• July 24, 2015

An Artist’s Twist on Taxidermy Blurs the Boundaries of Humanity

In a bright, dusty loft next to the Brooklyn Navy Yard there is a studio that houses a menagerie of zebras, wolves, cougars, bears, greater kudu, gemsboks, baboons, and springbok. Except these animals are motionless and boast something never seen in nature: a human face.

Picture of a taxidermied springbok with a human face
Medium: springbok hide, antlers, clay, foam, thread, pins, rubber eyes, steel and wood base, painted canvas. Size: 72 x 40 x 23 inches. 2015.
© Kate Clark, Photograph by Red Ukachukwu

The word “taxidermy” originates from the Greek words taxi and derma and translates to “the arrangement of skin.” A traditional taxidermist will tan the animal’s hide, removing the flesh and cartilage to preserve the skin and fur, before draping it around a foam body made to look like the animal in real life. But artist Kate Clark does things differently.

Instead of fresh hides, she recycles old ones that are considered imperfect for the typical purposes of trophy mounts. Whether they were left too long in the freezer or bugs ate holes in the skin, she will stitch them together with care, before lopping off the foam animal head and replacing it with one made of clay, sculpted to have human features and then covered in the animal’s own facial skin.

Picture of a taxidermied zebra with a human face
She Gets What She Wants
Medium: zebra hide, foam, clay, rubber eyes, thread, pins. Size: 30 x 36 x 22 inches. 2013.
© Kate Clark, Photograph by Nicole Cordier

This is not in an effort to create a creature from fantasy or nightmares, but rather to confront the viewer with mankind’s innate connection with the animal kingdom by evoking empathy, curiosity, and, sometimes, discomfort.

Picture of a taxidermied antelope bust with a human face
Untitled (Male Bust 2)
Medium: antelope hide, antlers, foam, clay, pins, thread, rubber eyes. Size: 32 x 16 x 19 inches. 2012.
© Kate Clark

When I walked into her studio for the first time, I stared into each one of those animal’s humanlike eyes, fringed with the animal’s real eyelashes. I felt chills up my spine, but not from horror or disgust. These were hauntingly beautiful sculptures that combined two separate worlds: one from the plains of the savanna and the other from the clustered, dirty streets of New York City.

“In the Western World, humans are so separated that we have no reason to connect with [wild] animals anymore,” Kate says. “We have become so other.” In fact, she says that most people don’t even realize that she often changes the sex of the animals. Going through her sculptures you will see female faces with antlers attached—an appendage usually sported only by male animals. “Something as straightforward as that doesn’t even register, because our understanding of the natural world isn’t very good anymore,” she says.

Picture of a taxidermied cougar with a human face
My Heart Beats Like Thunder
Medium: cougar hide, elk hide rug, foam, clay, pins, thread, rubber eyes. Size: 39 x 60 x 72 inches. 2012.
© Kate Clark, Photograph by James Zimmerman

Though Kate did not have a background in taxidermy before she started this art, she has spent a lot of time getting intimately acquainted with the hides. From spending three days removing thousands of dead ticks from the mane and genitals of gemsboks to learning which hides can tear like wet paper towel, she gets to know the life stories of the animals she works with.

“This greater kudu has a really beautiful claw mark on the side,” she said, referring to the photo below, “so an animal attacked him at some point and he survived. This one has what some might consider an imperfection, but to me makes it all the more interesting.”

Picture of a taxidermied kudu with a human face
Licking the Plate
Medium: kudu hide and horns, foam, clay, thread, pins, rubber eyes. Size: 10 x 10 x 4 feet. 2014.
© Kate Clark, Photograph by Nicole Cordier

Using cotton thread and dressmaker pins, Kate will stretch, stitch, and secure the animal hides in place on the foam form. But the faces also have rows and rows of pins tracing patterns around the human face.

“Some think it’s tribal, some think it’s just decorative,” she explained. “But I want that construction to be really visible. [Since] the stitching disappears, the pins reemphasize that this face is constructed. Even though you recognize it and believe it, I want the viewer to see clearly that it’s transformed from the animal into the human.”

Picture of a taxidermied black bear with a human face
Untitled (Black Bear)
Medium: bear hide, foam, clay, pins, thread, rubber eyes. Size: 27 x 42 x 16 inches (life-size). 2008.
© Kate Clark

That transformation from animal to human is what has her work being viewed all over the world. Those intense eyes, the serene facial expression, and the proud animal’s body consistently draw in people from all different races, religions, and languages. Some are aghast at her audacity to combine human and animal, but most are entranced and appreciative of the message she hopes to get across.

“It speaks to people,” Kate says. “Even if they don’t know what’s happening in the contemporary art world, they recognize themselves in the work. And that means a lot to me.”

See more of Kate Clark’s work on her website.

Follow Kathryn Carlson on Instagram.

Interested in taxidermy? See related photos and video featured in the July 2015 issue of National Geographic magazine.

There are 28 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Rodrigo Gonzalez
    February 5, 2016

    Simply incredible; congratulations to the Artist and NG for this wonderful and illustrative interview. Unique!

  2. Mojrim
    January 18, 2016

    Boring, political, and annoyingly derivative.

