By Jaime Fuller
It’s not every day you meet a 20-year-old woman who enjoys working with dead animals. Then again, Erica Heath isn’t fazed by death, decay, or horrific smells the way most people are. Perhaps most of us have been so far removed from the circle of life that we no longer can tolerate the dark, pungent, yet glorious process that is death. Heath’s work shows respect for the Earth and helps reconnect us to the end of life, so too worthy of reverence. With birth, there is death. With growth, there is decay. With mesmerizing scents of flowers and rain, there are odors of rotting flesh. We cannot have one without the other.
Heath began her taxidermy business about two years ago. “I’ve always really liked having my hands on animals,” said Heath. Ever the artist, she began collecting animal bones during her childhood. Her father worked in the woods and often came across hunters’ refuse piles and would bring back skulls for her. At the age of 10, she found a road-killed cat skull and took it home. That was the first time she ever cleaned an animal skull. The process of cleaning a skull is very difficult, explained Heath. Of all the work she does, it has the most putrid smell.
She got into taxidermy when her neighbor’s dog killed a small deer that had gotten stuck in a fence. She wasn’t sure what to do with it at first. Then she decided to skin the whole deer and use its bones and body parts for art. “I did an excellent job,” she stated without modesty. “Not a single hole in the hide. I’m a natural with a scalpel.” She used the Native American method of tanning the hide using the deer’s brain. Emulsifying the brain creates an oily slush, ideal for tanning. Taxidermy specifically means to tan the hide then stretch it around a form, which is not necessarily stuffed. There are “soft mounts,” in which a hide is stuffed with cotton or another soft material—a literal “stuffed animal.”
All of this work is very time-constrained, especially with pelts and hides. Starting too soon can make the chemical process of tanning ineffective. Waiting too long can cause the animal remnants to start decomposing or becoming overly dry.It turns out that Oregon is a terrible place to do taxidermy because the winter is too wet and the summer has a lot of flies. “I do this out of my mom’s garage,” admitted Heath, though one day she hopes to have a heated shop of her own. She uses the bathtub to wash hides, and the putrefied scents that remain don’t always come out right away. Her mom is accepting of her hobby, aside from noticing the occasional powerful odor. “I’m good with smells,” said Heath with a smile.
Her mom also has the pleasure of finding ticks in the freezer. The carcasses Heath finds are often infested with ticks and the only way to get rid of them is by freezing them to death. While working, she often has ticks crawling all over her and, of all things, finds those unsettling. “There are definitely health hazards,” she said.
Heath is noticeably intelligent, compassionate, and self-aware. She studies fish and wildlife at LBCC, soon to transfer to Oregon State. Her goal was to become a game warden, but now she might prefer the career of a research biologist. Becoming a game warden would require going through the police academy, and she’s not yet sure if that’s something that appeals to her.
Currently, Heath loves working for a poultry-processing company where she helps slaughter and gut chickens on small farms. “I have chickens that I raise at home,” Heath said with excitement. “I do taxidermy with my chickens. I’ve always loved raising animals for meat. I like to use every part—feathers, hides, feet, bones, meat, sinew, antlers, claws, teeth, and furs.” Sinew is tendon or ligament tissue. It can be stretched and twisted into a tough string that is often used in Native American art. She uses sinew in her art as well.
As the owner of Badass Bones Taxidermy and Painted Skulls, Heath honors the creatures of the Earth by recycling as much of their bodies as she can. She creates inspiring handcrafted art and jewelry that brings customers closer to nature. Some of her creations include painted skulls, painted bones, jewelry, ritual tools for pagans and Wiccans, painted horseshoes and traps, mobiles out of driftwood, and glass beads. “I do custom work for everyone,” she noted. Any animal material that a customer wants, she can get ahold of or will find a replica. Her art is as sustainable as it gets. Turning death into art…now that takes talent.
Heath will have a booth and be selling her art at this year’s CIMA Festival on Friday, Aug. 15 from 6 to 10 p.m. and Saturday, Aug 16 from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. at Bruce Starker Arts Park, 4485 SW Country Club Drive, Corvallis.