I have always had fascination with taxidermy. It is no doubt a product of my deep love of the outdoors, of hunting and fishing as boy as far back as I can remember. I think the first time I ever really noticed was at my Aunt and Uncles house in Odessa Florida. Uncle Paul had several large bass mounted on the wall which made an impression on me though it was not really the taxidermy that fascinated me so much back then, but rather the drive to catch one of my own. Like any other fishing enthusiast, it was “the big one” that I was after and those fish on the wall represented the ones that didn’t get away from someone else.
There were a lot of times growing up that I went fishing or squirrel hunting with my Uncle Paul and even a few times I hunted deer with my Uncles Newton, Joe and John. As I approached my teens, we moved away from suburban life for the peace and tranquility of the country and my father felt that I might be responsible enough to have a firearm. My birthday was in early October and had passed but as a late present, he bought me a $60 Harrington and Richardson 20 Gage Shotgun. I had owned that gun barely a month when I knocked my first turkey down in the woods behind our home in Beulah. I think they thought I might have nailed a buzzard when I ran home and told them I shot a turkey, but, in fact, I had taken a Jake and with the neighbors help we skinned it and tucked it away for Christmas having already purchased a Thanksgiving Butterball. As beautiful as those feathers were, I had not yet cultivated an interest in merging wildlife and art together, so every one of them went in the garbage. It wasnt long afterwards that I began to dry and save the tails of squirrels that I hunted, wiring them up in my room, hence my unofficial beginnings in taxidermy.
It was not until sometime in 1984 that it really clicked for me. Fellow musician and all around good guy, Brian Sexton was one of my closer friends in high school. We partied together a lot in those days and we all played music together…our crazy circle of friends including Brian and one of his older brothers. There was a sister that I did not know and the other brother was not around very often, but on one occasion when he did come around he had something with him that caught my attention…a mounted deer head. I did not get to see it up close but still I was blown away. I had seen them before, just like the fish on Uncle Pauls wall but they were always static…fixed to something, not being hauled around in the cab of a truck. Later, in the house I saw a picture of a fish that he had mounted and suddenly the wheels in my head started turning…slowly, but they were turning. I asked Brian about the picture and that’s when he told me that his brother was a taxidermist…a good one and that he had already been in magazines. Even in 1984, some of his earliest days in the business, Tom Sexton was becoming an inspiration, whether he knew it or not.
About 5 years later a gift of the Serious Sportsman Taxidermy Course booklets from Wildlife Artist Supply Company changed my life. After glancing through the booklets, I ordered a catalog from WASCO. What a brilliant marketing strategy those booklets were! In those days, the catalog looked more like a comic book in size and could not have been more than 25 or 30 pages, much smaller than the phone book size it became. I remember ordering nearly everything in it, even a lot of items I would never use. My first fur bearer project was a squirrel which left something to be desired but for a first mount was not too bad. My next project was a half cast bluegill using, none other than, Tom Sexton Fish Filler. By this time Tom Sexton was a household name in the business, a former World Champion who had sculpted a new line of fish forms for WASCO and working on another for Tom Powell.
It was in the WASCO catalog that I first learned of taxidermy associations and conventions and within a couple of years of mounting my co-workers and neighbors trophies for nearly nothing, I was setting my sights on a convention, the 1995 World Taxidermy Championships….dream big I always say. I spent most of my evenings in the early 90s continuing to do part time work while juggling a full time career in the Army. Much of my work was fairly average and done for the locals, mostly fish but an occasional deer or raccoon would come in. I began working on my competition mounts for the convention about a month before the show. I had no concept of what the standard was. Nothing I had seen in pictures accurately represented what I was in for. I was moved by the presentations of the mounts in the pictures but the technical requirements were far beyond my comprehension…I just did not know it at the time. Had I known, my career in this business would have probably ended before it started.
I had maybe 4 or 5 mounts heading to Gainesville, Georgia. I was excited, confident and ready to charge the door when we got there. The parking lot was packed and I decided that we should probably park and check out the walking route into the convention center before we carried anything in. This was another turning point in my life. As we walked in to the door, the first mount I saw among many was a life sized deer being pushed in on a cart. I did not know whose it was but the tall man with the long bushy hair pushing it was a man I would later come to know as a very gifted competitor from South Carolina named Frazier Craig. One look at that deer and I knew I was outclassed with anything I could bring through that door.
