Interview : Nature Punk

Wyrd Words & Effigies had the exceptionally good fortune to engage in a conversation with Sarah Bartell of Nature Punk. Nature Punk creates a wide array of artwork sourced from wildlife materials, and also sells a extensive variety of curious knick-knacks from around the world.

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Can you please  describe how Nature Punk came into being?

The business was born from my own personal interest in the remains of wild things. I would find bones and skulls and teeth and claws on hikes through the woods and thought that the stories they told were amazing. That fascination with animal remains lead me to start collecting museum-quality pieces for personal research, and, as my collection grew, I started to sell off some of my older findings in order to fund the acquisition of more and more.

Skulls and bones were nice and all, but I started to find that I was also fascinated with pelts, as well. So I sold off many of my skulls and eventually started working almost exclusively in recycled furs. By this point, I had established my shop on Etsy and was able to fund some pretty exciting projects. I taught myself the art of taxidermy as a way to give some of my pelts more purpose than simple decoration, and have been doing so ever since. Headdresses are obviously my forte and I work almost entirely on commissions now; I love it.

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From where do you source your wildlife materials?

Most of my materials these days come from fellow artists and taxidermists, as well as from estate sales and auctions. I don’t buy from trophy hunters or fur farms, though do occasionally butcher animals which friends and family hunt for food. I also have a permit to collect roadkill in my home state, so I get many hides by that means, as well. Local farms sometimes ask me to help butcher their animals in exchange for pelts, and most recently, some students from the hide tanning course I’m teaching helped me skin and butcher who giant llamas on a certified organic farm not far from Portland. It was a great learning experience for all of us. One of the hides is now tanned and ready to serve as my ground blanket for next winter’s snow caving trips. The other, I gave to one of the students.

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What was life like for you as a child? Did you live more outdoors than in?

Growing up, my family travelled a lot. I spent about 2 years in Jakarta, living on the edge of a beautiful jungle green space, so animals were a constant presence in my early life. Most kids my age who lived in the neighbourhood did not speak English, and didn’t want to make friends with other kids who didn’t speak their language. So I learned to make friends with the animals and enjoyed much of my free time playing with frogs, lizards, geckos, cats, and chickens.

Despite being adventurous enough to travel to exotic places, my family never spent much time camping or backpacking in the woods, so when I was older, I enrolled myself in several wilderness survival training courses after we returned to Oregon. The training took place in the High Desert Region of the state, where we were surrounded by the most impressive array of wild animals I’d encountered up to that point in my life. We learned to call for coyotes, spotted mountain lion tracks, chased deer through the hills, and watched American kestrels nesting on a cliffside. I was in love.

Since those wonderful weeks in the desert of Central Oregon, I have made a point of going camping or hiking at least twice a month – in the sun, rain, or snow. It’s been a good challenge for me, and one which helps keep me in shape both physically and mentally. We encounter wildlife in the woods nearly everywhere we go, and I feel fortunate now to live in a part of the country where seeing black bear or having an elk lumber through the middle of camp is considered a perfectly common experience.

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You have travelled to an astonishing array of exotic locations, and have even documented new species. Can you please talk a little about your travels and outstanding discoveries?

My family travelled a lot for my dad’s job. He was a property manager for a company which has many locations across the globe. I’ve been exceptionally privileged with the opportunity to visit many countries, including Jakarta, Singapore, Malaysia, England, and, most recently, the Cayman Islands.

It was there, in a large limestone cave system on one of the smaller lesser-explored islands, that I discovered a gecko I didn’t recognize from any field guide of local wildlife species. I took several photos of the gecko, and, when I returned to Grand Cayman, contacted the National Trust with the images. They informed me that they were as stumped as I was and had no idea what species it could be. Unfortunately, expeditions back to that cave system made by others have turned up no sign of the gecko I photographed that day, and unless a breeding population of the animal can be found, it cannot be declared a new species. At this point, the gecko remains simply an unidentified species, though I hope it won’t always be that way.

Have you ever lost friends over what you do?

I have several friends who have been initially off-put by the fact that I am a taxidermist. Usually, it’s because they assume that taxidermists kill all the animals whose hides they mount and waste all the rest, or that they use harsh chemicals in their creations to preserve the animals’ entire bodies. Once they learn that this is not the case, they are happy to ask more about what I do and why I do it.

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Have you ever been threatened with verbal abuse or violence for collecting animal parts?

Most of the hate I get for my works has come from the internet, though I did see one woman at a festival eating a hot dog who shouted at me, “That animal should be given a proper burial! That is so disrespectful!” while I walked about in a coyote skin headdress. Another time, a girl in a leather skirt told me “wearing fur is murder!”

And one woman told me that killing deer to feed myself was terrible because cows were raised to be killed so that other animals didn’t need to be removed from their natural habitats. I keep reminding myself that the folks who say such things are usually people who love animals just as much as I do – they merely let their emotions and lack of understanding cloud their judgement before taking the time to assess the ethics of wearing recycled fur or hunting wild game logically.

Your role is often very physical. Can you talk a bit about this?

The physical role of creating headdresses is actually rather fun. Aside from the labour involved in the creation process (stretching, fleshing, thinning down the hides, etc.), the works I create are meant to be worn, often for ceremonial use by customers who commission them. As such, said customers need to be able to put one of my headdresses on and trust that it moves with them during dances or gatherings. So during the creation process, a part of what I do is wear the headdress as it’s being formed, and move around in it to ensure everything is as it should be. This often means I do impromptu little dances in my studio, and is part of the reason I love to listen to music while I work!

