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  • Hannah Hightman

Gotham Taxidermy

Photos by Em Sieler, Writing by Hannah Hightman

Almost everyone I’ve interviewed for this zine has worked with, taken a class from, or is somehow connected with Divya Anantharaman. She’s New York City’s premier taxidermist. She teaches classes with Morbid Anatomy. She works part-time at George Dante’s studio, and she hosts an alternative taxidermy show each year called Wunderkammer, which several of the artists in this zine are planning to participate in. If there’s one interview that unites everything else in here, it would be this one.

Her studio has a much brighter vibe than I initially anticipated. There’s pink curtains, and a pink rug, and a carefully arranged bookshelf. The sunlight floods the room and her in-progress taxidermy pieces sit atop desks and tables being carefully tended to. It’s not that surprising that Anantharaman’s studio is more stylish than the average taxidermist. She got her start working in the corporate fashion industry, and personal style still plays a big role in her life.

“I wanted to be an artist, but you can’t really be an artist for a living without some sort of independent wealth,” she said. “Fashion seemed like a way of combining my love of art with having a stable, commercially viable job.” She was drawn to the idea of fashion as a form of self-expression. “I realized I liked the art of getting dressed and the way that people can tell a story about themselves through what they choose to wear,” said Anantharaman. “It’s such a good shorthand that people use. Even when people say they’re not into fashion, they are because they’re wearing clothes.”

At first, taxidermy was just a hobby. It all started with a gray squirrel that she found hiking upstate. The first piece wasn’t the best, according to Anantharaman. But she gradually moved on to larger animals as her skills improved. The oldest piece she currently has in her studio is a little fawn with butterflies attached to it. Its softness and delicacy compliments the warm, feminine atmosphere of the place perfectly. “I didn’t approach taxidermy as a job, I approached it as art and as a hobby. I never thought it would be my career,” she said. She was hesitant to sell her pieces until she felt they were truly quality. “In fashion, there’s such high standards. You don’t sell something unless it reaches a certain caliber. So with taxidermy, I don’t want to sell anything until it’s high quality,” she said. “As my skill level went up, I started to share my work publicly online and through other creatives in New York. I started teaching taxidermy classes with Morbid Anatomy. That really started my career change from fashion to taxidermy.”

As a queer woman of color, Anantharaman’s chief goals, especially with her teaching, are accessibility and inclusivity. “When I was looking for schools that taught taxidermy, most of the programs were upstate,” she said. “You had to spend a week or two upstate with some guy in the middle of the woods. That sounds romantic to some people, but as a queer woman of color, it’s horrifying to me, because I don’t know who this guy is. I could show up and there could be a confederate flag on his door.” She wanted to offer people living in the city the ability to learn taxidermy in a safe and familiar environment, in a manner that would encourage their natural creativity instead of gatekeeping the medium. “When I was working in fashion, I started out with an entry level job and eventually reached a directorial/managerial level,” she said. “I saw that system can work when it’s done right. You can teach someone and nurture their creativity and they’ll find their own path. I saw that nurturing aspect was missing at least from my experience with taxidermy.” She also wanted to be mindful of the fact that people might not be able to take a week off to learn how to do taxidermy in the woods, so most of her classes are a day or half a day, as opposed to a more intense program. “Like, if you want to learn how to make cheese, you can learn how to make cheese in a one day class or you can go on a cheese retreat to Italy and go through every step of the process. There has to be levels with taxidermy too,” she said.

Anantharaman also brings a new perspective to taxidermy competitions as well as taxidermy classes with the annual Wunderkammer show that she co-hosts. She was inspired by her experiences at taxidermy competitions to create the event. “I learned a lot from going to state shows and association shows. These shows are usually a weekend long, and you show your work, and there are different levels and categories of competition,” she said. “They’re divided by species too. Those shows were a great experience for me and gave me the opportunity to meet other taxidermists, and see why other people do this.”

Like with fashion, she enjoys the self-expressive, performance element of taxidermy. She’s as fascinated with the people that comprise the taxidermy community as she is with the taxidermy pieces, which is something that we have in common. “For me, going to those shows, I was the only woman of color there, the only queer person there, the only person dressed in leopard print there. They had a lot of questions for me, but I had a lot of questions for them too.” She wanted to create a different environment for taxidermists in the NYC area to connect and share their work, specifically interpretive taxidermy. “For artists, competition can have a negative connotation especially in the age of social media,” she said. “I didn’t want the show to have that vibe. I wanted it to be like, yeah, you’re competing but it’s all in the spirit of reaching your own creative goals, and being in a room full of people who are cheering you on because they all love taxidermy.” She also brought in her personal love of spectacle, bringing a medium that usually sits motionless behind glass into the world of exhilaratingly frenzied nightlife. “I don’t go out much now but when I was much more energetic, I would go out a lot,” she said. “I noticed that the best parties have this way of bringing people closer together and creating this fleeting community. I loved this idea of sensory overload.”

Though the performance aspect of taxidermy is inspiring to Anantharaman, the real reason she got into the medium is because of her love of animals in general. She’s involved in several conservation efforts to help live animals too, including the Audubon’s Project Safe Flight. “This past summer I was on my way to New Jersey to pick up a diseased bird specimen, but I had my alerts on for Project Safe Flight, so I figured if they pinged me I could grab an injured bird and bring it back,” she said. “So I got this pheasant, and as I was driving back, I was just picking up live birds on the way. I thought, ‘This is so funny, it’s like the circle of life in here. Deceased birds and live birds together.’ Moments like that remind me of why I do taxidermy.”

Perhaps the key to her success is that Anantharaman sticks to her own authentic voice rather than trying to please others. “I really wish I would have just enjoyed the process of being a beginner more,” she said. “I felt a lot of pressure because I thought I stuck out like a sore thumb at these competitions, so I thought my work had to be really good, or else it would reflect badly on everyone else who is like me. But that’s not the case. If someone doesn’t want to be inclusive, they just don’t want to be inclusive. Being true to yourself is much more important than looking for validation from others.”

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