Walking in to register, I was having serious second thoughts and almost left. Had it not been for Sandy Garland’s outgoing personality and sixth sense about me as a new competitor, I probably would have left everything in the car and got back in it myself. Most of it I did leave, but I selected one mount, a bobcat on a horrible cheaply made base with a dusty yellow tinted snow base. It was hideous but it was the only thing I felt confident with. Looking back, it probably was not the ugliest piece in the room and might have even earned a low ribbon in the amateur division, but I decided that since I was a mullet in this sea of sharks, I had better learn to swim. ..and fast. So I entered the professional division, hoping for the best but expecting to take my punishment like a man…and I did, from the tiniest judge in the building…World Champion and Mammal expert, Jan Van Hoesen. But let’s back up a bit…
While I waited for my imminent execution by the Judge, I went to a number of seminars including a Rattlesnake Mounting Seminar with Ben Haden and his side kick Don Stevens. Don would later become a big inspiration for me during my years with the Alabama Taxidermist Association (there are a couple of stories there). It was in this Rattlesnake seminar that I met a man named Joe Rogers from Abbeville, Alabama, not too far down the road from where we lived in Georgia. His name was oddly familiar to me and we struck up a conversation where he soon recognized my low taxidermy esteem, given the company I was in at this World Taxidermy Championship Show. I believe in going big but I may have overestimated my abilities a bit going to a World Show right off the bat. The more time that passed the more worried I was about my poorly performing bobcat that look like he was climbing in the same snow he just pee’d in. I told Joe everything and he asked if we could go out to the car, just him and I so he could look at the mounts I did not bring in. This man was a lifelong taxidermist, easily in his late 60s or older at this time. He had been around the block a time or two. As we walked out to the car, it occurred to me where I had seen his name. His displays had graced the Tom Mann aquarium, museum and Stop-n-Go on Hwy 431 near Eufaula Alabama. I am not certain what the name of the place really was but fishing industry legend Tom Mann owned it and it drew a lot of tourists to the area. I was always impressed with the place, especially Joes mounts and it was an honor to meet him. I was, however, very apprehensive about showing him what I now considered my dirty work. But as he began to look closely at each piece in the near perfect light of the sun, another important moment of my taxidermy career unfolded. Joe handled it like a seasoned judge, recognizing my fragile emotional state and my lack of understanding that taxidermy competition standards are measured against the live animal and not other mounts. What is important with a new competitor at this point is to recognize what they did right and exploit it, but balance it with a fair enough dose of reality. Good judges do that by relating their own experiences at the same point in their careers. I credit Joe Rogers with showing me that I was not outclassed at all, that I could compete with anyone in that building and that I had a future as a taxidermist. I just needed to open my ears and eyes and turn off my pride. Of course, Jan Van Hoesen chewed me up and spit me (figuratively speaking of course) out but in all fairness, she did it to everyone. I, obviously, did not win a ribbon but my reasons for competing had changed and now that score card, with all of the detailed information I needed to do better next time, became much more important than the ribbon. Incidentally, I got to talk with Tom at that show…we both agreed it was a small world and I thanked him for his indirect role in guiding me to taxidermy.
Before I left Gainesville, Bob Berry introduced me to Breakthrough Magazine and Wes Burris had me fired up about State Associations. One month later I went to my second convention in Macon Georgia with the Georgia Taxidermists Association. I got there early to help set up and met some really fine people…Jerry Mosley, Randy Kittle and Ronnie Bulloch to name a few. I brought two mounts, this time focusing a bit more on the technical aspects of the mount itself and not so much on trying to create a big habitat scene. Still, I managed to score a third place ribbon with a bluegill and a second place ribbon with a raccoon. When I walked into that convention hall and saw those ribbons, the adrenalin almost knocked me out. Only a month after the World Show and my utter failures, I had ribboned and after the shock of it wore off, what was left was a determination to do even better. Incidently, ribbons and awards can make you feel good about your acomplishments but if you didnt learn anything from the experience they are worth nothing.
