Learning the arcane art of taxidermy has led Larry and Janet Clingerman and their daughter Brenda Spencer down a life path with some unexpected twists and turns. Janet has tolerated dead swans in the bathtub, deer skins in her dryer, and a whole host of odd and unsavory creatures in her freezer. Now and then someone borrows her iron to flatten some fish scales, but she rarely complains. Taxidermy has taken the Clingermans around the world, and Larry’s mastery of the craft has given him an international reputation. He holds a patent on the process, has been featured on local and national television shows, and every week in Taiwan 10,000 people view his work at the Chi Mei Museum.
Larry and Janet Clingerman live in northern Wayne County on the farm Larry grew up on. A keen interest in hunting led him to take up taxidermy back in 1976 to preserve his duck trophies. “My wife complained I was spending too much having my birds mounted, so she bought me a book on taxidermy.” Faced with a spousal ultimatum Larry set about teaching himself taxidermy. He worked alongside an experienced artisan, mounting two birds and a fish one weekend and going back to do three deer heads on another. But it was the waterfowl with their brilliant, widely varied plumage that fascinated him, so the next winter he processed 200 ducks. “By the end they were looking pretty good.” Only then was he ready to open up shop to mount deer, ducks, salmon and other game for paying clients.
Ducks are particularly challenging subjects. It takes a long time to clean and defat the skin, a delicate process that Larry uses a scalpel for. On a fat duck the skin is very delicate “like wet Kleenex” and is easily nicked or torn. The bird’s skull must be carefully cleaned of meat and brains. Then the skull must be reinserted and a “neck” pushed into place in the skin and attached to an artificial body.
Highly skilled taxidermists like Larry develop their own techniques for creating a lifelike mount. He fashions duck bodies from excelsior tightly wrapped with string. For small song birds the bodies are carved from foam. Larry sews the skin over the body with a baseball stitch and notes that when it comes to connecting the legs and setting the wings attention to detail is key to a lifelike look. “You can set 200 wings and still not get it right.” Larry has spent countless hours observing live animals. He knows that the tips of bird feathers vary with the season and the time since molt, eye colors can change with age, and on some species the legs and feet change color with the temperature of the water. Larry estimates that he has produced 6,000 duck trophies since 1976.
He is an exacting craftsman and word soon got around about the quality of his work. “Within two years of launching the business, we were the largest shop in New York State,” he says. Soon Larry recruited his daughter Brenda to assist. Before long he had 10 employees and they were doing 750 fish a year. Some clients even mailed their deer heads (frozen) to the shop. As his reputation grew, he also began teaching his craft at colleges and special seminars.
The start-up of Clingerman’s Taxidermy coincided with some of the best years of the Lake Ontario trophy salmon fishery, and oily, thin-skinned salmon and trout proved even more challenging to preserve than waterfowl. One of the most exacting aspects of fish taxidermy is painting the mount. The skin colors of many birds and fish fade in death, so color must be restored by painting. Larry worked with a paint company as a consultant to formulate a special line of colors that would satisfy the taxidermy trade as it sought to recreate the gleam of the steelhead’s silver flank.
A Mammoth Undertaking
About 12 years ago, a wealthy Taiwan industrialist decided to create his own version of the Smithsonian. Among its collections, he wanted displays of all the birds, animals, and fish of the world in pairs or families. The industrialist’s daughter was in Rochester and visited the museum there where she learned of Larry. She visited him to see his own personal collection of specimens. This led to an offer to collect, preserve, and mount 3,000 animals and to create museum exhibits for their display.
It was a huge job that took 10 years to complete. Larry and Janet went to Africa seven times, and to Australia and to other remote rugged lands where they collected hundreds of specimens. Often they were in areas with no radio or cell phone coverage, and many hours’ drive by four-wheel vehicle from any outside aid. Ironically one of the closest calls Larry had during one African hunt came not from a wild animal but from human action. He fell into an old pit trap covered with poles and grass. He hit his head hard enough to suffer a mild concussion, but managed to recover without aid.
