“Can you let me know if you see a mark on my cheek?” Jennifer Hall asks during a recent photo shoot. “A bird bit my face the other day while I was studying it. That’s why I like the dead ones better.”
Such are the thoughts of a professional taxidermist.
Hall is the manager of Prey Taxidermy, an all-woman taxidermy studio in Los Angeles that offers classes and custom mounted works. It was founded in 2014 by Allis Markham, formerly a taxidermist for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles.
This weekend, Markham and Hall will be in D.C. to lead Birds 101, a two-day workshop during which students will skin, mount and groom their own European starling (buy tickets here). Prey acquired the invasive songbirds through abatement efforts.
“Our main philosophy is nothing dies to be art,” Hall says of Prey’s ethical sourcing. “It dies for a good reason: to nourish people, because it’s destroying ecosystems or because it would be dead anyway.”
Hall didn’t always dream of becoming a taxidermist. After surviving a three-year battle with childhood leukemia, the Friendship Heights native found herself drawn to patterns and movements found naturally in wildlife.
A born artist (she won “Most likely to show at an art gallery” in her high school superlatives), Hall earned a dual degree in art and geology from the University of Pennsylvania. She also holds a certificate in print making from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, which she used to propel her career as a science illustrator.
After Hall moved to Los Angeles last year, she enrolled in an introductory taxidermy class at Prey because she thought an understanding of anatomy would better inform her illustrations. She was a natural.
Markham offered her an internship at Prey, and later a job. “At first she paid me in dead things,” Hall says. “And then she paid me in dead things and money. I’m grateful to have both.”
Hall’s friends weren’t surprised by her new career. “They stopped being surprised when I told them I was taking up dinosaur illustrations,” she says.
Prey does a booming business (“Allis likes to say we’re the only ‘game’ in town,” Hall jokes) and its classes typically sell out within days of being announced.
Taxidermy as art was born in the Victorian era, and today is most often associated with hunters who use it as a way to showcase their kill, like a trophy. But Prey is doing its part to preserve its original intention: to celebrate a creature’s life.
That means you’ll rarely see Hall or Markham mounting just the bust of an animal. Rather, they take a more holistic approach by presenting the animal in its entirety in its natural environment.
Markham, for example, will often accent her pieces with clever details like insects that are indigenous to the animal’s habitat.
“There’s a morbid association with taxidermy,” Hall says, “but we see it as a souvenir of lives that have come to pass and the beautiful things nature does on its own.”
Sign up for the class
Birds 101 will be taught by Allis Markham and Jennifer Hall of Prey Taxidermy this Saturday and Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. ($300, The Museum of Unnatural History, 3233 14th St. NW; purchase tickets at atlasobscura.com). Too squeamish to join? There’s also a discussion on the art of taxidermy on Saturday at 5 p.m. Buy tickets here.