Love and death on the side of the road
Kate Puxley is a visual artist whose work has drawn attention to the Harper government’s damaging policies toward art and culture as well as our relationship with animals and the natural environment. Arresting, breathtaking, and inimitable, her drawings, paintings, installations, and most recently her taxidermy sculptures, are provocations and interventions in the social, political and environmental landscapes. Art Threat got a chance to talk with her about some of her recent works and what it means to transform the dead into art.
Ezra Winton: Your roadkill series is exceptional — it’s bizarre and beautiful and draws on diverse thematics from compassion to death to the environment to pollution. You say that since childhood you’ve been aware of animal carnage on the roadways. What roadways? Where did you grow up and what kind of childhood did you have that produced such an empathic and creative artist like yourself?
Kate Puxley: I grew up in Toronto, and spent my childhood summers in a tiny cabin on the south coast of Nova Scotia. Both were wild jungles to me. My Toronto backyard was a city in itself, housing diverse insects, birds, and sometimes a rambling raccoon. At an early age, I was collecting insects and reptiles, studying them, and then setting them free once I was done. One of my earliest memories is discovering the Sal bug, and their defense mechanism when they are touched (they curl up into a tight ball). Compassion came naturally, as each species was special with a unique character, and each played a significant role in managing our environment. They also forced me to question my own role, and that of my species. In many ways, I felt more connected to these creatures, than I did to most humans.
On one occasion, I was driving back into Toronto, having spent the day catching frogs. The father of the boy that I had been playing with spotted a dead raccoon on the road and asked us if we wanted a closer look. We were intently poking and inspecting the raccoon, when his father asked us if we wanted a paw. We were delighted at the prospect. I watched him saw off two paws, and place one of them in my hand. I kept it in a jar for ages, until it had to be thrown away.
I had three Siamese cats growing up. One was killed on the highway in Nova Scotia, and another killed by a car on my street. The clashing of fur and steel marked me.
How did you translate that awareness into art, and specifically, taxidermy art — your most recent work?
I have remained fascinated by our relationship, or lack thereof, with other sentient beings, and what that relationship says about us as a species. My work explores this uneasy relationship and sense of disconnect between post-modern human society and the natural environment.
I started photographing roadkill, and was soon collecting and drawing it. However, I was still just creating an image of the animal, and that wasn’t enough. I wanted to use/to recycle the body. I had a eurêka moment, packed my bags, and found a taxidermist in Calgary to teach me the craft. I’ve since apprenticed with several taxidermists. It’s not something you pick up overnight. I am always improving my skills, and always learning new tricks of the trade.Taxidermy is the ideal medium, and roadkill the ideal subject, to discuss the concepts and issues that are important to me.
It’s become a ritualistic process, one that is deeply personal as well as detached.
The exhibit included various taxidermy sculptures. A few were from a series that I titled ‘Habitat’. They include: a pheasant with a can on its head, a weasel sleeping in a styrofoam container, and a large aquarium with a floating plastic island guided by a mouse in a tin can. These works speak to the role of the animal in the human world, as well as the changing environmental climate and species adaptation.
Also included in the exhibit is an installation of falling cats. I am working on an ongoing series, titled ‘Senza Terra’ – meaning ‘without earth’ or ‘without ground’ in Italian. The cats are placed in positions of falling or floating against a white background. They remain prisoners in a timeless space between life and death.
Another medium that I like to work in is drawing. The exhibit displayed five large (8’ high) charcoal drawings. In them, I lift dead animals from their asphalt settings and place them vertically on a white background. The ambiguous contortions of the animals represent the consequences of human culture as distorting the wild.
I aim to challenge the viewer, and provoke thought and discussion. I would hope that the reactions are varied, and start a discourse. Ideally, a strong reaction to my work might prompt the viewer to question and reflect on why. Why does it make them feel like that?
Some of the roadkill works are straight up dead animals. But others are seem more manipulated in ways that express concerns over the effects of human activity on the animal world. I’m thinking of the ones you just mentioned, the tin can on the bird’s head and my favourite piece, the curled up weasel in the styrofoam container. I’m wondering if you can speak more to these themes, which clearly involve our relationship to animals as collateral damage and as meat.
Museum taxidermy mounts and dioramas are intended to teach the viewer about the animal’s ‘natural’ habitat. However, it is no longer relevant to place a raccoon in the setting of a forest. We cannot ignore the changing environment and how animals are being forced to adapt. Taxidermists strive to bring realism and majesty back to the animals they are mounted. This series is a tongue and cheek look at the hypocrisy of our species. No matter how beautiful that pheasant is, it looks ridiculous with a tin can on its head.
My latest series of falling animals used cats that I had found on the streets of Montreal. The mayor of Point-Claire, where the exhibit was held, received a complaint that there were ‘dead cats’ in the Stewart Hall gallery. It’s interesting to me that some animals spark stronger reactions than others. The animals that we eat are not as close to our hearts as a cat. How can an animal that provides sustenance from its flesh be somehow less important? I’m not opposed to the idea of eating meat only the way in which it is done…. The industry, the environmental degradation, the resources involved, and the suffering. We are so disconnected to the natural world and the food we eat. Often, consumers don’t want to be reminded that their drumstick or steak came from a living creature. And we don’t have to work for our meat anymore. We can easily walk into a grocery store and pick up a bright red piece of plastic-wrapped meat.
At the time that I was studying taxidermy in Calgary, Alberta, I was a staunch vegetarian. My instructor and fellow classmate told me that the only way I’d truly learn how to skin a deer, was if I shot one and gutted it in the wild.