Some of the most challenging specimens to collect were the elephants. The hapless creatures at that time lacked enough habitat to support their numbers and were being culled by the African authorities, so obtaining a permit to kill one was not a problem. The problem was finding the right one. The museum wanted a female with no ivory or offspring, so no baby would be orphaned. “We searched for four weeks before we finally found an old female.” Recalled Larry. She was very thin and turned out to have a bad liver.
While Janet Clingerman took care of all the extensive record keeping required by the museum, entering field notes, measurements and permit information on a laptop computer, Larry passed many hours studying the living animals and spent a day filming wildlife at a water hole to understand how they looked, interacted and moved. This was necessary to be able to set up the mounted specimens in realistic arrangements. Once the large male elephant (55 years old and 12-feet-tall at the shoulder) and the female elephant had been obtained, the skins had to be preserved. The big bull required seven people to skin it and 17 men to load the salted hide onto a flatbed truck. After drying, the hide was then transported to New York City where Larry met it to do the paperwork and arrange to ship it on to California, the location of one of the very few tanneries able to process a skin that big. The processed skin then went to Taiwan were Larry and five assistants had to fashion an accurate body for the skin to be placed on.
To recreate an elephant, he devised a graphic representation of sorts, scaled from a photograph onto plywood to create a silhouette with a 30:1 scale. After painstakingly lofting the elephants’ “lines,” they cut out the plywood and made ribs and legs from two-by-fours and additional lumber. Then using two-part pour-in-place foam, they created a body that they could sculpt veins, muscles and tendons on before using a forklift to lift the hide into place.
In assembling thousands of birds and animals for the museum, countless problems had to be solved by the Clingermans. Brenda and the other artists who created the background murals for the dioramas used house paint by the gallon to create arctic mountains, rice fields, Australian deserts, and rainforests. They determined what color a tiger’s nose should be as they crafted a convincing Bengal tiger on the prowl from a 50-year-old rug “We put that skin on in 17 pieces, and it took 30 hours of stitching” noted Larry. Brenda searched the roadside on the way to the museum for precisely the right rocks to use in dioramas. “Every bit of grass had to be hand-wrapped and put in ground” in the savannah displays, and she devised streams of running water made from colored plastic specially created in the client’s own plastics manufacturing plant.
New Projects Ahead
Larry continues to work for the Chi Wei Museum with his wife and daughter. He teaches and holds special seminars, recently returning from a two-week session in Taiwan working with museum taxidermists, and does appraisals and restoration work. He still keeps his hand in taxidermy by mounting birds and animals. “Right now I’m working on a road-killed heron for a nature center. I had to use hard clay to rebuild the skull.”
Asked to name the most challenging creature he has ever preserved, Larry answered promptly “humming birds. I’ve done three of them. The body is the size of a jelly bean. But you still have to skin them, clean out the brain case, eyes, place wires up the legs just like you do with a duck.” (Note to would-be bird collectors: it is illegal to mount or possess songbird specimens or their nests without a permit.)
Brenda has launched her own business, doing murals, painting, and wildlife art on commission. She’ll tackle anything from a kid’s bedroom to a museum exhibit. Some of her work was exhibited at Eastview Mall and is now for sale at The Trove in Sodus. She also assists with the taxidermy teaching seminars. You can view some of her work at www.nycrafts.andmuchmore.com.
If you can’t swing a trip to Taiwan to see his work, some of the Clingerman’s fish are now displayed at the International Freshwater Resource Center in Sodus Point. They are lasting tributes to the patience, skill, and sharp eye of a master craftsman. You can also visit their taxidermy shop and museum at 4995 Brick Schoolhouse Road in North Rose or call them at 315-587-2259
by Susan P. Gateley
Susan P. Gateley is a freelance writer who lives in Wolcott.