  3. Danielle
    January 16, 2016

    I think they’re so awesome and beautiful and SO unique! I’ve never seen anything like them. And I would never think you had no experience with taxidermy prior. They appear as though you have an experts technique. Where can I go to see them on exhibit? I’m truly in awe!

  4. Anna
    December 29, 2015

    I think it is exotic and fabulous. The animal rescue/activist part of me has an issue with the fact that animals were killed at all, though I fully understand they were not for this project, simply utilized existing hides. Besides I love taxidermy for so many things and would not mind learning the art myself. Regardless, the end result is just amazing. I really love it!

  5. Cousin Sue
    August 12, 2015

    Each time I hear you discuss your work and thought I find myself more intrigued… At some level anthropomorphic expression is both primal and disturbing at a higher level of reasoning. This interview demonstrates your intelligence as well as beautiful artistic impression uniting humanity with what is essential, ourselves connected to the world in which we live, connected to what gives us life, connected to more than just what we want but to what and who we are. Impressive. You capture a dissonance of feeling in a display of action, beauty and thoughtfulness. I might be biased but not so as it has taken considerable thought on my part to resolve that which strikes me as both horrific and beautiful in the same visual presentation. this interview again highlights your desire to create with meaning and purpose a lasting expression that entices an equally thoughtful impression and response. Amazingly creative and perfectly timed!

  6. a person
    August 7, 2015

    Interesting. i don’t know what people are so disturbed by, the pins stuck in around the eyes are far more upsetting to look at than the chimerical end result (though that may be due to my own needle phobia).

    Who would someone contact, if they were interested in sitting as a face model?

  7. Jose Alvarez
    August 5, 2015

    Really disgusting. What a waste of talent, and “materals”. who can look at this arrt for more than two econds

  8. Oxana
    August 5, 2015

    I want to say I’m sorry but for me this is just sick…(the way it looks)

  9. Monica
    August 4, 2015

    Caz I think you fail to see the point here. It’s not soley trying to humanize the animal. It’s about bringing then together. Once upon a time humans were as wild and free as animals. We were one and the same and so close to nature as animals still are. I think what Kate was trying to do was merge human and animal back to where we once were. As one. Working and living together in a free and beautiful world. One which was free of bustling street corners and skyscrapers and animal abuse and misuse. Back to when we appreciated them, and them us.

  10. Kip
    August 1, 2015

    I love Kate’s work. This story has really helped me see her sculptures in a different way. Thank you NG for making this informative piece on Kate’s work. I get a kick out of reading some of these comments. esp. the angry ones. Besides having a good laugh ( nervous type) I feel that these negative comments reaffirm the need for more artists like Kate. What a wonderful Imagination and skill set. Great work

  11. Bane
    July 27, 2015

    Great job! The only thing I don’t like is that all of the animals have the similar facial features. Beside that, great!

  12. Felicia
    July 27, 2015

    The artist says she’s emphasizing the connection between humans and animals, but she stops just short of expressing an opinion on animal welfare or animals as sentient beings. I’m not sure what to think of her work.

  13. Nancy Erhorn
    July 27, 2015

    Loved hearing your explanations and voice.

  14. Chetana
    July 27, 2015

    Artistic compassion beautifully expressed.

  15. Penelope
    July 27, 2015

    I found this interesting and incredibly moving. It’s beautiful in a new and unfamiliar way.

  16. Aunt Maureen
    July 26, 2015

    Spectacular Kate! We are sooooo proud of you!

  17. Lorri
    July 26, 2015

    Kate, I found your work amazing. The detail you put into the body only adds to the beauty
    of your pieces. I would love to see these in a gallery but I am a very tactile person and would be so tempted to touch though, to stroke and follow the lines that you blurred by blending the two together.
    The use of the pins is a wonderful detail, blending and yet separating the reality.
    I have watched the video repeatedly, pausing to look at the work you are doing, the eyes are amazing!
    I think if they eyes were not human in nature it would be quite hard for me to wrap my head around the
    human features under the skin.
    The bears though, its as if you harvested the human and added fur!

  18. Barry Bevers
    July 26, 2015

    I find this distatsteful. Reminds me of the book, The Island of Dr. Moreau.

  19. Shania
    July 26, 2015

    This is haunting beautiful and the message is one I wish more would hear.

  20. Caz
    July 26, 2015

    Absolutely disgusting! This just says to me how ignorant that humans are that they think they can humanize a beautiful animal. This IS NOT art it’s arrogance

  21. Barbara Necker
    July 26, 2015

    fauns & satyrs.

  22. Anarcissie
    July 26, 2015

    I suppose I read too many anthropomorphic web comics, but I found these images rather less than shocking. They are too much on the human side. It would be more effective (for me) if they were more in between.

  23. bo moore
    July 25, 2015

    Yikes! Ugly. Disgusting. Circus freak stuff.

  24. Sheila
    July 24, 2015


  25. Vicente
    July 24, 2015

    Original. Unique.

  26. 江美琴
    July 24, 2015

    So cool ☺

  27. roberto chavez
    July 24, 2015

    es una belleza que asusta

  28. Tania
    July 24, 2015

    Wow, I just love it.

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