They took me hunting, and the experience was life altering. It was bitter cold and the snow was thick and heavy. Every time we spotted some deer, they’d catch a whiff before we were able to get close. My hunting partner was respectful and law-abiding, and taught me how important a clean shot was so that “the animal (and hence the meat) didn’t suffer. Once a deer had been shot, it was up to me to gut it, in -40 temperatures. As I worked on the carcass, the deer’s body heat kept me warm. Then there was the work of dragging it to the car, bleeding it, and making the meat into deer sausage. When that sausage met my mouth, it was the most glorious thing I had ever tasted. I felt connected to the animal that was providing sustenance for me, and to the labour involved in getting it to my plate. I savoured every bite.
With the roadkill, you have a much different relationship because the animals are already dead. What was it like working with the animals you found on the sides of highways and roads? It seems like it would be a very intimate process, manipulating the body of another formerly living organism, and that on some level there is respect for that organism, which is translated in the finished work. Can you speak to this aspect of our relationship with animals, and how respect (or lack of) changes and is articulated when animals are alive, when they are dead, and when they become artworks?
Working with roadkill is a very powerful process. Every time I have a dead animal on my worktable, I feel fear. It’s a clear confrontation with death and my own mortality, but interwoven with that is the sense of the supernatural. It’s as if I am scared that the animal will come back to life. Once I begin skinning the creature, the process becomes more scientific. It is fascinating exploring the way a body is made. In doing so, it is a reminder of what we are made of.
There are some animals that have been harder than others. I see how these creatures died and where they suffered trauma. It can be shocking to see an organ squeezed halfway up a creature’s leg, or to know that an animal suffered a slow death. There are various smells and liquids…. But it is life.
My aim is to carry the respect that I have for these animals, and for life, into my work. While I believe in provoking confrontations with human hubris, I seek to do so poetically and respectfully.
The animals that I find go mostly unnoticed, as roadkill has become a part of our landscape. We are desensitized to it. Most people don’t want to be close to death. It’s scary, as it’s a clear reminder of one’s own mortality. Taxidermy is a haunting medium. It takes something dead and tries to make it look alive. In the context of a natural history museum we are keen to embrace it, but as soon as it is out of context or unconventional, many people feel uncomfortable. I have been criticized for using animals in my work. I find it ironic that much of this criticism comes from the same people who feel nothing at the site of roadkill or completely buy into the meat industry.
What have been the reactions to your work — any outrage or disgust (other than the complaints you mentioned above)? Do you think people “get it”?
Last November, I created an installation, using Nutria, at the Museum of Zoology in Rome. Nutria are semi-aquatic mammals that look like a cross between a beaver and a mutant rat. After viewing my installation, an academic told me that she had always hated Nutria, and found them disgusting. My work forced her to look closely at these animals, and to see beauty in them. She said her opinion of Nutria was forever changed.
It’s a beautiful example of our relationship with the natural world as well as one another. We are so quick to pass judgment or view the ‘other’ as repugnant or dangerous. And yet, when we overcome that judgment, we see the intrinsic beauty and common biology that exists in all living creatures.
I’m always pleased when someone takes the time, and is open enough with themselves, to question their beliefs and reactions.
Conversely, I’ve also had some rather violent reactions to my work. At the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition last summer, a woman became irate when she saw a floating raccoon piece I’d made. She screamed at me, and told me my work was revolting and terrible. She threatened to call the authorities, and then walked away screaming at the crowd not to go near me, as my work was garbage and as I might just taxidermy them. My work clearly struck an emotional chord, one that she was not prepared to question. But, the experience still rattled me. I was worried she’d return with a baseball bat.You’ve produced political artwork before, with your “Flat Daddy Harper” project. Can you talk about that project? With the recent brutal cuts to culture and the arts by the Harper government in Canada, are you envisioning a sequel to Flat Daddy Harper?
The Flat Daddy Harper project and website was inspired by an American website that sells cardboard cut-outs of parents fighting in the war in Iraq. The cut-outs are substitutes for the real thing, and are intended to help children cope with the absence of their parent. I created a masonite cut-out of Harper, and also made magnetic accessories, each representing a different art. Canadian artists have been suffering for some time from an absence of recognition for their societal contribution. Flat Daddy Harper is a representation of this absence. Since Flat Daddy Harper, I’ve also made representations of all of the G8 leaders that were used in an ‘Oxfam’ and ‘Stop Poverty Now’ campaign. We’ll see if it evolves into something new.
It’s difficult not to feel overwhelmingly depressed with our current political situation. That being said, I believe that now more than ever we need Canadian artists to speak out. The contemporary philosopher Roger Scruton said, “the ability to take what is most painful in the human condition and then redeem it in a work of beauty has always been seen as the sacred task of artists”.
Artists will always be making art, regardless of whether they’re supported by our government, but it’s really hard when you’re living in a country whose government doesn’t support or believe in its culture. It’s hard not to feel defeated sometimes.
How do you support yourself as an artist in Canada and how can people find (and purchase) your work?
It’s hard supporting myself. I would love to be able to devote all my time to my work, but it doesn’t bring in enough income. I work part-time as a caregiver, and will sometimes pick up waitressing shifts or contract work. My art career is a full-time job. The other jobs are over-time.
I don’t have any gallery representation at the moment, and sell most of my work from my website or by word of mouth. Quebec vedette Diane Dufresne bought a raccoon of mine, and the director of the SAT, Monique Savoie, is the owner of one of my large drawings.