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  • Hannah Hightman

Fur & Blade Taxidermy

Writing by Hannah Hightman

To me, anthropomorphic taxidermy’s greatest quality is the sense of whimsy and magic it brings to life. Isabell Vega Mansilla’s work exemplifies this idea perfectly. Also known as Fur and Blade Taxidermy, Mansilla’s pieces look like they were plucked from the pages of a children’s book. A mouse takes the reigns of a turtle through a small wooden shack, a squirrel reclines in a rocking chair, another mouse tends to his books in an antique library. These tableaus are only possible in the realms of the imagination, but the medium of taxidermy lends a sort of credibility to them that would not be possible using other materials. Despite the impossible situations they’re in, these creatures are so lifelike you half expect them to jump out of their diorama environments and greet you. After viewing her work for a couple of hours, I was really tempted to converse with the subway rats.

A newbie to the world of taxidermy, Mansilla has been making these creations for just two years and is almost entirely self-taught, though her love for taxidermy started at an early age. She’s a collector as well as a taxidermist, although her work seems niche, it has attracted a broad audience, sitting on the shelves of goth kids as well as finance bros.

What got you into anthropomorphic taxidermy?

I grew up with taxidermy. My grandfather was a hunter and I was very close with him. I like to be creative, and if you do traditional taxidermy, there is not much you can do to bring your own ideas in. It’s not just about the taxidermy for me. It’s about creating all the little scenes and worlds. It’s a project that grows and can develop in different ways.

Did you learn your taxidermy skills from your grandfather?

No, he died when I was very little. I did a three day taxidermy course an hour from where I live. That taught me the basics on skinning and what you need to do to preserve the skins. All the rest, I learned through reading books and watching YouTube videos.

Do you find taxidermy at all unsettling?

It’s unsettling for a lot of people but it’s normal for me since I grew up with it. It’s a tradition that’s been around since 1600 I think. The world has developed a lot since then. Now we have a lot of groups like PETA who are offended by this medium. It’s hard because you get these awful comments saying that you’re an animal killer, which isn’t true. I work with animals that died naturally or got hit by a car. I see it as giving them a second life, and I have a great love of animals. But I understand there are different opinions on it.

Do your customers run the gamut or is there a certain type of person that your work seems to attract?

I think it runs the gamut. I am surprised by where it ends up. There’s a lot of people that are into the gothic scene that are drawn to it. But I have people that work as accountants too. A lot of people are into the shabby chic scene, because taxidermy is very big in those circles.

Oh I didn’t know taxidermy was such a big thing in the shabby chic scene! Do you know why?

I’m originally from Germany and I was a blogger in the shabby chic scene back then. I think Jeanne D’arc Living Magazine brought it up. They were showing a lot of spaces with deer heads, and then everyone in that community adopted it. It’s mostly vintage. It’s a big part of this decoration style. Back then, my house was in an old church, so the shabby chic style worked very well there. Now the house I live in is more cabin-style, so I’m kind of out of that scene.

Were you into taxidermy at the same time you were a shabby chic blogger?

It started very early on, before that. I’m very drawn to animals and nature. I grew up on the countryside, with lots of farms and wineries around. Taxidermy was everywhere. It was so normalized. When my grandfather died, I took some of his pieces because nobody wanted them. To me, taxidermy is just like having nature in the house. I love animals, but you can only have so many pets. With taxidermy pieces, they don’t need attention beyond dusting. But I guess I really started getting into taxidermy when I was 20, and when I got my first house. It’s always been in my life though. I wanted to try taxidermy for myself earlier, but I just didn’t have the chance to. My ex husband didn’t really appreciate it. In my new life with my new husband, he supports me following my dreams and doing what I love. So I started very late, I’ve only been doing it two years now.

What pieces of your grandfather’s do you have?

Some pieces are still in Germany because I haven’t shipped them yet, but I have a deer head, a fox, a fawn. The fawn got ran over by a car, so he had it taxidermied. I also have a couple of German wild birds.

What’s one of the best interactions you’ve had with a customer?

