taxidermy. This hyperrealism makes the lifeless seem animate—but what does it take to play the role of God? Filep Motwary met taxidermist Hedwig Snoeckx at her atelier, a former school that she turned into her workspace with her late husband; a place filled with animal casts, pieces of fur and hair, an old piano, a coffin turned into a bookshelf, antlers, skeletons and her two pets: a fox terrier and a pot-bellied pig named Speedy. A surreal Saturday morning in the countryside of Tongeren in Belgium.
FILEP MOTWARY: How you did you start out in taxidermy?
HEDWIG SNOECKX: I wanted to create forms by sculpting and this interest was already visible from a very early age. I was making things in clay. Nobody in my family was affiliated with anything close to the arts. At university I met Dirk, my husband, who was my teacher and we shared the same interests in biology, animals and forms and that’s how we got together.
He was already moulding things like animals for museums and also making forms for taxidermists and that’s how we connected—we shared the same passion. Our home became our creative sanctuary. I look mostly for organic forms that interest and connect me to nature…
FM: What is so interesting about “reforming” life after death?
HS: Initially it is the only way to preserve the past, animals that are extinct… You know, it is really bad, this unawareness for so many beautiful animals that lived on our planet. I see it as my duty to show them. So many people never go out of their homes or don’t have this feeling to explore further. Okay, they go to the zoo but there are so many other smaller or bigger animals you will never come across unless you search for them. We recreate to put them out there, in exhibitions and museums for everyone to see and form an opinion. If we reconstruct a species, the work is based on the form of the skeleton and we mostly begin by building the muscles and even then research is necessary.
We talk to scientists, read history and biology books, read articles—but it is never enough. There are some things you will never actually know, like the colour of the skin, for example, as there are so many shades in it, the look in the eyes… On the other hand what I like about “building” an extinct animal only by the way they are described in old books is that their recreation becomes a challenge. Searching for information on something extinct is much deeper and longer and it varies depending on the information you have. In two months, depending on the size, you can make a really nice sculpture of what once could have been.
FM: How did you find the space in which you are currently working? When I first visited, it felt like I was entering a wonderland!
HS: We had a very nice big studio in Hasselt in the old gelatine factory and the area was in the process of renovation. We knew that sooner or later we should start searching for a new working space and we desperately wanted a place close to nature but also a building with a history of its own. We came across this empty old school in the middle of nowhere, outside Tongeren, between two villages surrounded by forests and horses. Here, not only can I work very close to what I am trying to preserve within my profession but I can also keep my own sheep, chickens and a pot-bellied pig as a house pet.
FM: It seems like taxidermists have to be familiar with many different subject areas and skill sets. You are a sculptor with deep knowledge in a variety of different applications such as bronze casting, making of silicone and polyester moulds, as well as anatomy and skull reconstruction. What did you study?
HS: At art school I did sculpture. It was the place where I learned all about anatomy by watching and reading. It is true that some taxidermists aren’t sculptors. Nowadays if you want to mount a deer, let’s say, you can easily buy a polyurethane deer form and just dress it with the skin of the animal. There’s a market out there with everything needed to put together an animal so one does not really need to be a sculptor these days.
Others work traditionally and are able to make the animal forms from scratch, like myself, using anatomy and so on. It is a much longer and much more expensive process in the making and also selling it is profitable. It takes longer to make a rhino form for example compared to buying one. In this business there are people who don’t even know how to start making the form and that’s when we are called in to create for others.
FM: How hard is it to recreate “the real thing”?
HS: The difficulty is when you have animals with fur: they cannot be easily copied, as their look will never look the same as in reality. With furless animals like the crocodile or the rhino we use resin to reconstruct them. This is the good thing about casting animals like these, or turtles for example, because you do the hard work on a single animal and then you can mould them and produce exact copies for 20 different museums without needing any of the animals to die.
FM: What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
HS: The problem people have is the fact that we work with dead animals. They mostly ask us, “Did you kill it?” The answer is no, we never kill animals. They come from zoos and private sources and all die naturally before they are supplied to us to work with, always depending on what the client wants.
