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After husband’s death, wife takes over taxidermy studio

October 22, 2012 at 09:59 AM

The Associated Press

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The brown bear menaces, a clawed paw raised, teeth bared.

In another room, a leopard crouches, appearing ready to pounce on a stag from New Zealand, or an ibex from Africa, or an elk from the Coconino National Forest. The eyes glisten in a fixed stare.

“Every piece is a different piece,” says Heidi Favour, standing surrounded by several dozen animals in the showroom. “It’s an art. Steve always said it was a craft. I think it’s an art.”

Welcome to a day in the life of Signature Taxidermy Studio in Flagstaff.

The business, in a 3,000-square-foot building in the industrial park on the east side of the city near Sheep Hill, was started in Flagstaff 22 years ago by her husband Steve. He died suddenly last September. He had been in the business for 45 years.

“I took over,” Favour says. “I wanted to see his legacy go on. I knew we could do it. I didn’t want to see something die that he put his life into.”

Including her, the business has five employees. They provide taxidermy work on animals of all shapes and sizes from around the world that come in from hunters all across the country. They work on 850 to 900 animals a year — making them a fairly decent sized taxidermy studio. Some projects run upward of $5,000 and more, while others run a couple hundred bucks. Current projects include an elk, a mountain lion, a timber wolf, a leopard and an elephant. The shop also does fish and fowl.

Favour says their secret is the attention to detail in preparing hunters’ animals. The presentation, the colors, even the base on which the animal is placed have to be authentic to a client’s experience.

It’s a job you don’t just fall into. You have be trained, from the ground up, by a master. Steve was a master, she says.

“He was an awesome teacher,” Favour adds. “He loved what he did.”

Gerad Alvin, 25, works on sanding down a mountain lion form.

He started out as a skinner — like everybody who starts out does. An avid hunter born and raised in Flagstaff, Alvin was looking for some fall work. Steve saw he had some talent for it and trained him. That was three years ago. He specializes in “full mounts” of an entire animal now.

Business is steady all year long.

“There’s really no stop,” Alvin says, sandpapering the form. He’s covered in dust. “It’s great work. I love it. Every mount is something new, always a challenge.”

When asked, Alvin says he sees himself more as an artist than a craftsman. There needs to be a vision of the finished product and how to sculpt and mold material to fit that vision. Being a hunter helps. While hunting and scouting, he is constantly taking photos and shooting video in order to understand “natural reference” of animals and their element.

Russell Flores, 24, who has known Alvin since kindergarten and helped him land the job at Signature, sees the work as a combination of craft and art. He works on a timber wolf. He’s sewing up holes and getting rid of imperfections in the hide.

“I’d always been kind of curious about taxidermy and how it was done,” Flores says. “And I’ve always been interested in art.”

Flores recently graduated with a bachelor of fine art degree from Northern Arizona University.

He says craftsmanship comes into play getting all the pieces together into coherent form. After that, art takes over with the finishing and the creating of something unique in natural reference. His art background gives him the gift of two-and three-dimensional design, the aesthetic.

Favour herself learned the trade from Steve. She started out doing the clerical work in the office, but she slowly transitioned into making rugs out of the skins. She also does detail work and painting.

To complete a mount, Favour says that the taxidermists must know how to work with clay, to sculpt, to know how to fit the hide over the forms and to do detail work on the animal and the mounts.

The time it takes to complete a project depends on the size and the type of mount the client wants, Favour adds.

Favour says that each taxidermist has a specialty. Flores is good with finish work and detailing. Alvin’s good at full mounts. The newest member of the team, Aaron Redmond, is a skinner and a mounter, a specialty that once belonged to Shelby Teel, 19. She works with a paint gun on a head mount, her specialty developing in detailing. Originally from Pinetop, she was a student at NAU, but now works full time at the studio.

She’s also an avid hunter and has an affinity for skinning. It’s how she got her start, too.

“It’s making them come to life,” she says of her love for the work. “Making them look real.”

She says she considers the folks in the shop like family. Gerad is her real-life boyfriend.

“It’s one big, happy family here,” she says, smiling. “It’s pretty awesome.”

Favour says that Steve’s vision for the place was to have the folks working here possibly take over one day. That’s still the plan.

Flores acknowledged that some folks are put off by the line of work.

“It’s a morbid process, really,” he says, adding that it’s an established trade with a long history.

He pauses.

“I love the outdoors, and this is a cool job. I really relate to it.”


Information from: Arizona Daily Sun,

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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