In an Instant: Mickey Alice’s Lomography Experience

Words by Mickey Alice Kwapis
Photos by Mickey Alice Kwapis

It’s not often you meet a taxidermist. Let alone one who lives in Chicago, teaches pop-up taxidermy classes for beginners, and also makes custom jewelry and lapel pins. Needless to say, Mickey Alice Kwapis is an interesting person. In addition to all of the above, Mickey is also an accomplished photographer, making her the perfect person to test out the new Lomography Lomo’Instant Square Camera. We sent her a camera and some film, and she documented her life and taxidermy process over the last several weeks. Here’s what she came back with.  

“I always use my middle name in formal settings because people always think I’m a dude. I’m a licensed taxidermist and metalsmith living in Chicago. In 2016 I won a third-place ribbon in the professional birds category at the National Taxidermy Championships. I have a bunch of living pets and I used to do wildlife rehabilitation before I moved to the city—I do my taxidermy out of love for animals. I find it pretty interesting folks always assume taxidermists must HATE animals, because we spend all our time around them! It’s like assuming a prep cook must HATE food because they spend all of their time chopping food up.” – Mickey Alice Kwapis  

 

I grew up in Dearborn, Michigan, right outside Detroit, and I knew I wanted to stay close to my family as an adult but still be far enough away that I felt independent. Chicago is where I ended up settling a little over three years ago. Whenever I mention Chicago to people they say, “I could never be landlocked like that,” but the reality is we have Lake Michigan right here! Even though it’s a lake, it’s so big you can’t see the other side and the waves are strong enough you can even find frosty pieces of beach glass on our beaches! This was actually taken from the roof of the parking garage at the grocery store. You can’t beat that view!

 

When most people first meet me and find out what I do for a living, they can hardly believe it. I always validate my career choice by letting them know I can skin a rat or a mouse in less than two minutes. Then I show them a video to prove it! The rat pictured here is waste from the pet food industry (a feeder for reptiles that went a little green in the belly and couldn’t be used) and if you keep reading, you’ll see how I mounted it!

 

 

From a young age, taxidermy was something always present at my grandparents’ house so I grew up used to it. The bear in this photo was hunted in 1972 by my grandpa Ed and he believed strongly in not wasting any part of the animal. He field-dressed the bear after he shot it (legally, of course), had the head mounted by a taxidermist, and used the meat to feed his family of seven for an entire winter. My dad was four at the time and says he can still remember the taste of bear meat, more than forty years later.

My grandpa’s zero-waste philosophy is what inspired my model of sustainable taxidermy: no animals are killed specifically for the art, all parts (including meat and organs) are used whenever possible, and the deaths cannot be detrimental to a population of animals (meaning I would never mount an animal that had been illegally harvested or poached). I source from depredation, abatement (pest control), the pet industry, and hunters. (More info about sustainable taxidermy) In this photo is a mix of vintage and new taxidermy along with a faux jackalope.

 

I split my time between making taxidermy for sale, teaching taxidermy workshops around the United States and several other countries, metalsmithing, and dabbling in analogue photography. This photo is a collection of chicks made in one of my Sunday workshops, where each student learns to skin, clean, and mount a specimen of their own to keep. The things that look like blueberries in the background are actually the eyeballs, which have been replaced with glass eyes. I had a lot of fun taking snaps of the workshop and experimenting with the lighting since the sun kept going behind clouds that day.

 

This is a snapshot of the taxidermy process for small birds. Each body gets taken out and replaced with a tiny mannequin (a form). In this case each one only used up one cotton ball. Can you imagine being that little?

 

Once a taxidermy mount is sewn up, it gets mounted to a piece of foam so it can be posed and groomed before it dries. The word “taxidermy” breaks down into two parts: “derm” meaning “skin”, and “taxi” meaning “to move”, so the literal meaning of taxidermy is “to move skin.” Once all the parts are in place, the whole thing dries hard like paper mâché.

 

Sometimes scientists want to have access to a whole specimen for DNA testing and comparison years down the road—an option that a method like taxidermy (the empty skin of an animal stretched over a form) just doesn’t provide. In these cases, a specimen will be injected with fixative, soaked in several chemical baths, and put in a jar before being archived. This method is called fluid preservation and the end product is a wet specimen. Of course, they look cool if you’re into collecting oddities.

Pictured here are several dozen nine-banded armadillo fetuses sourced from a farmer in Kansas who is allowed to shoot any that ruin his crops by digging. Sometimes the armadillos are pregnant (nine-banded armadillos always have identical quadruplets) and I’m grateful to be able to use these byproducts to create something unique and lasting for others who collect curiosities.

 

These rats have been thawed for skinning. The only tools I use during the skinning process are a #24 blade, #4 handle, and a pair of poultry shears with a notch specifically for cutting through bones.

 

Although it’s a little dark, this is a photo of me with three finished taxidermied rats. While I’m typically loyal to scientifically accurate specimen mounts due to my involvement with a number of museums, sometimes I just want to make something adorable! I collect vintage doll clothes and furniture from estate sales and find inspiration for dioramas from Walter Potter, the OG diorama taxidermist and Queen Victoria’s right-hand man. You may remember seeing his pieces like the kitten wedding, kitten tea party, and rabbit school.

 

I love finding the perfect outfit and pose for each rat. These are purposefully made a little wonky because it adds character, in the same vein as my buddy Adele Morse’s work, but nowhere near as detailed as she gets. My favorite piece I’ve made was a squirrel lying on a couch in a seductive pose wearing a handcrafted miniature Heart of the Ocean necklace (from Titanic). The background of the diorama said, “Draw me like one of your French squirrels” in script and I totally listened to Celine Dion while I was making it. And to those who always ask… yes, I have seen Dinner for Schmucks!

To check out the Lomo’Instant Square camera yourself, stop by one of our store locations.

 

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