For the fourth and penultimate installation of this series, I had the incredible honour of speaking to Divya Anantharaman, an award winning, premier taxidermist based in New York City and her specialties include birds, small mammals and anatomic anomalies. Having studied sculpture and fashion design in college, her passion for natural history drew her towards taxidermy. When she is not working, Divya likes cooking, reading, bird watching, and collecting vintage fashion. She also enjoys drag and burlesque.
In this interview, she tells me about her inspiration(s), everything about the beauty of taxidermy and how science and art are two sides of the same coin.
How and when were you inspired to learn about and practice taxidermy?
The moment it dawned on me that I wanted to be a taxidermist was probably one of my first visits to the natural history museum. I was so fascinated by the beauty of animals, and the ability to get up close to them.
I grew up and a city and didn’t have access to travel the world and see these majestic creatures in their natural habitat, but as soon as I walked through those museum doors, seeing the artfully preserved animals changed my life and made me passionate about conservation. I wanted to make that magic available to everyone! I only learned taxidermy later in life, first by collecting books and watching videos online and practicing on legally salvaged roadkill or donated specimens, then by going to taxidermy shows and competitions once I gained more confidence. I switched careers fully about 5-6 years ago.
On your website, it says you left the corporate fashion industry to pursue your love of natural history. What is it about natural history that fascinates you so much?
Natural history reminds me of my place in the world. I’m reminded daily that all the life forms that inhabit this planet are part of something far greater than an individual. As much as I love and enjoy fashion, much of the industry is about ones self, image, and ego-nature reminds me that all those things are temporary, and gives me far greater perspective on what is important in life, and the legacy I’d like to leave behind.
What is the most fulfilling aspect of your work? What would the most difficult part be?
The most fulfilling aspect of my work is being able to connect people and animals, to inspire them to play a role in conservation.
The most difficult part of my work aside from constantly learning and perfecting anatomy and technique, would be finding ways to innovate and diversify this field.
How does art and science combine in taxidermy? How does this amalgamation increase dialogue between science and art?
In many ways! Practically, a successful work of taxidermy needs to be based in accurate scientific understanding of the animal (anatomy, habitat, etc) and executed with proficient artistic technique (sculpting, painting, etc). Science and art have a relationship beyond the practical-they ground each other and give each other imagination, unlocking new potential in each other. There is a wonderful harmony when the hand of the artist delivers a scientific message. Art appeals to our emotions and instincts in a way that science alone cannot.
What scientific principle would you say is central to the art of taxidermy?
There are a few! Most important would be anatomy, understanding not just what and animal looks like, but why. And learning the nuances of a specific creature that vary with age, sex, habitat, and other conditions. Also important would be chemistry when it comes to the tanning and preservation of hides, and stability or painting and sculpting materials.
What is your favourite animal to taxidermy, and why?
Birds! There is such a fascinating array of diversity in birds, and their ubiquity. Their ability to fly inspires awe from a tangible perspective as and evolutionary wonder, and from a more abstract perspective in that they carry rich symbolism, lore, even carrying our hopes and dreams.
Do you think Science and Art are two sides of the same coin? If yes, how so? And if not, why?
Yes! I do believe art and science are 2 sides of the same coin. They are both ways of observing and making sense of the world, many times with similar motivations. The difference I see most is the presence of the preparators hand-where science strives to be objective, art fully celebrates being subjective. The unique hand of the person behind the artwork gives it a sense of emotion and imagination, which can reach people in a way that acknowledges their humanity. I am so excited by the unexplored potential of combining art and science!