I posted this picture of a mouse I made in a teacup on Instagram, and this one person commented and sent a bunch of messages begging me to sell it to her. I hadn’t even finished it yet and she was all excited about it. She also bought another piece of mine which was like a bakery mouse. It was cute how much she loved it and how closely she followed the process. When I’m working, I have a very close relationship with the taxidermy piece, so it’s nice to find someone who can appreciate it as much as I do.

Do you take commissions or do you make your work and sell it?

I like to just make my own things, but I do commissions too. I just finished one for a shop in Arizona. They’re based in the Tombstone area, basically in the desert. He wanted me to do some cowboy mice.

Do you collect taxidermy from other creators? Or is your collection mostly your stuff?

I collect from everywhere. My house looks like a natural history museum. I like to collect vintage taxidermy, and the biggest piece I have is a vintage bear that I found in an antique shop. You meet a lot of people in the taxidermy community too. There is Abbey Normal Taxidermy Art, who is one of my favorite taxidermy artists. She does things in a sort of fairytale way, where it’s unrealistic but they look awesome. I have a raccoon from her. There is Echo Taxidermy from the Netherlands. I have a little mouse from her. I love her work.

Do you have a favorite memory associated with taxidermy?

Three years ago, I was looking around online and I came across this fox. He caught my attention. He looked kind of weird and as if he would miss teeth. He was vintage and someone did a really crappy job with him. But he also had the cutest face. I felt like, the seller asked for way to much money and I asked iif she could lower it. But even if she said NO, I would still buy it. I asked if she could lower the price, closed the laptop and told my husband about it. Next morning, I check my emails and she lowered the price. I went to buy it but it was gone. I saved the picture of it, to at least have something. I was mourning for a few days towards my husband. Three weeks later, I had birthday. There was this huge package to unwrap from my husband to me. I opened it and it was THE FOX.

Do you have any other dream animals that you’re keeping an eye out for?

I’m searching for a European badger. I have one, a young one. But I’d like to have one that is standing up. They are really hard to find. They are protected in a lot of European countries, so it’s hard to find one that hasn’t been taken illegally.

I love how you take inspiration from everyday objects, like teacups and shoes. Where do you come up with ideas for your work?

I go to a lot of thrift stores and antique stores, and I’ll see something and think “It’d be cute to put a mouse in that.” A lot of projects develop while you work on them. There’s never really a plan. With the boot piece, I was just looking around on Etsy and then I saw that boot. It reminded me of a book from my childhood about a mouse family that lived in a shoe. The shoe was getting old, and then they had to upgrade to a bigger house. That was one of my favorite books and I immediately thought of it when I found that boot.

Taxidermy is often thought of as a male-dominated film. What is your experience like being a woman in taxidermy?

I think it was male-dominated back in the day. The most famous taxidermists from the old days are male. But I think that totally changed. A lot of women do taxidermy now, both untraditional and traditional. Most of these untraditional taxidermists I know are female. I think it’s becoming more level. But men are still mostly attracted to the more traditional forms.

Have you noticed any difference between the taxidermy community in Germany vs the taxidermy community here in the US?

Not really. It’s more expensive in Germany for sure. I don’t know why. A deer head would cost me $1000 in Germany. Here, I got a secondhand deer head for $50. I think the US is bigger, so there are more hunters, and more is available.

How has your work changed over the years?

In the beginning, you focus a lot on not making mistakes. Once you have that down, you focus on the details. You learn something new every time. It’s hard to avoid making mistakes. I had this white weasel that I washed with blue dish soap. I didn’t think it would make a difference but it stained it, and the weasel was blue. I bleached it, and it came back white.

Is there a certain piece that was really difficult to make?

I’m still working on it. My husband shot his first deer, and I’ve struggled a lot with that. It’s a learning curve.

Have you ever taxidermied something your husband hunted before?

Well he just started. This is his second season. He is not hunting for the trophies. He is hunting for the meat. In our family, we try to do gardening and farming and use what we have to be self-sufficient. My husband loves to cook, so hunting is part of eating healthy meat. I understand a lot of people judge it. That’s their opinion and I tolerate it. But if we didn’t hunt, they would overgrow in population and starve. Hunting is not necessarily just a bad thing. Yes, you kill an animal, but we don’t kill for fun. The whole animal is used.

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