Nearly two dozen chameleons, iguanas, frogs, eels, fish and birds make up the central cast of a theatrical exhibition on view through Tuesday, Dec. 23, at Edge of Asheville Gallery & Design Studio. But these are not your average anthropomorphic artworks. Nor are the birds, reptiles and amphibians among the ordinary — or the living.
They’re preserved specimens. And each one is adorned with avian and insect appendages, forming fantastical new creatures. “They’re amalgamations,” says Rosman-based artist Leslie Samuels, ‘invented and imagined species.”
Samuels’ untitled works (all available for “adoption,” rather than for sale) dangle from the light fixtures as if in midflight. Others blend into or leap out from a row of miniature, earthen dioramas lining the gallery walls. The dioramas fall somewhere between reliquaries and black-box theaters, offering graceful footing to a postmortem existence.
A greenish-brown lizard flexes the bright wings of a blue jay in one work, while an adjacent frog wears those of a delicate, blue-green butterfly. Across the room, a 10-inch-long eel flutters the wings of a moth. Those animals that already had wings — the birds — have been embellished with porcupine quills, reptilian tails and insect antennae. Some are perfectly intact, while others are riddled with holes and rips that expose their skeletal underpinnings.
Though the work at first sounds like taxidermy, Samuels isn’t a taxidermist. Rather, she makes mummies — a distinction she’s quick to illuminate. “Taxidermy involves preserving only the fur, feathers or skin of an animal,” Samuels says. “I preserve everything just like I found it, organs and all.”
Taxidermy halts decay and preserves an animal’s exterior by removing the muscles and internal organs, then filling the remaining void with linen or synthetic stuffing. Mummification, on the other hand, preserves the entire body by ridding it of all moisture. This can happen naturally, as it does in dry, low-humidity environs, or with chemical compounds.
Samuels’ method, one of her own design, incorporates both natural and synthetic techniques. She most often uses chemicals in tandem with externally applied cloth and long-term box storage in arid locations such as attics and sheds.
The process depends on the specimen, she says. The individual level of decomposition and the environmental surroundings are two of the biggest factors in deciding on drying times and whether to use chemicals. Being in the humid South, as opposed to the parched deserts of California, makes a huge difference, she says: “It usually takes three years before I can open up a box and begin working with a specimen.” Once the mummification process is complete, Samuels begins working on basic posing with her figures. Their vestigial limbs and branches come later.
“I work mostly with birds,” the artist says, “but there are also lizards, eels, fish and insects like moths and butterflies.” Some of these are found in the wild, on walks in the woods or through fields. Others are casualties of roadways. Occasionally Samuels will find a wing or a tail — the pilfered scraps from another animal’s meal or the remnants stuck to a car’s grille. These get the same treatment as whole specimens. Still others are from her decades of collecting. A three-horned, three-toed Jackson’s chameleon in this show is over 25 years old.
The bulk of Samuels’ subjects, particularly the reptiles, amphibians and fish, have come from pet stores, where they died in captivity. (Most pet shops have return policies specifically tailored to dead and dying pets; Samuels arranges for pickups after the animals expire.) The artist makes note of these grim endings. The bases of her wall pieces are concrete tablets mimicking what she calls “those faux-exotic, concrete deathbeds” that such pet stores are themselves perched on. She then textures the tablets with soil, rocks, moss and dried mushrooms and positions her creatures within their new environs.
“I’ve placed them in imagined environments where I think they’d be free and happy,” Samuels says. They’re emotive, though frozen in time and place, animated yet departed. Individually they’re like actors on the stage. Together, they form a snapshot of an ecological ballet. “Some people love them and clearly others hate them, but I make these works out of reverence and respect,” Samuels says. “They came to such an indignant death, and I want to do something to amend that end.”
WHAT: Reliquaries and mummified animals by Leslie Samuels
WHERE: Edge of Asheville Gallery & Design Studio, edgeofasheville.com
WHEN: Through Tuesday, Dec. 23