My Experiment with Innovative Wildlife Art               Wildlife Art Gallery Index
I have described how my realistic animal figures of gorillas, other primates and such were done as an experiment in wildlife art. And my section of the gallery illustrates those experiments. Here I'd like to share with you what happened when I tried to actually introduce this form of wildlife art to the public. The reaction was curious, unexpected, ultimately unsuccessful, and a rather intriguing comment on our society and people's perceptions which are sometimes so deeply ingrained, that they simply cannot open their minds and rise above those old perceptions.
The intention, as I have described, was to create full scale figures of existing wildlife, especially endangered species, and render these subjects in materials and detail that might allow you, the viewer, to feel you were actually looking at the real animal. I figured if people do indeed love animals, they might also love looking at an artistic depiction of the animal with similar realism.
So I set out to introduce the idea with an initial collection of about 8 or 9 specific pieces of artwork, including the Lowland gorilla figures, the baby orangutan, the snow monkeys, the proboscis monkeys, the Hamadryas baboon, etc. And I set out to bring them to the attention of the public, hoping to create both an appreciation for them and an interest in people acquiring them, as they now acquire other types of wildlife art (bronze cast limited editions, watercolors, prints, etc.)
I chose to introduce them with three concurent paths. One way was to take them to the World Taxidermy Championships, and enter them in a newly established category of "Recreations", which are figures looking as real as taxidermy subjects, but not using the remains of the actual species depicted (so for example, a bald eagle figure might be made with goose, turkey and chicken feathers).
The second way was to submit the photos of the work to various art magazines and see if they would publish the photos and comment about my work. Breakthrough Magazine, currently owned and edited by Larry and Kathy Blomquist (two wonderful people) was the most receptive to my work and published many articles about my work.
The third way was to enter or display my work at various wildlife art shows. And here is where things really got strange.
Example #1 - The Wildlife Art Show sponsored by the Los Angeles Zoo 
The zoo had a wildlife art exhibit show each year, and they were set up as a "juried acceptance" policy, which means you submit pictures of your work and they judge or decide if they will invite you to purchase a booth and exhibit. They in effect screen the requests to insure the artwork shown won't somehow reflect badly on their zoo. So I submitted an application and some photos.
Their reply was "Interesting, but is it possible for you to bring one example to the zoo for us to see in person?" What they didn't say then, but admitted later, was that they were genuinely fearful they were seeing real taxidermy-prepared specimens of deceased animals, and that would be absolutely unacceptable to show and sell at a zoo-sponsored art show. So I brought in one piece and showed them what it was, how it was made, and thus reassured them there was no taxidermy involved. They were happy and invited me to show at the event.
But toward the end of the first day of the weekend exhibit, a zoo docent (the volunteers who help with guiding people around the zoo) finished her shift and wanted to see the artwork before going home. She walked into the main exhibit room, looked around, and immediately fixed on my booth of lifelife figures of monkeys and apes, and she instinctively assumed they were taxidermy figures. She became hysterical, thinking the zoo would allow such, and it took three other people on the staff to calm her down and assure her my pieces were not taxidermy work and no animals died to make them.
The art show sponsors had never seen such a hysterical and angry reaction to artwork before, and even though it was explained logically to be a respectable new form of sculptural art, that hysterical animousity my work provoked was something they did not want to endure again. I did not sell anything at this show.
Example #2 - Game Coin Expo
Game Coin is a hunting organization and their annual show is a combined trade show (for hunting guides, travel agencies, taxidermists and gun makers) plus a wildlife art show, because the hunters do like wildlife art. This was an open entrance system, where you simply buy a booth in the art show section and display, no screening. So I purchased a booth and packed up all the artwork for the trip to San Antonio, Texas. This was1987
I had a booth at the end of one row and the aisles between the booths were quite wide. And once I had set up and the artshow opened, I noticed some curious behavior. People would walk down the aisle looking at each booth, and then when they were one or two booths away from me and headed my way, they'd either turn around and go back (when they could easily go past me to the next aisle over) or they walked to the booth opposite me and then passed me as far from me as they could get. A few people did come and look, and stare with intense curiosity or ask what the figures were made of, but an unusual number wouldn't even come close to my booth.
Finally, on the third and last day, someone was kind enough to tell me of an incident which helped me understand this curious reaction of people. One lady on the first day had walked through the art show section briefly, before going to a trade show booth she was participating in. And she saw my artwork, especially my gorillas, the lowland silverback and the mountain silverback "Uncle Bert". And she assumed they were real taxidermy figures. Now people tend to assume any taxidermy figure is made from an animal that's been hunted (even thought some come from zoo mortalities and some are privately owned pets that died naturally). And while many people think hunting "game animals" is fine, monkeys and apes generally aren't considered "game" and so there's a double standard about how it's okay to shoot a deer but not shoot a monkey.
So she was assuming some horrible person had shot these real primates and I had stuffed their dead bodies, and offered them for sale.
But she took the indignation one step further. She was knowledgable in wildlife hunting laws and knew that "trafficing in the remains of an endangered species" is a felony, and gorillas are endangered (while mountain gorillas are critically endangered). So she knew that a person selling a true "stuffed" gorilla was violating federal law, and so she finally became so intensely angry at me and my booth, she confided to another woman that she was going to call the US Fish & Wildlife Service and ask them to arrest me for trafficing in the remains of endangered species. But the person she told this to had thankfully inquired already about my artwork and knew there was no taxidermy involved, no natrual remains used. This passified the woman enough to hesitate calling the US F&W service, but she still wouldn't come to my booth and have a closer look.
Now I understood that the people who would turn back rather than pass my booth did similarly think they were seeing real taxidermied apes and monkeys (since the exhibition was in fact filled with taxidermied game animals and many taxidermists were in the trade show part) and thought "What monster would shoot those poor monkeys and gorillas?"
I didn't sell anything at this show either.
So with these two experiences, I decided to try and emphasize the articles in Breakthrough Magazine, because there, I could explain and show the techniques and more readily assure people that this art form truly does not rely on any taxidermy methods but instead simply takes film creature techniques to new levels of both realism and artistry.
But eventually I saw that the negative perception of taxidermy so overshadowed my actual process, that it was nearly impossible to create a strong positive impression with the public.
To those who did not like taxidermy and hunting, that first initial impression feeling my work was what they hated was never fully erased even when they did understand my methods. So their appreciation for my artwork had a subconscious negative apprehension clouding it.
For the people who loved taxidermy and hunting, my work was perceived as sort of "second class taxidermy", meaning you did it if you couldn't go out and shoot the real thing. So they preferred 'real" first class taxidermy instead of my "synthetic" (or second class ) taxidermy art.
I rarely found people who could just look at the figures and like them and think, "that's nice" without the taxidermy baggage, and simply appreciate the work as a new type of wildlife art. And the few I found who could think this way, they usually weren't particularly rich, and my artwork, being custom labor-intensive pieces, wasn't cheap. So those who could appreciate what I did usually couldn't afford to buy one.
So finally, after a valiant effort to establish this as a new category of wildlife art, I reluctantly folded it up and conceded I was ahead of my time and the world just wasn't ready for it. I would love to revive this and try again, but I have no idea if it would be more successful the second time around.
But I believe in it and if I could afford to try again, I still would.
Bill Munns  July 10, 2008