Reid Peppard’s Creature CoutureJuxtapoz // Sunday, 04 Oct 2009
By Simon Creasey
Reid Peppard sees the world differently to everyone else. Where normal people see the bloodied carcass of a dead rat or pigeon lying by the side of the road, she sees a luxurious purse or a fetching headpiece, for the California-born London-based artist creates ‘creature couture’ – fine art fashion accessories for men and women crafted from the bodies of dead animals.
While at first it may sound a little unsavory, Peppard breathes new life into the corpses of mice, rats and pigeons that have been found and donated by friends. The fruit of her labour was a highly successful and highly provocative debut show christened ‘Vermin’ that coincided with London Fashion Week, in September. The show featured purses, necklaces, headpieces, cuff links, bracelets and bowties, all made from the carcasses of London’s thriving vermin population and attracted mixed emotional reactions from attendees, ranging from disgust through to curiosity. It was exactly the affect that Peppard was looking to achieve.
“Taxidermy is such a powerful medium and it evokes such a visceral emotional response from people because it looks like something that’s alive in a 3D form but you know that it’s dead,” she explains. “There’s something about taxidermy that touches a nerve.”
Taxidermy has clearly also touched Peppard, who speaks enthusiastically about the ancient craft. Her foray into creature couture was a natural progression from her fine art background. She became interested in taxidermy while studying sculpture at St Martin’s College in London and before long she had acquired a small collection of specimens. Peppard’s inquisitive nature made her yearn to discover more about how taxidermy is created so she undertook a four-day intensive course from one of the UK’s leading taxidermy practitioners and was instantly hooked.
It’s said that to be a good taxidermist you need to be a sculptor, artist and naturalist rolled into one, and Peppard already had two out of three of these attributes so it’s little surprise that she showed aptitude for the craft although she admits that some of her earlier attempts weren’t the best.
The piece she describes as her “gateway” work, from conventional taxidermy to jewellery, was a rat shield – the upper half of a rat, holding a furry crystal heart which was mounted on a wooden plaque. She wasn’t fully convinced by the concept but the idea of the rat holding the heart appealed to her so she removed it from the plaque and started playing around with it. It was when she started putting the rat into her hair that the idea for a headpiece was born and after that ideas for other accessories came thick and fast – too fast to keep up with the supply of suitable specimens to work with.
“Sourcing animals is tricky,” admits Peppard. “I’m a vegetarian and the whole moral thing with taxidermy is really important to me so with my work I try to majoratively use road kill although I have taken a couple of items from pest controllers in the past.”
Asking for dead animals from pest control sources almost always causes raised eyebrows – “people think you’re either trying to get them into trouble or you’re a creep” – so she relies heavily on the loose network of friends that supply her with road kill.
“I’ve had three foxes just in the past week from friends,” says Peppard. “Some of them are incredibly squeamish girls but bless them, they’ve gotten a few plastic bags and bundled the animals up for me to take home.”
These animals are placed in her chest freezer to stop them from decomposing, much to the chagrin of her boyfriend. “He used to be very squeamish but now he’s a hardened individual. However, I do get yelled at occasionally for putting unwrapped little carcasses into the freezer space.”
Peppard concedes that she hasn’t yet mastered taxidermy techniques and finds small mammals the most challenging to work with. A slip at the wrong moment can undo hours of painstakingly detailed work, but while taxidermy demands intense levels of concentration it doesn’t require a cast-iron disposition, contrary to popular misconception.
“Taxidermy is not as gory as some people think,” explains Peppard. “They think that you’re elbow deep in intestines with blood spurting up in your face but it’s not like that at all – unless you’re doing a bear,” she jokes.
In fact the practice is surprisingly clean when you know what you’re doing with little, if any, blood spilt. The animals are boiled, de-fleshed and then the musculature is reworked. “Most people don’t know that all that’s left of the original animal is a skull that’s been completely sanitised and reworked with clay, and a skin that’s essentially been turned to leather and maybe some legs and arm bones.”
With the Vermin collection behind her Peppard is moving onto larger animals and intends to start working with the foxes that she recently took receipt of. This should take her work into new areas and will provide useful practice for when she attempts two projects that for the time being at least she can only dream about.
“I want to do a bear head helmet where the wearer looks out through the mouth and I also want to do a jacket with an Alsatian head on each shoulders with their mouths open kinda snarl-smiling because I think it will be really powerful visual.”
The problem as ever will be getting hold of suitable specimens but if she does manage to pull it off then wouldn’t have any qualms about wearing these items out and about.
“It takes balls to go out wearing one of my pieces and you’ve got to be outgoing enough to pull it off. I’ve worn all of my pieces out before and I’ve never had a negative reaction. It’s funny because sometimes people don’t notice initially because some of the pieces are so small but then suddenly they realise and they’re like, ‘woh’.”
For more on Reid Peppard's creations (including slightly more graphic images), check out her website here.