Personalities of Casper: The art of taxidermy; A passion developed for over fifty years

(Natrona County,Wyo.) - Hidden away just off of Poison Spider Road sits the 1945 Poison Spider School house, which has now been restored and constructed into a taxidermy studio for one practiced artist. Long-time Casper resident and Wyomingite, John Stevenson continues his craft in the old school house as he has sculpted his taxidermy techniques for fifty-three years and is now retired, not from the art but from the business. ​His passion was sparked when he was visiting family in Nebraska and found himself reading *Boys' Life Magazine* and learned of a taxidermy course. He said he was eleven years old at the time and that was when he learned what he wanted his career to be. Stevenson commented in his studio, "I started out as lawn boy for Colonel Peterson in 1963. At fourteen years old I was already interested in taxidermy and this was my first opportunity to be a part of it. As I mastered mowing lawns, Pederson would give me more jobs and as I mastered one job he would give me another. By the time I graduated from Kelly Walsh High School, I was mounting animals at Peterson Taxidermy." ​Bouncing around from taxidermy shops for eleven years, he would eventually land his own shop and kicked off Wyoming Taxidermy in 1985 where he honed his craft for 30 years up until his retirement last April. Showing a bit of his age, Stevenson mentioned that when he began the art, there were no ready made foam forms, they were originally made with laminated paper, similar to making paper mache. He explained that one would have to dip strips of burlap in plaster and add layers to a plastic mold to create the form. He would eventually find urethane foam, the key to making the best forms, and he was proud to say that he was using and making urethane foam forms before the industry changed to them. ​Stevenson then went on to explain in depth the taxidermy process: 1. Customer brings in an animal to be mounted, first step is to remove the skin, flesh it down by drying and salting it. Taking measurements of the skull and body, then sending the hide to a tannery. Stevenson noted, "A good taxidermist should know the difference between a good tan and a bad tan, and if you have been at it long enough then you know." 2. Once the hide comes back tanned (and to the taxidermists' appeal) the hide is re-hydrated with cool water and test fitted on the foam form. "This is where your previous measurements come in handy," said Stevenson. He had numerous supply catalogs that he would reference to see which mount he wanted to use."The whole industry has changed, the old foam models were pretty basic, facing right, left, or straight, and old timers had to do lots of stretching of the hides to make them fit. Anymore you can get any position you would like." Stevenson explained how the hide had to fit tightly around the back and had to 'close' so that his sewing stitches would come together evenly. 3. Next, the artist searches through the catalogs and studies books to pick out the right type of eyes, noses, muscle tones, trying to find each unique piece to make them fit. Stevenson mentioned that there are numerous shapes, sizes and quality eyes to pick out for each creation. 4. "Many taxidermists, order new ears for their pieces, I like to make my own. I cut out the cartilage in the ears and model my own, using the cartilage as a template. I also like to add in joints and I study how the animal moves naturally, I make a lot of adjustments to my molds." 5. The final step is fitting the hide on the mount. Stevenson said that he was careful to make sure the tanned hide fits perfectly around the mount and smooths and nails down the hide to prevent 'drumming' (free space where the hide does not touch the form, creating a drum). Then he sews it up and allows the hide to dry for several days to weeks depending on the of the year. "At one time, in 1991-1992, I must have done around 720 pieces during the hunting season," said Stevenson with a smile as he reflected on his years of service. He reported that he has completed over 10,000 mounts during his long and celebrated career. ​"I would say the ten foot-three inch Alaskan Kodiak brown bear mount I completed is one of my favorite projects. I was able to spend as much time on it as I wanted and it took me several years to complete. It is now on display in Casper," he smirked, as he would not give up the location of his bear. Sadly, Stevenson has retired from the business, but he still does projects for close friends and family members. "Once you become a good taxidermist, and have learned through the years the process, your a taxidermist for life. But I want people to know that starting out, the first ten years, I was very lean and almost starved to death!" Another unique piece that Stevenson had the honor of completing, one of his, "most challenging pieces" was two life sized whitetail bucks locked in battle. "One of them was upside down, and the challenge was working on the heads and the horns as they twisted together". ​Stevenson ended, "Pursue taxidermy as a hobby, not a profession until you get proficient enough to turn out a quality mount in a reasonable amount of time. You aren't making any money unless you are using your hands." Stevenson will be sharing his art and techniques at the Werner Wildlife Museum in Casper Thursday night at 7:00 pm and the public is encouraged to come for the fun. #oilcity #news