Tom Matuska keeps a dead fish above his desk. It’s perched on a shelf, broken pins and all. It’s not his finest work but it’s his first.
“It’s one of those things that’s not good enough to keep but too good to throw away,” he said, glancing at the stuffed, 30-inch longnose gar.
The owner of Matuska Taxidermy in Spirit Lake made the mount around the age of 10, when he was taking a correspondence course through the Northwestern School of Taxidermy in Omaha, Neb., founded by J.W. Elwood in 1903. Following step-by-step instructions in a book, the young outdoorsman learned outmoded methods by mail.
In the past decade, taxidermy has taken on a new twist. It has gone rogue.
Three artists from Minneapolis debuted an exhibition of oddities in 2004. One of the works by Sarina Brewer, titled “Goth Griffin,” was featured in the New York Times. The weird winged creature was crafted from road kill, combining a feral farm cat and a crow. She has made two-headed hatchlings, a panda squirrel and other artistic renderings from animal remains.
Brewer, along with Scott Bibus and Robert Marbury, established the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, a group dedicated to lowbrow mixed-media sculptures that incorporate taxidermy materials in unusual ways.
The idea was met with DIY enthusiasm, born out of the Great Recession, and spread to other cities in the United States and abroad.
The Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York offers taxidermy classes that have appealed to hipsters and women. In one class, students can learn how to make an anthropomorphic mouse with one head or two. The practice was made famous by Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, who posed kittens having a tea party and playing croquet, among other curious creations.
In a more conventional class, instructor Divya Anantharaman demonstrates techniques to preserve an English Sparrow, covering everything from proper skinning, fleshing, washing, tumbling and grooming feathers to re-attaching feet.
Matuska works in traditional taxidermy. The most unusual specimen he’s come across was fabricating Rocket Raccoon, a 3-foot-tall bandit-faced superhero for “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
And then there was last summer’s project: preserving Cisco, Kevin Costner’s buckskin horse from “Dances with Wolves” that died at the age of 33.
Most common critters include regional fish, deer and game birds.
Matuska was always fascinated with fish and admired the pretty plumage on the ducks his dad hunted. Yet, he went to college for art and biology with intentions of illustrating textbooks. He ended up getting into architecture and drawing buildings instead. That short-lived career took him out to Wyoming. The homesick draftsman soon returned to Jackson, Minn., to work at his father’s meat market.
Back in the Land of 10,000 Lakes, he picked up his childhood hobbies of hunting and fishing, which rekindled his desire to do taxidermy. He went back to school to learn the trade, and in 1973, Matuska began his taxidermy business in the basement of his home.
It’s grown to include a commercial studio, a school and a supply company.
Skeptics ponder his profession and think it's an oxymoron, especially when he says he loves wildlife but spends his days handling pelts.
“People can’t quite figure that out,” he said.
Another thing that’s hard to wrap one’s head around is how it’s done.
He comes across couples at odds over displaying the sportsman’s “trophies” in the home. Sometimes the wives need to be convinced.
“We show them the tanned skins, which are like what you’d put in a fur coat,” Matuska said. “The hair is luxurious. It’s cleaned and shampooed and rinsed.”
The fine tanned hide is mounted over a Styrofoam mannequin that’s been molded to imitate lifelike mannerisms. When the wives get a feel for what goes on behind the scenes, they’re usually pretty impressed, Matuska said.
Soon the deer head’s in the house. Antlers adorn the walls. And pheasants are frozen in place, flying above the mantel.
Each mount displays a memory, beckoning tales of a great adventure, a big catch or a boy’s dream.