Arts Hero – David Blyth

For the Arts Hero section of the Bronze Arts Award: Level 1 Award in the Arts qualification, young people need to research the work of an artist that inspires them. Logan from The CE Academy met and interviewed Scottish artist David Blyth when he visited us to deliver a taxidermy workshop during a study visit with students from Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen.

Dear Logan,
Firstly, a big thank you for choosing me as your ‘Art Hero’.
It makes me feel really good to know that you got something good from the taxidermy workshop we did. I will be sure to add Art Hero to my own CV as I feel very proud of this. Thanks again.

These are a good set of questions.
Well done for coming up with them. They really made me think again about what I am doing.
This has helped me … so cheers, mate!

Here are some answers…

1. When did you first learn taxidermy?

I first learned taxidermy in 1996 when I was an art student in Aberdeen. I was 20 and in my second year at art school. Don’t ask why, but I wanted to be in the painting department … I thought real art was all about painting … boy, how wrong I was! (What you do at CE Academy is much more real!)

Anyway, me and some mates were going out for a drink one night and I happened to find a dead grey squirrel on the roadside. It was perfect, not squished or anything. So, I hid it in the bushes and went out drinking. All night I couldn’t stop thinking about it so when the night was over and pretty drunk, I walked back and the squirrel was still there so I took it home.

The next day I went to the library and managed to get two old taxidermy books that hadn’t been taken out since 1955. I taught myself how to do taxidermy … I have never been properly trained. I really learned from my own mistakes and got better each time.

2. Why do you do Taxidermy?

This is a very good question but quite difficult to answer…

Firstly, I think it is such a waste to see a cool animal go to waste, I mean, rot away … especially when the animal has been accidentally killed, like roadkill. Because I know how to skin and preserve animals I have a weird ‘responsibility’ to try to save the animal. I know it’s dead and all but I think I want to repair some of the damage. This is why I set up the SPRCA – Stuffed Pet Rescue Centre Aberdeen. Really, it was only the shed in my back garden where I did taxidermy but people really did donate dead animals they found … I got over 120 animals this way.

Secondly, I think there is something very special about our relationship with animals. They are the closest thing to us in this world … made of blood and bones. It’s something to do with Nature, being part of the natural world, not separated from it. Today, our urban and technological world pushes us further away from a connection to nature. I think animals can really help us to understand and keep in touch with our own animal instincts.

Finally, it’s just really interesting! People don’t really get a chance to see/feel animals close up in the flesh. I’m curious to see how the body is put together and what it is made of. It feels good to be able to put it all back together and end up with a stuffed animal that has kind of come to life again … well, it has a new kind of life … a ‘cultural’ life.

Haremasks on Harehill - David Blyth
Image: Haremasks on Harehill, David Blyth

3. Was Taxidermy the first subject you learnt in art college or as an artist?

No, I learned lots of different things at art school – drawing, printmaking, sculpture, photography and painting … no one was doing taxidermy then! It is quite popular now.

Like I said, I thought I was going to be a painter but that squirrel helped me open up to new things. I just went with it. The trick is to recognise when you are onto a good thing and go with it. You don’t get that many breaks in the world so when one comes your way, go with it and it’ll take you to good places.

4. Do you sell your stuffed animals or collect them?

Well, it’s a bit of both really … I’ve even given them away as free gifts.
Once, I stuffed a flock of 30 lambs.
They were all over the house, it was crazy! They had to go.

Truthfully, I don’t really stuff animals to sell them – I tend to make them into artworks in some way.
In the past, I have stuffed animals for people for money but I only really charge the costs of the materials. This is because if I became a real taxidermist I would need some special licences to sell stuffed animals. You can get in trouble with the law. I have some artworks that I cannot sell because I do not own the correct paperwork. That’s ok though because I don’t want to sell them anyway … they’re like my pets!

The real problem is I want to be known as an artist not a taxidermist … although taxidermists are very artistic people anyway!

David Blyth - Knockturne
Image: Knockturne (installation view), David Blyth. Courtesy Deveron Projects

5. Do you do anything else other than Taxidermy?

Yes, most of the time I am making work with stuffed animals, wood, plaster and found objects. It’s a bit like three dimensional collage sometimes … putting odd things together. I like making things with my hands and on the computer as well. I also like making books and posters with words and pictures.

Long ago, I used to work with video and sound a lot. I would like to do more in the future but the technology has moved on quite a bit. I would need to retrain myself.

6. Do you show your stuffed animals in a gallery or in an exhibition?

Yes, I do show my stuffed animal artworks in art galleries and art exhibitions. People often get quite a surprise when they encounter an animal in a gallery because they do not always expect it.

The best place I like to show my work is in a Natural History museum alongside other taxidermy collections. I like to disrupt how people look at stuffed animals in museums. I think museums make you look at nature in a very particular way, somehow separated from it. I want my stuffed animals to make you feel part of nature … not higher than it.

Strange Attractor - David Blyth
Image: Strange Attractor (installation view), David Blyth

7. Where do you work as a lecturer?

I work as a lecturer in Gray’s School of Art in Aberdeen, Scotland.
I have been working there for 14 years teaching all kinds of art in the studios.
I suppose I am quite good at my job now.

8. Do you exchange ideas with your students?

Yes, that is the very best part of my job.
I really love speaking with people about their ideas and how to make them real in the world.
I think I help people to see for themselves what they already have.
People are brilliant, they have such crazy ideas about how to make the world a better place.
It is good that artists try to make a positive difference in the world.

9. Who are you inspired by?

James Steventon.

(I am also inspired by Surrealism and Conceptual Art like Fluxus)

10. Where were you born?

I come from fairly close to you … I was born in Huntingdon.
But, we moved to Brazil when I was 6 months old.
When I was five, we moved to Perth, Scotland.
But my grandmother lived in March, Cambs … and I remember many summer holidays growing up there. This is why I love it in Corby. It feels very familiar to me.

Thank you, Logan.

David Blyth