FM: Taxidermists in Europe seem to all know and collaborate with each other… How come?
HS: Personally I work closely with three taxidermists, as it is impossible for one to have the knowledge to do everything, like in every profession. I am very good at casting, painting and making figurines; another friend is a specialist in making lions and so on. We know each other’s skills, so when I need a lion I won’t bother doing it myself for example; I go to him for help. Or when he needs a rhino he comes to me. So it is an exchange of services and skills at the end of the day and this is why we work so perfectly together which results in high quality products for the clients.
FM: You are first and foremost a sculptor. How much is there in common between taxidermy and sculpture? Would you call taxidermy an art?
HS: No, I don’t think of it as art. It’s a craft: you need the skills to make a dead animal lifelike but that’s not a piece of art. You are making a craft piece.
FM: What’s the rarest specimen you have ever worked on?
HS: I have the mould of a coelacanth, a prehistoric fish closely related to lungfish, reptiles and mammals, that lives 300 meters under sea level at night and much deeper during the day, which was thought to be extinct. Also the dodo, the extinct flightless bird that was endemic to the island of Mauritius. The story goes back to the time when the Dutchmen would use it to fire their boat’s steam engines…
FM: Can you talk us through the taxidermy process?
HS: The first thing to do is to skin the animal, clean and tan it. Then you take measurements of the skin and you sculpt the form. When you finish, you measure the skin on the form. It works the other way round if we compare it with making fashion, where you measure the model to make the clothes. In taxidermy you start with the full “garment” for the animal form to be adjusted on. When the skin fits around, you sew it and place the glass eyes to finish it off.
FM: When you work on historic taxidermy pieces, how do you make decisions about improving their appearance versus preserving their historic look?
HS: That’s a difficult one. We recently did a restoration of an elephant that was a very old piece of taxidermy and the person who made it back then was not very familiar with the natural look of the animal and had never come across one in his life. He placed the tusks in the wrong position and when we started preserving it, we realized there was something wrong about it. Yet, we did not do anything, as it would be a mistake to change someone’s work, for we had to also preserve the perception of the sculptor.
It’s very strange… You know the 16th-century rhino drawing, a woodcut, by Albrecht Durer? He did it without ever seeing a rhino and he based the drawing on a written description and a brief sketch. It is incredible how close it was to the reality of the animal.
FM: How would you say your surroundings, and Belgium in general, have influenced your work?
HS: In Belgium you have to be your own boss. If you want to create, all you have to do is start and finish it yourself, from cutting wood to putting together the iron frame. It’s a hard job and needs a certain will to carry things sometimes. You depend on your physical strength and passion. Not all animals are small, you know—some are half the size of my living room. It is hard to prove yourself in Belgium— some museums buy things abroad because they don’t know they can find the same quality and skills here. For example, at the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren, where I live now, they found us by the work we did in a museum in France.
When they asked who the executor was, the French museum laughed and told them we only lived 30 kilometres from their museum and right after they came to visit us. We have made a lot of sculptures for their museum.
FM: What is most challenging about what you do?
HS: The search for something new to research and create.
FM: There are not many taxidermists in Europe—why is that?
HS: It’s not a common profession with a platform to study and become a taxidermist in Belgium. So most professionals come from families of taxidermists— the techniques are passed from one generation to the next. Businesswise also. Others start working as a taxidermist’s apprentice to learn. In the Netherlands, the profession is more established and you need a license from a specific organization to work. They also give courses. Generally speaking, it’s a difficult life choice. It’s not like selling cars for example.
This job is very diverse and requires a lot of skills. It is also a very lonely profession and has different stages! To have an estimate of how many taxidermists work in Europe, you can go for example to a championship like the one in Longarone in Italy, that takes place every two years among other competitions. Some of them just do it as a hobby.
FM: What are you working on now?
HS: A project focusing on snakes and reptiles for the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren to be presented after the museum’s renovation. The work I am doing now is for their permanent collection. I need to finish around 100 different species, some in an environment. In parallel, I am speaking with scientists about their behaviour, etc. The project needs to be ready by December 2016