Chicago-based Mickey Alice Kwapis, has turned her unexpected passion for sustainable taxidermy into a niche business through her wildly popular and educational taxidermy classes. She has taught classes for the likes of the University of Washington, Houston Museum of Natural Science, and Cleveland’s MOCA. Her teachings are bringing her to Canada via our friends at Action Potential Lab. Before she touches down in Toronto, we wanted to get to know Mickey a bit better and give you a heads up on her upcoming Taxidermy 101 class and talk.

Hey Mickey! We’re super excited about your upcoming workshop and talk at Action Potential Lab. Is this your first time teaching in Canada?

Hi there! I’ve hosted six classes in Toronto thus far – four last May and two last November. I really enjoy Canada as a whole and I’m interested in teaching in Calgary and Vancouver as well, so hopefully somewhere down the line, the opportunity will present itself.

Could you give a run-down of what you teach for our readers who may not be familiar with you?

I teach introductory classes on taxidermy. Using sustainable specimens (i.e. animals raised for food OR animals who have died from natural causes or accidental causes) I lead students through four to five hours, depending on the specimen, of instruction on taxidermy from start to finish. Students leave with a mostly-finished mount; the only thing left to do is keep it in a dry place for three weeks until it is ready to be displayed. Students also leave with the carcass of their animal, which is everything inside the skin including bones, organs, and meat. With animals raised for food, either for humans or for animals, I ask that the meat is used for that purpose so that nothing goes to waste. The organs can be preserved as wet specimens, and the bones can be used for a variety of things. I include all of the instructions on uses for the carcass with the after-care information given to students.

It looks like 2014 was a very successful year for you with sustainable taxidermy. What else do you think is behind the recent revival of interest in this particular craft?

There has been a huge uprising in interest in death in general from people in America and Canada. If you look on TV, you’re exposed to a lot more of the “alternative” lifestyle now than you would have been in the 90’s with shows like American Horror Story (the first season of which had a lot of wet specimens in the intro credits) and even tattoo shows like LA Ink, where tattooers are interested in so-called “morbid” themes. It’s become a lot more acceptable to be interested in what some may consider the “macabre.”

Personally, I wouldn’t consider myself any shade of dark or mysterious, I’m simply someone interested in science and preservation. I’ve also noticed that it’s become a lot more common that people without degrees in science, or who aren’t currently pursuing degrees in science, are interested in the sciences and want to learn about things. Taxidermy classes give those people the perfect combination of scientific learning with a twist of creativity, and a great finished product to treasure forever.

Mickey Alice Kwapis 1

You’ve been doing this for quite some time now. What are some things you’ve learned from your experiences traveling and teaching?

When I started doing this almost three years ago, I wasn’t expecting it to turn into anything. For me, it was just a hobby. After a few unexpected events I realized it was what I was meant to be doing, and that it would allow me to see so much of the world that I’d never have an opportunity to experience otherwise.

Work-wise, I learned early on that vacuum-packed rats explode and that if you try to defrost a rabbit in a microwave, its ears will fall off. More recently I’ve figured out that I can relax and take it easy because at the end of the day, whatever is going to happen will happen regardless of what I’m stressed out about. If I come to a class flipping out about some supplies gone missing, for example, I just make do and at the end of four hours, I’ve still had a dozen wonderful students learn from me and create their own projects. I’d rather enjoy the ride. 

In my personal life, things are pretty much the same. When I started doing this at 21, I was still in college and figuring things out. In fact, I’m the first to admit that I’m still a work in progress, as we all are – I believe that if you’re not striving for personal growth all the time, to be a better person, then you’re probably just miserable! So, I’ve learned to shake things off and strive for better results over time, and to not hold grudges but to ignore people who try to bring others down. Over the years I’ve decided what’s really important and the rest is just noise – both in my work and in my personal life. I’ve never been happier and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

We hear you have a few foster pets. What kinds of creatures do you share your home with?

