I was psyched when Brooklyn Tattoo artist and taxidermy artist
Sue Jeiven invited me to her Greenpoint apartment for a private class in anthropomorphic taxidermy—the preparation and display of dead animals in an humanlike elaborate mise-en-scene, complete with tiny human accoutrements and frocks. (All of the animals Jeiven works with were already deceased; the mice she and I will be using were the frozen kind used to feed snakes at a pet store.) See Jeiven's work in the video below.
Jeiven is pale and petite, with full tattoo sleeves and a black pageboy haircut, and her apartment is strewn with various stuffed forest animals— chipmunks, squirrels, mice. The composite result is a skewed Snow White effect, like seven Juggalo little people might stomp in at any second. She told me how she came across various pieces of apartment decor. Spoiler alert: She did not pick them up at Bed, Bath & Beyond. For example: "It got hit by a car, then a cop came and shot it in the head. I pulled over and dragged it into the forest and tied it to a tree and left it there. I came back two months later and got this." The bullet hole is visible in the deer skull's temple.
Nearby sits an unfinished project that Jeiven was doing on commission for a Norah Jones music video, ten mice posed in a variety of ways on something that looks like Astro Turf. On a window ledge sat a number of "bases" for projects, objects that Jeisen found in thrift stores. I chose a repurposed jewelry/music box whose melody was irritatingly familiar until I realize (hand to God!) it was the exact same one as the music box in the dead girl's room in Silence of the Lambs.
She sets out two mice—one for her, one for me—on the kind of vintage pastel TV trays your grandma might have and runs a blowdryer over them to thaw.
When I tried to cut open my frozen mouse, the blade was too dull-it was kind of like trying to cut into flan with a pipe cleaner. Jeiven handed me a straight razor. "This one isn't a male, but sometimes they have huge balls and you just have to cut them off."
Over the next four hours I realize just how painstaking this work is, particularly the degloving process, which involved peeling the limbs out and cutting the ligaments with a kitchen scissor so the mouse's outsides and its outsides create a sort of Rorschach stamp shape. Jeiven calls the completion of this stage "mouse purse" because it kind of looks like one. (The photographer and I call it "look away briefly.")
In the bowels of the mouse's stomach lies what Jeiven has nicknamed the shitbag, a darker area of the lower intestines which she reminds me repeatedly not to puncture or else we would have to evacuate her apartment for at least three days, at which point I get too nervous and hand it over. Jeisen completes the necessary step with the brisk, broad efficiency of a drunk person digging into a Popeyes wing.
If you ever taxidermized a thing before, you know where the "X-eyes" of death in cartoons come from, and you're familiar with that feeling you have by time you actually get to them, when you poke around the socket and squeeze them out and replace them with a bead or pushpin or other tiny human-created nugget, which is that you actually feel like you're doing the thing a favor because it looks approximately one thousand percent less dead, and then you realize you've just landed in the Venn Diagram overlap of funeral home embalmers and serial killers. Oops!
Jeisen sometimes teaches underpriced, quickly sold-out anthro-taxi classes at the Brooklyn Observatory. "One [student] was wearing a raccoon hat, and I asked her if she did it herself, and she said she bought it on Etsy," she says, noting that the class's twee sensibility often contrasts with the dirty, resourceful nature of her own practice. After attending some pricey taxidermy courses, she scoured places like Duane Reade for cheaper alternatives to their methods. Her tools include nail files, clear nail polish, clayworking tools, pipe cleaners, hairdryers and laundry powder. (She will be coming out with a book in the next year or two.)
I emerged with the creation you are looking at and a new respect for people who stuff animals, although I opted against putting my mouse in a dress. It seemed undignified, somehow. The next day, while drinking with a friend, I told him what I'd made and how I couldn't wait to hang it up on my wall.
"That might be a boner killer," he said.
I was drunk and replied "I don't give a fuck." I'm sober now. Still don't!
Image via Filip Miletic/Shutterstock