It was one month until the Alabama Show and I began work on two more mounts, applying what I had learned in Georgia. This time I used my imagination and went outside the box a bit. I had read an article on altering forms and though it was far beyond my skill level at that point, I took it head on, this time with an otter and a very simple alteration that changed the attitude of the mount 180 degrees from what the sculptor had intended. Sounds complicated but it wasn’t…I essentially turned a resting otter into a swimming pose, head down. I came to the Alabama show early as well and assisted with the set up. I met Scott Ringenoldus, Shane Smith, Larry Blomquist and Archie Phillips among others. Scott, who was the President of the Alabama Association, had lost an employee to a car accident that year. Montgomery based supplier Danny Foster and his wife Debbie had lost their eldest son, Grant to a car accident that year as well so it was a somber show for those who had been a part of the Association up to that point. It was a good show with a lot of really good seminars and while I learned far more than my money’s worth, nothing could have prepared me for what I felt when my name was called as that year’s recipient of the first annual Brian Gordon Memorial Award, in honor of the young man from Spanish Fort that had worked with Scott in his studio. It was a beautiful trophy with an eagle on top, like nothing I had ever seen. The only feeling that came close was walking into the competition hall and seeing my swimming otter with First Place and Best of Category ribbons. I had a Second Place ribbon on my fish and with it a new motivation to do even better.
I competed for about 5 years and I won a quite a few ribbons and a number of plaques and trophies. I met the certification requirements for the National Taxidermist Association and became a life member. At this point my business was nearing full time volume and I quickly learned that, while competing and winning is a great education, a good marketing tool and a lot of fun, it really doesn’t pay the bills, and so I focused entirely on commercial work, turning my hobby and part time job into a full time shop called Still Life Taxidermy. During these years, the only shows we went to were outdoor shows to build our retail clientele. I set up a website and added wholesale to my list of services and suddenly the phone was ringing off the hook. We were busy…too busy and within a few years I was back to hating my job.
What I learned from this experience is this…you can make a good living in this business if you a plan and follow it…you cant wing it. Every material item, every hour and every dollar must be planned and forecasted. In wholesale services, you work twice as hard and make half as much so if you are going to do it, you better have a very efficient plan and it can never take priority over your local retail work. It pays the bills when retail customers aren’t picking up but it can set you up for failure if you let it. Once you are in it, it hard to get out.
Just a few years after opening Still Life full time, I put up a sign and quit taking work. We had done work for Real Tree and North American Whitetail Pro Staff, Fort Perry Plantation, Ripley Believe it or Not and even an Entertainer or two…we mounted numerous Boone and Crockett Record Book Whitetails, a big Macon County Georgia Whitetail (that made the cover of Georgia Sportsman and North American Whitetail Magazine) and two State Record Black Bears in life size…not to mention the hundreds of mounts for everyday customers on everything from a two headed Turtle named George and Ringo to an American Buffalo that ran wild in Georgia. It was a good life and though hard at times, I will never be able to say that the business was not good to me and my family, because it was. I miss those days.
I decided to put my military experience to work, finish my college education and maybe one day go back and start up again, this time a little older and little wiser. Through the years while working on a number of Defense programs in and out of the Middle East, I continued to do a limited amount of high end work and took on students when I had time, teaching private sessions of 2 days to 2 weeks on gameheads, ducks and turkeys. I obtained licensing agreements with suppliers on specialty products and managed to get my VA Vendorization, continuing with my plan for my eventual return to the industry. That plan has been developing into much more than a Wildlife Studio or a specialty supply company. It has become my life’s work. No matter what level of success it brings, it is already the most rewarding thing I have ever done. Before I am 50 which is quickly approaching, I will be back…doing what I love and supporting my industry again full time. It will be tough at times, of that I am certain, but my experience tells me it is worth it. Its time to build another brand…a better one.
Our industry is one made up of men and women who love the great outdoors and who contribute the most to the conservation effort. We don’t always see eye to eye and we may even see ourselves collectively as being introverted personalities. But we love what we do, as different as we are. We accept hard work as the true path to success, never expecting anything to be easy…and quite frankly, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Thanks, Tom Sexton, for first inspiring me…even though you had no idea you were doing it. Thank you, Ms Doris, for not putting away that picture.
Thank you, Joe Rogers, for motivating me and believing in me when I really needed it. That one day in the spring of ‘95 made all the difference in the world.
Thank you Al Holmes for your time, our conversations, your candidness, the history lessons and everything you did for our industry.
I have many others to thank, and I intend to thank them all one day by giving back as much as I have gained.