Oh man… I’ve had a lot of foster animals over the years! Last year I was lucky enough to become a sub-licensee wildlife rehabber (meaning I could care for animals in my own home, but they had to be weaned and then given to another rehabber with an outdoor release cage, which my apartment doesn’t have). I got to care for all kinds of things that are native to the Midwest, especially baby squirrels. It’s not an easy job – in short, people find animals and rather than surrendering them to a rehabber they try to care for them themselves using whatever advice they find online. Sadly this makes the animals sick, so if and when rehabbers finally take over, the animals often die. That’s why you should never care for wildlife if you don’t have experience!

I’ve also had a bunch of bottle-baby kittens, a few dogs I’ve rescued, and a pinky mouse a friend found in a parking lot. Caring for animals is extremely rewarding when it goes well, and it’s heartbreaking when it doesn’t. I also get a lot of people asking if I kill the animals on purpose – OF COURSE NOT! If I’ve formed a strong bond with an animal, I always bury it if it doesn’t make it – I don’t think I could ever taxidermy something I’ve loved.

And of course, I share my home with my lovely Osiris, a lab mix with big pointy ears who absolutely loves other animals and snuggles with kittens. It’s pretty great, and I don’t think I could imagine a more wonderful creature to spend my days with.

As an animal lover, do you find it difficult to be a part of the end of their life cycle?

You know, I don’t really think about it. For me, it’s kind of a mechanical process to remove the skin and clean it. It’s the part where I make it look alive again that gets me – creating a good taxidermy mount is half love and half technical skill. You can tell when someone really loves animals and has practiced a whole bunch. That’s where my advice to strive for constant improvement comes in – I’m always watching videos from Van Dyke’s and Mackenzie and things I’ve bought on I wouldn’t recommend YouTube videos from the DIY crowd, as there’s no way of figuring out who these people are and many YouTube videos are inaccurate. You can tell who is informed and who isn’t.

Being able to breathe new life into these animals is extremely rewarding and it’s strange to know that many of the things I create will probably last longer than I do, given proper care and storage.

mickey alice kwapis 3

You’re work has a very educational and scientific trajectory. Are there other scientific or biological practices that you’re really interested in?

Last year I met a girl named Amy Martiny, who took my class in Chicago, and who is an anatomist working at a facility that prepares cadavers for use in higher education. She offered to show me her lab and I even got to skin the leg of one of the cadavers – which was totally more surreal to me than working on an animal. Since then we’ve become quite close and she’s taught me how to remove brains, and last week we came up with techniques to remove teeth for use in educational settings. It’s really not as easy as horror movies (torture scenes especially!) would have you believe – it took us about half an hour to remove a tooth. It made me really respect what dentists do!

Aside from animal biology, human anatomy, etc. I’m extremely interested in chemical reactions – especially in photography, watercolor painting, silkscreening, and metalsmithing. It’s just fascinating to me to blend a bunch of chemicals (in a controlled way, of course) and turn them into something beautiful.

What awesome things (projects/classes/collabs etc) can we expect from you in 2015?

Oh man! This is going to be a great year. I’ve already visited nine states, helped rescue and re-home a stray dog who had been hit by a car and get his vet bills paid for, I’ve taught two classes, and right now I’m in Savannah, Georgia where I’ve been getting tattooed and eating macarons for breakfast.

My schedule is always changing but currently I have 40 classes scheduled in 20 different cities, spread through five countries. In October I’m teaming up with Amy, who I mentioned earlier, on a project called The Niche Lab, which is a brick-and-mortar rooted in arts and sciences in Chicago, offering courses in dissections of animals while looking at prosections of humans, DIY camera classes where students build their own cameras and then shoot and develop their own images, embalming demos… if it blends hands-on science with participants creating something tangible they can take home with them, we’ll be doing it. Amy and I absolutely love Action Potential Lab and what Lisa Carrie Goldberg is accomplishing in Toronto and I think collectively we’ll end up changing the public’s access to and interest in science in North America as a whole. And of course, The Niche Lab will have courses on taxidermy!

Learn more about Mickey on her website, like her on Facebook, follow her on Instagram and Tumblr.