photograph by Yvonne Albinowski
The art of Jay taxidermist Marissa Jonke
“Oh my gawd, how am I going to tell my friends?” says Marissa Jonke, impersonating her mother’s Queens accent when Jonke broke the news that she was becoming a taxidermist. “They’re going to say, ‘What, is she a serial killer?’”
Jonke has gotten used to the assumptions people make about her chosen profession and its practitioners. Since her 2019 opening of Styx River Taxidermy in Jay, she says she can’t count the number of times people have walked into the showroom and, seeing the slight 27-year-old, wondered where the taxidermist was. Then there are the Jeffrey Dahmer jokes from friends and the disapproving remarks of those who associate taxidermy with cruelty to animals.
Obviously, Jonke disagrees. She sees it as an artform that, done with the care it deserves, honors the animal and its beauty. She says her work has given her new respect and a deeper understanding of the wild animals she has handled.
Jonke grew up in the Glendale neighborhood of Queens, seeing little wildlife beyond pigeons and other city-dwellers. It wasn’t until she went to college in New Paltz to study art that she encountered much roadkill, often left rotting and repeatedly run over. “I felt terrible about it,” she says.
She began moving the carcasses to the side of the road. Eventually she started collecting bones and skulls she found on roadsides, cleaning them and bringing them to art class to draw. “It just snowballed from there,” she says.
She learned how to tan animal hides, and incorporated elements of taxidermy into her sculpture. As her interest grew, the university allowed her to fashion her own degree program combining sculpture, painting and taxidermy. She observed professionals at work and volunteered her time in trade for the experience, until she was skilled enough to get a paid position.
“There’s an insane variation in the quality of taxidermy, as with any art,” Jonke says. A cheap deer mount may involve dry-preserving rather than tanning, giving the skin a jerky-like texture that cracks, can become misshapen and is irresistible to mice. It also probably lacks the attention to detail that a skilled taxidermist employs. Just Google “bad taxidermy” to see the difference.
“Good taxidermy is thankless,” she says. “You notice when something is wrong, not right.”
Getting it right means studying the intricacies of animal anatomy—their musculature, the way they move, their expressions. It means knowing that an angry deer has wide-open eyes and that a tensed neck indicates alertness, so the ears should face forward. Jonke notes that her phone contains more reference photos of animals than of her boyfriend, a wildlife technician with the Department of Environmental Conservation, whose job in Ray Brook brought the couple to the Adirondacks in 2018.
These days her calendar follows a familiar pattern: from November to February, her phone rings off the hook and her freezer fills with the deer, bear and roadkill carcasses that will be her projects for the rest of the year. She’s busy nonstop during hunting season, starting as early as six a.m. to process animals. “It’s a game of time when something is raw,” she says.
Toward the end of winter, she starts working on the smaller animals she has tanned herself, and she sends the larger ones to a professional tannery. She’ll finish those returned hides over the course of the rest of the year.
Each mount starts with a polyurethane foam form, either the full body or, as is more common with deer and other large animals, a “cape”—just the head and shoulders. Jonke then customizes it by sculpting with clay, referring to photographs and careful measurements of the animal’s skull. Glass eyes are held in place with clay, and Jonke sculpts eyelids to capture a natural-looking expression. “These are the subtle things that make it feel right,” she says.
Sometimes she has to patch fur—to cover up an errant bullet hole, for instance—a painstaking process that can involve glueing on individual hairs with tweezers. And she always ensures that light shines through the deer’s nostrils as it would with a living animal’s—the kind of meticulous craftmanship that wins awards.
At least, that’s Jonke’s hope. She received an Essex County Arts Council grant to attend the 2022 United Taxidermists of New York conference and competition, where she plans to enter a coyote mount.
The taxidermy industry continues to be male-dominated, but has, in recent years, seen a surge in participation from younger people, in particular women. Jonke conjectures that it’s part of a broader desire to experience nature and the outdoors, leading to higher demand for everything from house plants to framed butterflies—what Jonke calls “gateway drugs into taxidermy.”
Beyond her commissioned work and pro-bono projects, such as a loon mount she is donating to the Adirondack Center for Loon Conservation, Jonke hopes to find time to do more artistic taxidermy of the kind she did in college. Her senior project was a series that, like the name of her business, was inspired by various cultures’ animal-based mythology.
“I love a good story,” she says.
Find Styx River Taxidermy at 97 Danielle Road in Jay, (917) 715-6940, or www.styxrivertaxidermy.com. Follow @styxrivertaxidermy on Instagram.