Long considered a dusty, antiquated, and macabre craft, Allis Markham and her team at Prey are breathing new life into the art of taxidermy. Allis and her team defy a lot of perceived notions, as their work goes far beyond the typical hunter’s trophy. Their main studio, located in the Spring Arts Tower, is part classroom and authentically appointed Victorian sitting parlor. Visitors are greeted by the exotically unusual ‘Bug’, a rescue toucanet who is as affectionate as she is striking in her splendor. The only living animal in the studio this day, (there’s normally a few shop dogs milling about), Bug munches on some fresh blueberries and melon. “Don’t mind the flies, they’re here for the fruit, not the dead stuff,” Allis quips.
The team does the bulk of their work here, as well as classes, “We’re the only taxidermy school in Los Angeles,” Allis tells. She and assistant Madison Rubin, with Studio Manager Jen Hall make up the Prey Taxidermy team. Allis and Madison both started their training under the tutelage of the Natural History Museum’s master taxidermist, Tim Bovard. “With taxidermy, it’s a mentor/apprentice relationship. You learn by working for years for free,” Allis explains.
A Midwestern native, Allis tells the tale of how it all began, “I collected taxidermy for years. I grew up hunting and fishing, and always did sculpture and art. I did a lot of ceramics and leatherwork.” After college, she took a regular marketing job, but left soon after, “I hated my corporate job. You never got to finish anything, and you never got to work with your hands.” Her background and love for sculpting had a huge influence on her move into taxidermy, though there’s many skill sets needed to be on the level she and Madison are, “You need an understanding of anatomy and zoology...and painting too.” Works can take months to make, it’s a multi-stage process as Allis explains, “These animals weren’t killed for art, (they mostly acquire the animals through pest control or animals used for meat)...we’re just using the skins.” Those skins take months to tan and turn into leather, while casts and molds are made. Once done, the sewing and grooming begin.
Creatively, Allis and Madison juxtapose their strengths and styles to create work that is elegant, educational, and occasionally whimsical. “I love skinning and prep work,” Madison says with a bewitching grin. Her grisly, but impeccable handiwork has earned her the title of ‘Specimens Manager.’ Her works tend to be on the more whimsical side, “I like the macabre,” she admits. For Allis, “My favorite part is putting them together. What natural thing is this animal doing that gives it personality? We always do what’s a natural characteristic of that animal...so they look frozen in that moment they’re about to do something.” Stylistically, Allis has a more traditional sensibility, but Allis says all Prey’s work is respectful, and natural, “I like the Victorian aesthetic, they really did see a lot beauty in death. I’m taking a dead animal, and making it look alive again. I think I take a very sunny approach to death,” she smiles. “It is a celebration of this animal’s life...I’m honored...I’m literally seeing it inside and out, and I’m learning from it. If I can then take that animal and let other people learn from it, if in someone’s home where it can pique curiosity, or in a museum where possibly millions of people can see it, then it does have a new life.”
Written by Scott Meisse
Photographed by Matt Daniels
Videography by Matt Daniels