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Would you consider your work to be spiritual? Do you feel a connection developing with yourself and the animal, the longer you work with and hold it?

The spiritual aspect of what I do comes mostly from the fact that my job is, in a sense, to bring “new life” to a creature which has long-since passed on. I may only create the illusion of life by giving a face an expression, but it is nevertheless a powerful, even numinous, act.

I generally try not to get too attached to the pelts I work with, but it’s undeniable that certain ones stand out to me more than others. I can tell from a pelt the general age, sex, and physical health of the animal, as well as how it passed away, and what kind of life it lead before it died. Learning of the animal’s life story from the pelt itself kind of gives me an intimate familiarity with said animal. They become a friend to me.

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You make astonishingly beautiful and striking headdresses, from an extremely wide variety of animals, including wolves, bears and foxes. Can you talk about what making a headdress entails and how you feel when you need to part with it?

I create two different style of headdress: Hallow-style and taxidermy-style. Both follow a similar creation process involving a tanned pelt, a simple rehydration process, and a re-shaping of the wet leather, but the results are quite different.

Hallow-style headdresses are just that – hallow. They have no supporting structure beneath the leather, but hold their shape through a special treatment process. These headdresses can double as masks, to be worn over the face as well as on top of the head. They are more similar to traditional headdresses worn by ancient cultures across the globe.

Taxidermy-style headdresses have a foam form beneath the leather, giving it better structure and allowing for more detail in the facial features. They also have hand-painted glass eyes instead of holes that be seen out of. As such, taxidermy-style headdresses cannot be worn as masks, but do last much longer and look far more impressive. They are my favourite headdresses to create.

When it comes time to part with one of my creations, it is a bittersweet moment. I know on one hand that it is going to someone who I trust will care for and cherish it for years to come. There is joy in making my customers happy, but of course, I always feel sad to see a familiar pelt leave my studio.

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Is there a particular nation whose culture and history you find yourself gravitating towards?

My family has roots in ancient Germanic tribes, many of whom wore pelts and made art from the remains of wild animals. I have always been fascinated by the notion that I would not exist on Earth today if my ancestors had not known the skills for hunting, skinning, and turning leather and fur into garments which kept them warm in the coldest months. I never want to forget those skills, and, if I ever have children, will pass them down to them, as well.

 

Can you talk about the spiritual, physical and mental connection you have to the earth, and also about dedicating your life to studying environmentalism?

I have always felt a close connection to the animals of Earth. It wasn’t until later that I started to look at the bigger picture and found myself drawn to nature as a whole. The woods then became a place for me to escape to, where I could focus on and understand my place as a human-animal in the world. I taught myself to climb trees, to run through thick brush without stumbling, and how to communicate with myself in a way that was not impeded by society’s expectations of me as a young woman. I slowly started to realize that to me, Nature was God. And that I was a part of Nature. By extension, then, all humans, and all living things were, in some way, divine. After that realization struck me, I came to the conclusion that humanity’s disconnection from Nature was to blame for many of the destructive behaviours we have participated in in recent years. Sustainable living was the answer to righting those wrongs, so I went to college and majored in Environmental Studies, hoping to make a difference.

As it turned out, college wasn’t the right place for me. And learning about how to live in harmony with nature was far different that going out and actually doing it: Which is part of the reason I resolved to buy my own property where I could live predominantly off the land as my ancestors did, by raising my own crops and livestock. I have finally come to the point where I have the means to do just that, and am currently searching for the perfect place here in Oregon.

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Has there ever been an animal, or animal part, that you have bonded with and ended up keeping for your personal collection?

My favourite piece in my whole collection is probably Teva, a wolf headdresses I created last summer. I don’t normally feel a close connection to wolves – I am more of a cat person – but Teva seemed to suit me perfectly in a way that even complete strangers have remarked on. Her colors are unique for a wolf, and while she was slightly ill when killed for population control in Southeast Alaska, most of her fur is silky in a way that only few wolves are. She also has scars, many of which are hardly visible beneath her lovely coat, but I feel that, in life, Teva was a fighter, and a proud one at that. She is also the first female wolf I’d worked with, which was strange to me since I had grown so used to working with burly male wolves. I saw in her a reflection of myself.

Are there any environmentalists who inspire you and your work?

I am fascinated by the Transcendentalist movement of the late 1820s. The idea that one could reach spiritual enlightenment through a closeness to nature obviously strikes a chord with me, but Emerson’s concept of becoming a Transparent Eyeball, as described in his essay “Nature” has been one of my favourite pieces of writing since the moment I first read it. This summer, in addition to buying my new property, I plan to have his words, “In the woods, we return to Reason and Faith” tattooed around my ankle.

Where can we find Nature Punk?

My primary site for conducting business is Etsy, where I can be found at: https://www.etsy.com/shop/NaturePunk

You can also find me on Facebook, and on Tumblr:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/NaturePunk-Creations/168449846522785

http://naturepunk.tumblr.com/

I also have a website dedicated strictly to my work with headdresses here:
http://lionhear124.wix.com/naturepunkcreations

Cheers!

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