FEATURE: Taxidermy - it’s the stuff of dreams for lifelong nature fan
Krysten Newby has been obsessed with wildlife for as long as she can remember.
Her love of creatures great and small is plain to see from the inkings that cover her arms – the most recent of a jay, her favourite bird.
But she has another way of expressing her passion for natural history that some might find surprising. Twenty five year-old Krysten is a taxidermist.
She practises her art using specimens that have died of natural causes, in accidents, or occasionally been bought from a supplier of food for zoos.
The idea of trophy hunting and displaying the victim’s stuffed head on the wall appalls her.
“I love wildlife and would never kill anything,” she says. “Of course I prefer to see something alive rather than dead, but I see what I’m doing as restoring its beauty.”
And when it comes to sheer breathtaking beauty it would be hard to beat the peacock that is one of her latest projects.
Seven feet long from beak to tail, with every iridescent blue and green feather stroked into place with meticulous care, he is a true showstopper.
She is happy that the magnificent bird died from natural causes after living to a ripe old age.
Her devotion to detail is all important. “I’ll spend hours and hours on one eye, just making sure it’s in exactly the right place,” she says.
“You often see badly-done taxidermy and it’s awful.”
For those of us who have only known the craft as dusty, shrivelled relics from a bygone age, Krysten appears an unikely devotee.
But she knows two other women taxidermists, one of whom lives in Suffolk, who are both the same age as her.
“Also like me, they both have chronic illnesses which is a strange coincidence,” says Krysten who suffers debilitating pain from rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.
She did a degree in graphic design at the University of Suffolk in Bury St Edmunds, but her condition made it impossible for her to pursue it as a career.
“If I work one day, I will ache and be really tired the next. With the taxidermy I can work at my own pace,” she said.
She also draws and paints wildlife, and is now starting to make faux taxidermy which is gaining popularity in the US and UK.
The super–accurate models have the same inner construction as the real thing but the covering, instead of an animal’s own skin, is made from fabric or leather.
She has just finished a pangolin – in real life one of the world’s most endangered species – with leather scales and a head made from clay.
Krysten, who moved to Risby from Horringer last year, was born in Newmarket and grew up in the Bury area.
She and her mum Caroline, who works for a Bury law firm, have been busy adapting their new home and garden, including a purpose-made art and taxidermy workshop.
“I’ve always been obsessed with wildlife,” Krysten says.
“From the age of five I was looking out the window at my nan’s house seeing what birds I could see, and collecting feathers.”
As she got older the captivation grew and she began to wonder what lay beneath the skin.
“When I was about 13 I started collecting skulls because I thought they were fascinating, and looked at it from an artistic perspective.
“At 16 I began going to the Natural History Museum and looking at taxidermy there. Then I started collecting it.”
When it came to her 18th birthday, there was only one gift that would do. “All I wanted was this taxidermy jay, which is my favourite bird. I love any kind of corvids (the crow family).
“Then I thought, taxidermy is so expensive I wonder if I could make my own. I did a day course, and after that taught myself with help from internet sites.
“My first workshop was in my nan, Peggy Smith’s, garden . She let me take over her summerhouse. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without her.
“She’s always championed my artistic side and still has a picture of a jay on her wall that I did when I was five.”
Krysten’s first childhood ambition was to be a vet.
“I changed my mind because I didn’t think I could deal with all the gore – which given what I do now seems quite funny.”
There is no getting away from the fact that taxidermy involves skinning things ... not really a job for the squeamish.
“Most people think it’s quite gory, but you skin over the membrane that encloses everything, so I don’t have to touch the yukky stuff.
“The only thing is with birds and very small animals I use the skull, so have to clean it out, which isn’t very pleasant.”
She makes casts of larger animals’ heads, to ensure accuracy. The bodies are filled with a form carved from balsa wood or foam.
“You can buy foam forms for popular birds like crows and pheasants from specialist suppliers. But for birds of prey I always carve from scratch because they are so special, I would be really upset if I messed it up.”
The skins have to be tanned or preserved using salt solution. Birds’ legs are treated with formaldehyde.
“You have to inject it, and once I got some in my eye even though I was wearing goggles. I had to phone for medical help and it was quite hard to explain what I’d been doing.”
Family, friends, and local gamekeepers are among those who keep a lookout for accident casualties she could use.
“My dad who lives in Bishop’s Stortford saves things in his freezer. Even my aunt, who used to be really squeamish, brings me dead things in a bag.
“I have a chest freezer in the garage which is absolutely full.”
Krysten sells her work on the internet or on commission. She gives 10 percent of the profit from some of her sales to the Suffolk Wildlife Trust.
For more information go to www.taxidermyco.uk