Why you should care
Because renaissance via art isn’t only for the dead.
Polly Morgan brings the dead to life, both figuratively and literally, through sculpture. This English artist, who grew up in the Cotswolds countryside, near Oxford, crafts fascinating figures from deceased critters that speak to how “death feeds into life,” as she puts it, getting her audience to respond to animals in ways they perhaps wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I joke that I wanted pets without the responsibility,” Morgan says. “I do think that being in a big city divorces you from nature to the extent that you can crave some kind of animal contact.” The skinning and building of artificial bodies has given her a greater understanding and respect for anatomy, and her own body. “I’d always loved the satisfaction derived from creating things, but not all creative jobs result in a physical manifestation of your labor that taxidermy does,” she says.
Morgan achieved artistic success early on, exhibiting within a year of learning taxidermy. That initial success, born out of “instinctive work,” bothered her some, as she hadn’t attended art school and wasn’t used to being judged by critics and peers. After some time spent questioning her own work, worried that it wasn’t “up to scratch,” Morgan battled through her frustrations and entered a period where she was again happy with her sculptures — which happened to involve an awful lot of snakes.
A self-described “fearless child,” Morgan recalls handling a corn snake that wound up biting her. “Dead snakes are perfectly predictable,” she says of her relationship with serpents now. As far as raw materials go, people send her a steady supply of cadavers through the post. Pigeons and squirrels are everyday deliveries, from friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, fans, folks aware of her work, and generally those who are trying to help and take part. But she was once offered a baby giraffe, located in Bahrain, which she had to go and stuff and mount before she could send it to the U.K.
Morgan never dispatches living creatures for her evocative pieces, like Still Birth or the winged Blue Fever, or any of her sculptures, for that matter. (And no, she does not stuff pets for bereaved owners.) She is legally required to keep a logbook of the animals that come through her studio, plus, she explains, it would be illegal in many cases to kill for taxidermy. Morgan decided early on not to have anything killed for her work. Despite being a meat-eater, she “found the notion of taking something’s life in order to try to make it look alive again especially perverse and wrong.”
From pythons dancing on pedestals and blackbirds being devoured by maggots (Nest) to chicks (fowl, not babes) with balloons (Still Birth) or a fallen tree providing nourishment to piglets and small birds (The Fall), Morgan has an uncanny gift, through her craft and imaginative spin, of giving unsettling subject matter a new, thought-provoking life — even after the blood rush of mortal existence has long since vanished.