A beautiful commitment to animals: taxidermist Elle Kaye speaks to Glass

Taxidermy. It’s a word that really gets people talking. They either aren’t entirely sure of its meaning or they have plenty to say about it. It’s certainly not something most people associate with a young woman, who is carving an extremely notable career in this unusual field. Elle Kaye isn’t your average 23 year old. Long dark hair and striking eyes, it’s hard to imagine that she spends nearly all day gutting and stuffing dead animals. As she explains, many people have a warped perception of taxidermy as both an art form and a career. The precision, love and craftsmanship that goes into each piece is phenomenal. The art of stuffing animals requires much more than just a steady hand and is most definitely not a career for the faint of heart.

Elle studied fine art at university and after taking just one class in taxidermy, she self-taught the rest. Elle regularly teaches taxidermy up and down the country as well as working on private commissions, exhibiting at art fairs and working on large projects for film and television.

With more and more celebrities opening talking about their love of taxidermy (Jack White and Angelina Jolie to name a few), the popularity of purchasing custom pieces is on the rise. The archaic imagery of a deer head mounted pompously on a Victorian drawing room wall is long gone. Taxidermy is in and Elle tells Glass why.

Ellie Kaye. Photograph by Justin Van Vliet.Elle Kaye. Photograph by Justin Van Vliet

How did you discover that taxidermy was your passion?
It’s a beautiful commitment to animals. It’s conservation and admiration. I wanted to be a vet since I was small, but maturity revealed I was artistic and not academic. Being a mastered sculptor certainly differentiates the success of taxidermy.

You’re one of the youngest professional taxidermists in the UK, which is incredible at the age of 23. What would you say is your biggest achievement to date?
Being a taxidermist seven days a week!

What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about you and about your profession?
Some people seem to think that I kill the animals myself. If a taxidermist has gone to the trouble of reconstructing an animal to its former glory, with respect and dignity, it can’t possibly be underpinned by brutality.

Ellie Kaye Photograph by Justin Van Vliet.Elle Kaye Photograph by Justin Van Vliet

What’s the biggest problem you’ve had to overcome in your career so far?
I constantly have to justify and defend myself. I’m not sure what it is about working with animals, but people have strong opinions about it. I think people feel a huge amount of protectiveness, so they immediately jump in to defend animals. What I have to remind them is taxidermists are on their side, and that we love animals. I think there’s an ignorance about taxidermy because it’s not particularly commonplace.

You don’t learn it in schools, although I wish you did. With most taxidermy being available as an end product, people tend to forget that there is craftsmanship that goes into it, and a person who has to create it, not a machine. Sometimes my work is both heart breaking and back breaking, just like any other job.

Ellie Kaye. Photograph by Justin Van VlietElle Kaye. Photograph by Justin Van Vliet

Where do you see yourself in five years time?
With five years more experience having given life back to five more years of deceased animals.

What does a day in the life of Elle consist of?
It varies. When an animal passes away it’s preferable to skin it closer to death than to leave it. I’m on call when it comes to skinning animals. If I’m model making (creating an anatomically accurate model to represent the carcass, that sits beneath the skin), it’s more of a nine to five, as it can be physically very demanding. If I’m working on location providing props for a film, we often have early call times.

You’ve recently exhibited at The Other Art Fair – it wasn’t your first appearance there, what was different this time?
I introduced some more exotic animals in the line-up. Not only to demonstrate my ability, but to also generate a dialogue between this sort of taxidermy and the public sphere.

Ellie Kaye. Photograph by Justin Van VlietElle Kaye. Photograph by Justin Van Vliet

What’s been your favourite piece of work you’ve created so far?
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with giraffes since I was small. My parents adopted me one from London Zoo for a single figure birthday, but when I visited “my” giraffe, clutching my prized photograph (so I could clearly identify her) I was heartbroken when a young boy next to me was doing the same thing – with exactly the same printed photo, of my giraffe. I fell out of love with them then until I was fortunate enough to work on one for the first time. That changed everything.

What advice would you give to anyone hoping to get into taxidermy?
Our duty as taxidermists is to have respect for the animal, and that should come before anything else. Patience is probably the only advice I could offer. I’ve been doing this for years and there are still so many things I’m yet to learn and master.

What are your other passions and hobbies?
I love classic cars, motorsport, and I like watching ballet. I did ballet for almost sixteen years, so it always warms my heart and reminds me of a being a little younger and freer. I’m a huge foodie, and I think eating out has to be my favourite pastime. I’ve just discovered tasting menus and flight pairing – what an incredible way to waste evenings.

You have some really exciting projects in the pipeline for 2016; can you tell us more about them?
I’m delighted to mention my recent partnership with Simon Wilson. There isn’t a ceiling to our creativity, and although I can’t say much more, expect some big things to come. It’s a joy to work with someone who is in equal parts professional and brilliant, and who shares the same outlook, mindset and intention. Wilson & Kaye Natural History Interiors represents everything I used to dream about creating, putting the animal first, every single time.

Finally, what options are there for taxidermists as they progress up the career ladder?
Just as doctors are there so long as people get sick, as long as animals pass away I will be doing what I do. Taxidermy is relevant for education, for museums, for film, photography, art. There is such longevity to taxidermy, it has already transcended decades of generations – the timeline is just evolving.

by Heather Doughty

All photographs: Justin van Vliet

Find out more about Elle’s work by visiting her website.
Twitter: @wktaxidermy