Mounting passion

Published 11:57 pm Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Taxidermist Debbie Daugherty brushes the hackles of an otter in her wildlife studio. The otter won best in its category in a competition in 1987.

Artist uses a different kind of canvas

Every aspect of an artistic work is important, but this particular artist takes great care with her model’s faces. They’re the most important part to her clients.

She’s working to create a lifelike deer, and it’s almost done. The body has been carefully formed, the ears crafted just so and the snout portrayed mid-sniff. But the eyes and mouth are the most difficult parts, because they create the expression.

The artist traces the deer’s mouth into a slight smile. Then she goes to work on the eyes, ensuring the lids are rounded and the eyes are shining. With a final touch, she makes sure the whiskers are in the right place, then brushes the entire work to clean off extra dust before it’s finished.

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When she delivers a piece to her client, Debbie Daugherty is always nervous. “I always get butterflies when I’m getting ready to show a piece,” she said. “Have I achieved here what we’re after?”

Daugherty’s works are often complete strangers to the client, but sometimes they’re longtime loved ones. That’s why it’s so important to make sure they look the same as when they were alive.

Daugherty, who owns Blackwater Wildlife Studio, is part artist and part funeral director. Her clients task her with the impossible job of turning death into life.

It all started about 37 years ago, when she was training bird dogs. Her clients started asking her where they could have their dogs’ first retrieve mounted. Income from the seasonal training work only went so far, so she began to supplement it by meeting both of her clients’ needs.

Daugherty took some courses by mail and learned the rest from mentors and trial and error. Soon, her side job overtook the training job and she began taxidermy full-time.

“At that time, it was kind of unusual for a woman to be in taxidermy,” she said. “It’s not anymore, which tickles me.”

In her studio on Pruden Boulevard, animals she mounted more than 20 years ago look as real as when they were alive. Otters and porcupines bare their teeth against perceived threats, while a mouse smaller than a human’s pinkie finger is perched inquisitively on a piece of wood. Bears, deer, sheep, mallard ducklings and even a large-mouthed bass line the walls and floor space in the dimly lit studio.

The wall space that isn’t taken up with mounts has photos of other projects, among them, a young giraffe — the client had purchased the skin of a zoo loss and brought it to Daugherty.

“That was an interesting project,” Daugherty said.

When she’s starting on a new piece, Daugherty must first separate the skin from the body. That’s the most difficult part, but not for the reason one might think.

“I don’t like ticks, but they like me,” Daugherty said. “You’re something warm with something that is no longer warm.”

The skin is then cleaned, tanned, salted and stored in a freezer until she’s ready to work on it. The artistry of the craft comes through in the making of the “mount,” a sort of mold of the animal that goes under the skin.

Many mounts are available for purchase, but for unusual jobs — like the giraffe, or the tarantula she once did for a friend — Daugherty must sculpt a mold herself. It’s a skill she learned many years ago when few varieties of mounts were on the market.

“I am grateful for having had that background, so I can sculpt something if I need to,” she said.

The mounts used to be made of plaster of Paris. These days, polyurethane foam is the most popular choice for a mount.

Daugherty takes precise measurements of the skin to determine the exact dimensions of the mount. Once it’s finished, she fits the skin onto the mount and holds it in place with hide paste, which she allows to dry for several weeks.

Finishing touches include facial details — including glass eyes, mouth position and more — as well as smoothing the hair down and brushing a moth-repellant powder into the hair.

“He had a cowlick that was a pain,” Daugherty says of one particular deer as she brushes him.

She uses a special tool to shape the lids around the glass eyes and demonstrates how she formed the mouth.

“It’s easy to cut that slot straight,” she said, but shows off how she instead turned the ends of the deer’s mouth slightly upward.

Hunting kills are one thing, but family pets make her nervous. The smallest details of an animal’s expression can make the difference between a satisfied client and one who doesn’t recognize his longtime friend.

“Nobody knew him like a family member,” Daugherty said, noting that many in her profession won’t even take pets. “Good photos help.”

She’s been fortunate to have many satisfied clients, but two of her most prized works were personal projects. An otter — teeth showing, hackles up — is prominently displayed in her showroom, along with the best-in-category ribbon it won at the Virginia State Taxidermists’ Conference in 1987.

A nearby group of mallard ducklings, however, upstaged the otter that year. The six hatchery losses — one with its webbed foot dipped in the water made of resin — took best in show in the same competition.

Daugherty hasn’t taken another piece to competition since.

“In horse shows, they don’t often bring the grand champion back,” she says, by way of explanation.

Through the years, though, Daugherty has done many projects for hundreds of customers. A 740-pound bear. Coyotes. Foxes. Peregrine falcons and bald eagles. Even snakes. But when she’s working on a particular piece, she keeps it all in perspective.

“You look at each mount as something important individually.”