For 10 years, Pegi Taylor has been waging a bone-wearying battle. To her surprise and relief, she may have just won the first round.
Taylor, 51, a Milwaukee-based freelance writer, performance artist and art model, campaigns on behalf of human skeletons. She thinks there aren't enough around, and she's trying to get them back into classrooms across the nation.
She's also been searching for a way to keep her own skeleton intact and on display after she dies.
Taylor's quest began in the 1990s when she heard a drawing instructor complain about the lack of quality human skeletons for sale. Curious, she started to look into the issue.
But it was more than curiosity. Taylor loves skeletons: A collection in her bedroom includes fish, bird, deer, raccoon and horse bones. And she believes that the structure of her own physical being is beautiful, a feeling she has long harbored, if at first only subconsciously.
As a teenager, she was attacked with a razor blade. She escaped, but the experience made her reexamine her body and self.
"Being assaulted made me -- at the time unconsciously -- come to grips with my mortality," Taylor said, adding that the ordeal made her realize that her flesh and bones were not the most vulnerable part of her being.
But these thoughts went unrecognized until 1979, when she was pregnant with her daughter, Caitlin.
"This is when my study in anthropology connected on this very personal plane," she said. She went to a gallery show where she saw pen-and-ink sketches of pregnant women. She realized she wanted to be sketched, too.
"On paper I'd become part of the evolutionary family tree," she said, adding that it would enable her to "trace myself back through time to the first amoeba."
She started modeling for the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design. And as the years rolled on, she decided this was a role she'd like to continue -- beyond the grave.
The human skeleton plays an invaluable role in university classrooms. Skeletons serve to educate students -- from artists to anatomists -- about the form and function of the human body. Pathologists use them to understand disease. Forensic anthropologists look at them to better understand the variation that comes from sex, race, lifestyle and disease.
Unfortunately human skeletons are difficult to come by these days. Very few places sell them, and the few bone outlets that do exist charge a premium. Skulls Unlimited, an osteological warehouse, sells complete, reassembled human skeletons for $3,800, including stand.
"It's not as though I'm advocating for the use of skeletons," said Taylor. "I am responding to a national crisis," in which schools don't want to buy skeletons because of their expense and uncertain origin.
Indeed, she has lobbied Congress to start a national bone center. According to Taylor, she and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) have corresponded on the matter.
In the meantime, Taylor decided she needed to do something closer to home and has bequeathed her skeleton to the Institute of Art & Design.
The school is home to Edgar, a skeleton the institute purchased in 1977. But he is getting old. Taylor would like to take his place.
The institute accepted her donation, although her gift is being re-reviewed, as are all planned gifts.
But she soon discovered that actually getting her skeleton to the school would be an ordeal. She would need to find someone who could deflesh her body, and someone to articulate, or reconnect, her bones.
It's taken 10 years, but she thinks she has it worked out.
Bugs can do wonders on corpses. According to Susan Wallace, until recently a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University in Texas, a body can be defleshed in a week, provided you have the right insects: first houseflies and blowflies, followed by flesh flies, cheese flies and coffin flies. And once the corpse becomes too dry for the maggots of these flies to feed from, beetles finish the job.
Just about every bug-wrangler Taylor approached seemed to recoil at her suggestion. Wallace, who'd invented something called a maceration box -- which would hold a body while the bugs did their work -- was an option. But Wallace has resigned from Baylor and is not in a position to help Taylor.
After Taylor looked at other possibilities, she decided to hold out for Wallace, who until a few weeks ago was actively working to expand Baylor's forensic program and build her maceration box.
However, Taylor still needed to find someone to reconnect her bones. For 10 years she pursued leads, but they all came up short.
That's where Fred Anapol comes in. A forensic and physical anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, he heard about Taylor's quest. And last month he offered to put her skeleton together as a class project -- assuming he survives her. He's 59, older than she is.
He said he's going to have to check into the legality of accepting her body and putting it together in a classroom before he can commit. But his offer has given Taylor hope.
But while Taylor is thrilled that her own plans are coming together, she says her battle is not over. She wants to get other skeletons out there. And she wants to make sure that those coming into the United States -- in a trade that has little oversight -- are obtained legally.
She's got a lot of work left to do. But at least she now knows that there will be peace at the end.