The things they leave behind
Someone's got to clean up after the city's critters. From carcass artists to excrement experts, these Chicagoans work on the wild side.
Ted Nazarowski’s studio looks more like the aftermath of a natural-history museum explosion than an artist’s workshop. Visitors who step into the little-known Irving Park facility will be greeted by the glassy-eyed stares of hundreds of deceased animals, ranging from miniscule birds about to take flight to a life-size brown bear poised on two legs, claws out, frozen in time. While the thought of spending every day surrounded by lifeless flesh would be stomach-turning for many, for Nazarowski—the owner and sole taxidermist at Arctic Circle Taxidermy (5637 W Irving Park Rd, 773-286-8000)—it’s pure excitement.
“Taxidermy is nothing more than art in the medium of fur, feathers, skin and scales…. Right now we’re doing a 12-foot boa constrictor for a private customer,” the former Art Institute sculpture student says, gesturing to a box that contains layer after layer of preserved black-and-white snake skin waiting to be mounted on a reproduction of the creature’s body. “We’re also doing restoration of a tiger skin that was originally bought in India in the 1950s and now it’s being mounted. It’s taken about three and a half years. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”
In addition to snakes and half century–old tigers, any animal that once roamed the Earth can be given new life, Nazarowski says, provided it’s not a state or federally protected species, and the owner presents a valid hunting license for all fresh kills. From insects to fish to full-scale musk ox, species can be preserved by carefully slicing, removing and tanning the skin—a process that takes 30 to 90 days—and attaching it to a sculpted mold (typically made from foam). Nazarowski has the remaining bone, muscle and fat hauled off by an animal-rendering service that turns it into byproducts such as feed stock or, if it’s a pet, the remains are returned to the owners for burial.
While pulling skin off one body and slapping it on another sounds like a hack job from a B-grade horror flick, the process is highly complex. Taxidermists must know how to not only preserve, but artificially recreate, if necessary, everything from the most delicate grasshopper wing to the spines of a porcupine.
“In beginner taxidermy, they practice on things like squirrels,” Nazarowski explains. “A squirrel has a very thick skin so you can manipulate it. A rabbit is a thin-skinned animal. It’s hard because it’s like working with wet tissue paper. And parakeets are difficult because they explode. The feathers pop right off. You have to be careful doing it.”
While malleable flesh and combustible birds don’t freak out Nazarowski, the artist admits he does have his limitations. “The person across the street has a funeral home. That would gross me out. I don’t think I could work with human beings.”