SOUTH BEND — Fresh is best for Karen Nemes.
Her canvas is carcass — ethically sourced, found animal bodies turned into fancifully displayed award-winning art.
A rogue taxidermist under the La Grotesquerie moniker, 48-year-old Nemes applies traditional materials and methods in her work, “using them in new and different ways to create art that isn’t necessarily what you would consider a straight taxidermy,” she explained, offering up the label “pop surrealism or low-brow art.”
Nemes has studied taxidermy since 2014, her efforts securing Best In Show wins this year at the Baltimore Taxidermy Open, South Bend’s Art Beat and, most recently, Wunderkammer: A Taxidermy Showcase and Competition Oct. 25 in Brooklyn, New York.
Accompanying each of her competition pieces is a process book, a spiral binder with photos and captions documenting the process: skinning, cleaning, tanning, sculpting, mounting and finishing.
“It’s sort of a redemptive process. I approach with a very thoughtful mindset and very respectfully,” she said.
An infatuation with rogue taxidermy dates back to 2005, she said, when she was known for creating “Fear Factor”-style Halloween parties with insect feasts and, later, “creepy Halloween decorations and displays, especially dolls.”
At the time, her lean toward the macabre was met with some resistance: around 2013, an attendee of The State Theater Bazaar in South Bend once asserted Nemes was “selling evil,” she said, adding patrons pushed to have her son, Chris Woodiel, put his Krampus (half-goat, half-demon folk character) costume away.
“I started following (rogue taxidermy) online and just loved it — loved it, loved it, loved it. Never imagined I’d be doing it. Never imagined I’d be meeting these people. Never imagined I’d be staying at one of their houses in New York for a competition and taking Best In Show,” she said from her South Bend home.
The first floor of her multi-purpose space is part mini-museum, part workspace and sanctuary, littered with skulls and a skeleton, mounted animal hides, framed prints, bookshelves brimming with literature, cabinets containing surgical tools and other odds and ends.
The mother of two — Chris, 26, and Ian Woodiel, 28 — said it isn’t uncommon for her next creation to arrive on the outside steps.
“I get messages all the time,” she said. “I get Facebook messages, I get texts, I get stuff put on my (online) page. Sometimes people will drop off, ‘Oh, I just dropped a squirrel at your back door.’ It’s pretty cool in that way.”
Nemes said her early interest led her to taxidermy.net, a website dedicated to discussing and dissecting the art form, where she linked with master taxidermist Troy Rose of Kooskia, Idaho.
A Mr. Miyagi to her rogue Ralph Macchio, she joked, Rose guided Nemes through a weeklong, one-on-one, $300-a-day course in the craft. Together, the pair would work on pieces, with Rose first leading by example, leaving Nemes to mimic his motions and technique, she said.
“What’s cool for me too is I got married and had kids young. I was 19. So I was a wife and a mother for a long, long time, and that was my job. … I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t what I was about,” she said.
“... So at 40, I divorced and got to spend some time asking myself, ‘Who am I? What am I like? What do I want to do? Who was I before I became a mom? Who was I before I became somebody’s wife?’ … And so I got to explore making art, vending, go off and learn taxidermy in Idaho. Why the hell not?”
With a newly forming skill set, Nemes — “I’m just the weird girl who nobody wanted to sit by in the cafeteria” — found herself entering a welcoming new scene where outsiders are in, she said.
“We were joking when I was in New York that we’re a lot of the weird, misfit girls who didn’t really fit in with the other girls,” she recalled, adding many of the world’s leading rogue taxidermists are women who have found a way to “belong and encourage each other.”
“We were interested in things that weren’t makeup and clothes and chasing boys, ya know, the newest handbag or jewelry. We were interested in the outdoors or there are some people who do wildlife rehab, so interested in wildlife or animal care or natural history and collecting.”
By day, Nemes handles social media and marketing for an RV manufacturer in Wakarusa. Waiting at the end of a 30-minute commute home is a freezer of future works.
As soon as a carcass is pulled from the cold, “the clock is ticking,” she said.
Nemes’ cleaning area is often the dining room or basement, with outside space reserved for larger animals. Newspapers and plastic sheets covered her table Sunday, a thawed muskrat to the side, wrapped in a towel, waiting to be unraveled.
“What I do is start with a carcass. A lot of the times, I’ll soak it in denatured alcohol because it kinda tightens up the skins and it helps the set hair a little bit,” she said as she combed the muskrat’s fur to find an incision seam for a ventral, or underside, cut.
“Then I skin the animal. The way I describe it … is (when) you take the fur off, you’re taking off a sweater. Think of it as a sweater he’s wearing. I’m gonna take that sweater off, and I’m gonna wash it, tan it, treat it, do things to it so it doesn’t rot. Then I have to put that sweater onto something.”
With an X-Acto knife gripped, Nemes carefully made her initial incision, progressively peeling the “sweater” from flesh, the scent of fluids and waste beginning to mix into the otherwise neutral air.
At times, scissors were used to break bone in order to cleanly remove the hide in a single piece. Nemes then tossed and coated the pelt in Borax, used to inhibit insects’ interest.
She explained after the hide rests for a day or so, the remaining flesh will be removed and the tanning process will begin, each step documented in photos.
“My favorite aspect of Karen's art, and the quality that sets her apart, is her ability to create a whole narrative around her work,” wrote Greg Hatem, co-owner of Bazaar curiosity shop, a co-sponsor of Baltimore Taxidermy Open. “It's not simply a well-done taxidermy mount, it's a story that she is telling us. This gives her whimsical recycled creations a real second life, and it's what keeps us so engaged with her art.”
While larger, pre-made forms will usually be ordered and shaped to size, Nemes said she’s crafted her own forms for smaller pieces in the past, the most ambitious being a mid-sized, medieval surgeon-themed goat, dubbed “Doctor Goat” at Wunderkammer.
“There’s a lot of sculpture, there’s a lot of other stuff that goes into doing it well,” she said. “It’s a really involved process. If you’re going to be sloppy and just slap something together quickly it’s just crap.”
The Brooklyn competition’s organizer Divya Anantharaman, a top New York City taxidermist, second-place finisher in the Professional division at the 2017 World Taxidermy Championships and co-author of the book "Stuffed Animals: A Modern Guide to Taxidermy," called Nemes an “electric, friendly and genuinely warm” “punk-rock babe.”
“This year has been a great year for her winning Best in Show at the Baltimore Taxidermy Open AND the Wunderkammer Taxidermy Showcase and Competition in NYC,” Anantharaman, who did not judge the contest, wrote in a message to The Goshen News.
“As the organizer of the NYC competition, Karen’s work embodies the best of both worlds — traditional taxidermy artistry of sculpting, painting, hide tanning, (that is always meticulously documented) along with the fantastic storytelling that’s been part of whimsical taxidermy tradition since the Victorian era. The level of detail in her work is a pleasure to discover — as you look at the piece, more and more is revealed. I was not at all surprised when our esteemed panel of judges selected her as the winner.”
Running around her home with bloodied latex gloves, searching for a larger pair of scissors to break through muskrat bone, the sprightly Nemes raised her voice incredulously.
“It’s like I found my tribe, you know, a place where I belong,” she said. “I have to pinch myself. … It’s hard to believe.”
Geoff Lesar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 574-533-2151, ext. 307.