Faux Taxidermy Sculptures Are Kill-Free Surrealism

Images courtesy the artist and Robert Lange Studios

The fantastical animal sculptures dreamed up by Wisconsin-based artist Kelly Jelinek carry all the austerity of a fine taxidermied animal, with none of the moral ambiguity. Her upholstery training, plus a Wisconsin-bred attraction to mounted buck heads, gave Jelinek the idea to assemble lifelike lions, bears, and stags (no tigers yet) with colorful in fairytail coats. With her technique, the artistry of taxidermy is intact and no animals are harmed.

Like Association of Rogue Taxidermy members, Jelinek is committed to making her art cruelty-free. "As a child growing up in rural Wisconsin, I became thoroughly accustomed to seeing taxidermy game and deer mounts," she tells The Creators Project. "But on the other hand, I also happen to be a huge bleeding-heart animal lover, and the two don't really mix."

Aside from the main decór of her childhood, Jelinek has a surprising group of artistic influences. "It's definitely a two-way tie between Gustav Klimt and Kay Nielsen. Which is funny because both of them are 2-dimensional artists that really have nothing to do with taxidermy or animals or sculpture," she says. Take a step back from the materials and process behind her art, and the connection is clear. Vibrant patterns and surreal-yet-recognizable characters abound in her body of work, stimulating the imagination in the same way as Klimt's The Kiss, or Kay Nielsen's Hansel and Gretel illustrations.

We unpacked Jelinek's fairytale aesthetics and taxidermy techniques in an interview which you can check out below, along with more examples of her fascinating work.

The Creators Project: How would you describe your art form? Is it sculpture, taxidermy, embroidery, or something in between?

Kelly Jelinek: It's really none of the above. If I had to pick two I guess it's a cross between sculpture and taxidermy. I am always hesitant to use either of those to describe it, however, for these reasons: First, I do not "sculpt" the animals. I use foam-cast forms ordered from a taxidermy supply company—along with other taxidermy parts such as the glass eyes, resin teeth, or rubber tongues.

Even though I am using the supplies that a taxidermist would use, I feel uncomfortable calling my upholstered animals taxidermy. I feel that true taxidermy is an art form in itself, and I would almost be belittling the true skill of taxidermy by calling what I do taxidermy. Really, "faux taxidermy" is the most accurate as it describes the overall piece but implies that real taxidermy does not occur in the piece. I sometimes prefer calling what I do "home decor" more than art. Some artists may find it offensive to have their art called that, but I'm okay with it. When I make a faux taxidermy animal, or paint a painting, or really anything else, I always make something that I would want to display in my own house.

How did you develop the technique?

As a child growing up in rural Wisconsin, I became thoroughly accustomed to seeing taxidermy game and deer mounts—I thought of them as standard items of household decor. Even when I was a child they never scared or disgusted me. If anything, they fascinated me. But on the other hand, I also happen to be a huge bleeding-heart animal lover, and the two don't really mix.

When I was in high school I developed an interest in upholstery. I would go to flea markets and garage sales and come home with antique chairs that needed a little TLC, and taught myself how to do simple upholstery. Later, when I was putting together my undergraduate senior show UW-Stevens Point, I finally made my first three upholstered animals: a lion, a bear, and a dog. I think it was something that had been stewing in the back of my mind for awhile, and finally was given the prime opportunity to play around with the idea and make it reality.

Tell me about your most recent work (above).

My most recent work is actually a deer mount that I made for myself . I love making custom pieces for customers but every now and then I stumble across a fabric or in this case, an awesome pair or antlers, that I just fall in love with and have to keep for myself. I found the antlers at a flea market and knew that I had to have them. The antlers are huge and "nontypical"—antlers that form in a way that is unusual compared to the norm. The mount is currently hanging above my bed, like some sort of epic dreamcatcher. 

What is the biggest challenge in making one of your sculptures?

The biggest challenge for me is when I work on a new animal. I try to develop patterns for the fabric pieces for every animal and sometimes it can be really hard getting the fabric to lay on the forms correctly. Usually I have to cut and sew a bunch of little pieces before I get one that's a good fit. Let's just say you can usually tell when I'm working on a new animal because my studio will look like a fabric factory blew up in it. 

How do you hope people feel when they look at them?

I really hope that they can find the beauty in them, and don't just think that they are a novelty item. I hope that they feel the nostalgia that I do when I am working on them. And as stupid and cliche as this might sound, I genuinely hope that at the very least they just "like" them. Every animal that I make has a little bit of myself in it—my memories, my personal taste, my pride—so when someone doesn't like it, it's hard not to take it personal. I think this is a dilemma that most artists or tradesmen feel about their work. 

Who are your biggest visual influences?

It's definitely a two-way tie between Gustav Klimt and Kay Nielsen. Which is funny because both of them are 2-dimensional artists that really have nothing to do with taxidermy or animals or sculpture. I think I am drawn to Klimt's work because it is often so busy and full of patterns. Everything about his paintings is so bold and visually stimulating. And Nielsen's work is very appealing to me 1) because most of it is fairy tale illustrations, and I love me a good fairy tale and 2) his work has a great balance of elegance and strangeness. For example, many of his illustrations have a very dainty look to them, but upon closer inspection you may notice that the people's faces are slightly grotesque or haggard. There is a quote from Edgar Allen Poe that I absolutely love and I feel like it is a great description of Nielsen's work: "There is no exquisite beauty…without some strangeness in the proportion." Heck, this is pretty much my personal mantra. 

What's next for you? 

I would like to get back into ceramic sculpting so that is the on-going project that I have stewing on the back burners right now. I also would like to make a few freakish faux taxidermy animals. I've started the preparations for a two-headed deer and another deer with copious amounts of antlers and horns that will be protruding from its head. They will be quite the sideshow animals when they are completed. I regularly have pieces on display/for sale in Charleston at the Vendue and at Robert Lange Studios.

I would love to put together a show that is a combination of both my upholstered animals and my ceramic creations, maybe even a few paintings/drawings in the mix, too—a strange menagerie of beasts big, small, and bizarre. But right now I have a lot of work to do before that will be possible.

See more of Kelly Jelinek's work on her website and buy them on Etsy.

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