BLAKE CODY: Art in Taxidermy
Wichita native, Blake Cody, specializes in oddity art with a main focus on taxidermy. I shadowed Blake periodically throughout the course of several months mixing staged and candid photographs in order to document him and the process he goes through to create his work. While it can be grotesque to some, it isn't the work of the depraved or sadistic.
To Blake and many others involved in and outside of the Oddities community, it is a means to give these animals a new life by reanimating them through different preservation tactics while viewing them through an artistic lens. Within traditional taxidermy, there is commonly a hunter and hunted relationship between the owner and the animal on display. In the Oddities world, however, the animals aren't trophies, they are instead sculpted to depict a surrealist moment, unseen in nature that is then frozen in time, through varying stages of decay. This forces viewers to see the beauty in what many would consider a morbid reality while also providing a deeper connection and understanding of the animals that inhabit the world.
Studio portrait of Blake Cody and wet specimens
How did you start on taxidermy art?
It started from having extra bones around; one of my stepdad's friends always did the renaissance fairs and he had this old horse spine chilling in his attic as well as a bunch of cow jaws, bones, and stuff he used to make medieval renaissance art with. It was kind of his idea, he initially came over and gave me a box of bones and it just kind of spiraled from there. When I get ahold of something, it just goes crazy, whether that be music or any form of art. I never did traditional taxidermy before, it just started with the bones and then escalated.
I've always loved animals, even though it can seem like it’s grotesque in a way. Since I was ten years old I've had pet rats; they were the first animals I ever wanted. My mom was more into the idea of it, my stepdad was like, ‘That's a really weird pet,’ even though they're some of the most intelligent small animals you can own. We bred ducks for awhile; we had ferrets and sugar gliders, we've had a lot of different animals, so when I think of this from an art aspect, it's resurrecting a new life and giving to these creatures that I've been proud to share the earth with.
Why did you start?
It was actually just a fun hobby, I made a couple of things for a previous house we lived in, just to have some more art around the building. Some friends of mine saw it and offered to buy a few of the things that I had done. Then it just spiraled into a hobby that I quit my $20 an hour job for. Then I started an Etsy shop and traveled to as many conventions in nearby states within 12 months.
A display of bone articulation work in the Cody household
Blake preps a syringe full of Ever Clear to inject a mouse for the wet preservation process
Tell me about Elephant Graveyard. What is it, who is it, what do you guys do?
Elephant Graveyard is just the name we use when we go to conventions and for the Etsy shop. For the most part, I've just been selling it personally but every now and then either my fiancé Melanie or the singer of my band will come with me to the conventions and help with running the table.
The name Elephant Graveyard initially came from the Lion King, there's a scene where you see all the dead elephants and it was a spooky thing as a child and I always took it as a metaphor for resurrecting the dead. It was just this shtick that stuck in my head and I ended up creating that into the taxidermy business and from there it’s kind of propelled itself. It's funny because a lot of people think the name is absurd and they ask what it means, and for me, it was just something from my childhood that I’ve had in my head and turned it into a business.
Is it only your work in Elephant Graveyard?
Yeah, it's all my work. I’ll get calls from people to come pick up dead animals, so others help me out but I do all the dirty work.
Where all have you shown work?
Pretty much on websites and conventions, and all of my wonderful friends and fans share it on Facebook and social media. The Oddities and Curiosities shows are the Expos I’ve done in Denver, Kansas City, and Tulsa twice. I also did an art show here in Wichita.
What are the different preserving methods called?
The three main ones are wet preservation, mummification, and bone articulation.
Wet Preservation Process
What animals have you worked with?
That’s a lot: hamsters, mice, rats, squirrels, possums, raccoons, marmoset monkeys, alligators, deer, horses, pigs, birds, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, bats, some fish, bearded dragon, ducks, cats, there's probably more.
Where do you get all the animals?
Everything is ethically sourced - some of it is just road kill that is in good enough condition. Some of them come from breeders of animals like rabbits, chickens, and stuff like that. Some of their fetal animals just don't make it. Instead of a farmer tossing them out, they'll send them my way so I can preserve them. Some of the animals I get are from privately owned zoos/animal sanctuaries/breeding facilities, like in San Antonio, Tx, Virginia, and one in Southern California. That's where I get some of the more exotic animals, like hedgehogs, sugar gliders, and some primates. They all died naturally, like from digestive problems when they're babies. The bats I have are primarily from Indonesia but I have them licensed through New York customs. They come with the full customs form and everything, so they're all legally obtained and ethically sourced.
In regards to the animals you obtain from overseas, I think that will make people most concerned. Tell me about how you get the animals from overseas and how you know they are ethically sourced?
The main process where I’ve obtained something from overseas - they are documented. The bats I get were originally taken to Jakarta University to be studied; I have the paperwork and forms showing that they've gone through customs and have been scientifically examined, with veterinarian reports. They would study the different diseases they carry through farm crops and a lot of the bats I obtain are through the scientific study.
So you obtain them from people who originally got them for research and instead of throwing the animal out, they'll send it to you or anyone else acquiring?
There are tons of legal forms and processes you have to go through. They had to be examined to make sure they are disease-free before being shipped, and the ones I have gotten had to go through research studies and weren't going to be re-released back into the wild, then they naturally pass away and then given away.
A squirrel stands on a post
What animals have you gotten from overseas?
The only animals I've gotten from overseas would be the bats and some insects like butterflies that aren't endangered, as well as a couple of primate skeletons that I had to articulate. The skeletons will come in pieces, not put together and then I have to put them together which can take up to a month or so.
Blake Cody holds a skinned mouse before placing it in salt to starting the mummification process
Do you have a favorite piece or pieces you've made?
I did this Otter skull - I flash painted it. While I was the manager at Patricia’s, I would get a lot of promotional stuff like fishnet stockings and whatever. For a couple of weeks I tried different painting techniques with spray cans and one of them was with a fishnet stocking. I painted this Otter skull gold and I ended up wrapping it in fishnet and flash painted it. Flash painting is where you get your initial color down, then I would use a heat gun and flash it real quick with the stockings over it with another color of paint, so I had this purple and gold almost snakeskin scale look. I put it on a plaque and mounted it, then I drilled some metal studs into it. That was probably one of my favorites.
What misconceptions do you think people have with this kind of work?
I think some people won't find it pretty, and I think all art can be pretty in some way, through whatever sick process you have to go through. There were a couple of people when I first started showing my work on Facebook that were like, 'Oh, Satan!', some people just group together to not like stuff. Plus people can be ignorant and think that other people are going out and murdering animals for art. Even in the community I’m in, people are super against any animal cruelty. If you go out and kill an animal for art, fuck you, you're a piece of shit. That wouldn't be cool or hip.
Images courtesy of Blake Cody; showing past work