My journey to taxidermy started at a young age. I grew up hunting in Alaska which developed into two safaris to southern Africa. I have always had an appreciation for quality taxidermy. Long before exploring the possibility of becoming a taxidermist, I have been able to tell if something was off on a mount but had been unable to articulate what aspect of the mount was off. When I was 14 years old I was lucky to draw a highly coveted tag for the Delta Junction bison hunt in Alaska (one of the last true free ranging bison hunts) and was even lucky enough to harvest a good bull. Naturally I wanted to get a shoulder mount but my parents mainly my mother was against that idea. Looking back I don’t blame her for not wanting a trophy sized buffalo in the living room! One thing my parents compromised on was to dry tan the cape for the day I moved out. I still remembered the day my father and I went to the taxidermist to drop off the cape and horns. The taxidermist worked out of his home and was a full time police officer who did taxidermy on the side. He showed me his house which was full
of specimens from all over the world and I remember being amazed at the exotic animals and artistic work that went into making them come back to life. Looking back at the experience, I think that was what drew me to taxidermy.
I came across Ken Darville and Taxidermy Tech on Facebook. I stumbled across his current taxidermy shop, Expressions of Wildlife Taxidermy, when he opened over a year ago and could tell he was a very talented taxidermist. He posted several of his pieces on his page which directed me to the Taxidermy Tech website. At the time my current taxidermist had taken over three years to work on a brown bear rug (which he is still currently working on) but had given me the idea of learning taxidermy to complete some of my African shoulder mounts. He has a full time job and does taxidermy for friends and family on the side but had become burnt out of doing the work. We tried to find time that we could get together and work on something, but it just didn’t work out due to conflicting work schedules.
I started looking into taxidermy schools regionally (I currently live in Southeast Alaska) and found most of the “Taxidermy Schools” have several students and specialize in whitetail deer which is an animal we don’t have in Alaska. I contacted Ken on Facebook and later spoke with him on the telephone. We came up with an eight day plan using specimens I already had and could get locally. The one thing I liked about Ken right off the bat was he was upfront and honest with me about learning taxidermy. He never gave me unrealistic expectations. Taxidermy is a process that includes several series of steps to produce quality work and nobody can become an expert in anything in eight days, though I could expect to have a solid foundation that I could build on after attending a seminar.
After making the decision to book a seminar with Ken in August of 2015, he worked with me because I didn’t know the exact dates I would be able to attend the course until December. Ken blocked off a substantial amount of time until I could fully commit (something I didn’t expect him to do). He also walked me through fleshing and salting two Sitka Blacktail Deer capes that I was able to harvest locally. I sent down some of my African animal specimens (which were already dry tanned) and the blacktail specimens that he wet tanned for me prior to my arrival so they were ready to be mounted. Ken had me tan two separate capes when I was at his shop to see how that tanning process works.
I flew from Ketchikan, Alaska to Pensacola, Florida which literally took about 24 hours with an evening layover in Atlanta, Georgia. Ken picked me up from the airport and took me to the shop to get acquainted. He also took me to Walmart where I was able to get my food and supplies while attending the course, then drove me to the Value Place where I was going to stay. After checking in I crashed and caught up on my sleep from the long journey from Alaska.
The first day started off by Ken mounting a whitetail deer and with me mostly observing and taking notes during the process. I had seen several shoulder mounts put together on DVD and online but this gave me the opportunity to see, ask questions, and actively participate in the process in person which is invaluable. Watching someone on TV is one thing but the value of watching something being done in person is something that can’t be replaced. The next day I spent a substantial amount of time on a “sculpting station” practicing setting the eyes and sculpting the earbuts on a deer form with oil based clay.
The next several days were spent putting together two impala, a springbok, a waterbuck, and two Sitka Blacktail deer shoulder mounts together. That’s six mounts in 8 days! The day I left, my flight didn’t leave until later in the evening so Ken walked me through the process of finish work on the two impala. I literally finished the two impala mounts, took a few photos, and got on a flight to Seattle to meet my wife and extended family before flying home to Alaska.
Most of the days started at 0800 hours when Ken picked me up at the Value Place and ended after midnight; one day went over 17 hours and went past 0200 hours when he dropped me off. The total amount of time spent on taxidermy at the shop was 113 hours in nine days! At the end of the course I was physically exhausted but I enjoyed myself and learned a lot in that time. Ken never made me rush my work and was patient with me during the learning process. I didn’t have any taxidermy experience outside of watching some DVDs and hadn’t worked with modeling clay since I was in elementary school. The first time I picked up an airbrush was when Ken taught me how to use one on a practice canvas prior to finishing the impalas. Ken also took the time about halfway through the course to order some essential taxidermy supplies and tools from Research Mannikins in Lebanon, Oregon. I was able to make the drive to pick up my supplies in person and put them on the barge to Ketchikan with the rest of our “Costco Run” supplies while in Seattle, so I could start working right away on taxidermy upon my return home.
Ken is a combat veteran with a distinguished career in both the military and as a military contractor as a trainer and supervisor. He is also a self-taught taxidermist and has won several awards for his taxidermy work. Coincidently he worked directly with one of my co-workers in Alaska when they both were in the army and did some taxidermy work for him years ago. His true love is obviously in instructing other taxidermists. I can say he is one of the best instructors that I personally have known. He had me fill out a pre-enrollment questionnaire which gave him information about my learning style. I think the reason things worked out well in the seminar was because Ken did his homework and adapted his teaching style to my best suit my personal ability to learn. One of my concerns in regards to attending a class with several other students was getting lost in the crowd of other students attending the course. I know from being a firearms instructor myself, any type of course can only go as fast as the slowest student. I felt the course went as fast as I wanted and never felt rushed in any way. At first it felt as if I was “drinking from a firehose” but as the course went on, the experience didn’t feel so overwhelming.
After returning home to Alaska Ken has been and will continue to be a resource for my taxidermy needs. Ken has made himself available by both email and text message. I am planning on opening a small taxidermy business on the side as I continue to work full time. Ken is also going to do a segment on finish work on my waterbuck on YouTube. He is going to finish one side of the mount before sending my mounts to me in Alaska which will give me the opportunity to watch the process on finishing that mount and also finish the other side after watching him do it. Talk about long distance learning!
If you are on the fence in regards to taking a seminar from Ken I would suggest checking out his explanation on setting eyes on YouTube to see how he breaks down the process of setting eyes with critter clay. The footage is raw but you can see how Ken explains in layman terms how to make constant eye sets. You can also contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any further questions.