Interview with Gerard Geer
Gerard Geer’s delicate sculptures capture his vivid imaginings of fantastical creatures literally down to the bone. By using a variety of animal bones and other natural materials, Geer creates the stuff of mythology while simultaneously giving his viewers an appreciation for the wonder and intricacies of the world we know. Geer’s latest series, Tidepool, explores a potential connection between land mammals and ocean creatures, in terms of both evolutionary features and the relationships among the creatures themselves. Tidepool just wrapped as Geer’s third solo show at the Beinart Gallery.
I want the viewers of my work to ask questions either of themselves, or of our society, about the ethics of how we treat animals and our environment. I hope that in using natural remains, my work instills a sense of wonder for the world around us, and a deeper connection to the cycles of nature. – Gerard Geer
Julie Winters: I know that you are self-taught, having first become interested in preserving animal bones when an animal your family had been caring for died. How did you go about exploring this type of preservation, and what inspired you to pursue it beyond this animal that you’d known?
Gerard Geer: When I first got started working with bone, I was doing a lot of experimentation, learning primarily through trial and error. I relied mostly on the natural processes of decay to do the bulk of the cleaning work for me and worked out a process of further cleaning that I later learned was called maceration. This involves soaking animal bone in water, allowing bacteria to break down remaining tissues and fats from within the bone. This process was one I came to on my own accord and one I would later learn more about through research both on the Internet through various blogs and in books in libraries.
I had found the process quite fascinating, and in me it ignited a spark to preserve and treasure the remains of animals I saw discarded. Upon completing my first creative piece (a wearable piece comprised of the bones I had cleaned), I quickly became aware of just how many animal carcasses were left discarded and ignored. I began noticing every roadkill body lying in the gutter, every baby bird that fell from the nest to the ground below, and I realized how often we collectively averted our eyes from them, pretended they weren’t there, or swept them aside. The first instance of this occurring for me was while walking home one day I saw a black garbage bag under some bushes in a park and felt a calling toward it. Inside were the broken-down remains of an animal that had been presumably hit by a car (it had a few broken bones) that appeared to have been collected in a bag and tossed aside. I immediately took it home to clean it up, and from this point I collected everything I found.
JW: What is it that appeals to you about using animal bones as a medium?
GG: I have had a strong interest in anatomy since I was very young. Growing up I spent a lot of time out in the country, where we had family who had farms, and I would run around in the fields looking for bones everywhere I went. At the time I was mostly interested in the shapes and forms; I never really cleaned or collected anything but I would spend hours examining them and imagining how they worked underneath the skin and the muscles. Whenever we had chickens nesting on eggs, I would collect the ones that didn’t hatch and break them open to see how the animals had developed. I was very curious about the ways that life worked, how things grew, how they operated.
This interest took a change in direction once I began making works using bone. In making my first piece, which was a commemorative piece to honor and cherish the life of an animal I was close with, I wanted to make something beautiful from what remained of the body. I wanted to share the beauty of the natural skeleton and keep the parts as a memento of the connection we shared in life. I wanted to highlight the beautiful aesthetic of the bone, the texture, the subtle curves and shapes, and show the fragility of the internal structure. I also wanted to wear them as a reminder to those who saw the bones that the life of the animals around us was also fragile.
My use of bone in my artwork serves to provoke an emotional response in the viewer, to encourage an interest in the natural world, to trigger compassion and empathy, and to challenge our discomfort around the idea of mortality. I want the viewers of my work to ask questions either of themselves, or of our society, about the ethics of how we treat animals and our environment. I hope that in using natural remains, my work instills a sense of wonder for the world around us, and a deeper connection to the cycles of nature.
JW: How do you source the specimens that you use in your work?
GG: The animal specimens that I work with come from a wide variety of places. Over the years I have established a lot of relationships with people from different fields to source animals. Most of the animals I work with are donated to me from vets, animals that have either died of natural causes or are euthanized for health reasons. Many animals donated to me are given to me by their owners when they pass, as they want something beautiful to come from their passing and would like them to be immortalized through my work. Some of the more exotic species I work with are donated from various zoos or I might receive their bodies as ‘waste’ from various taxidermists (who only use the skin). I get a lot of post-dissection animals from a number of universities, animals which have been used to teach vet anatomy students. All of the fish that I work with are natural deaths from the pet trade, and these are donated to me from a number of aquariums around Melbourne that I have established a relationship with. Occasionally I will buy or trade for animal specimens, provided that the causes of death sit within my personal belief system. I also work a lot with invasive animal species, such as cane toads, feral cats, foxes and common myna birds, which are captured and humanely euthanized for environmental protection.
I am very particular about the animals I work with and try to be as conscientious as possible with how I source them. I don’t kill animals to make my art, and I won’t work with anything that has been killed for that purpose. I have always tried to be as ethical as possible with how I obtain specimens, though I personally don’t like to use the word ‘ethical’ to describe my practises, as this can mean a lot of different things depending on who is interpreting the word. In the past, I refused to work with the remains of any animal that had been deliberately killed. Now, however, I consider the humane culling of invasive pest species (such as feral cats, foxes, cane toads and the common myna) as acceptable for my use, as I consider it necessary for protecting native biodiversity.
While initially I worked almost entirely with roadkill, I no longer work with it, in part because I no longer have the time and opportunity to collect it, but also because I am now able to source enough animal specimens to work without it.
JW: You use bones from different animals to create skeletons of your own imaginary creatures; how do these creatures suggest themselves to you as you create or before you start?
GG: My creative processes come through in a variety of ways. Usually I will start with an idea of what general shapes I want to make, and then sift through hundreds of bones to find the pieces with the right shape and fit. Sometimes my ideas of the animal shape are influenced more by the feeling I want the creature to communicate. Starting with an emotion, I’ll move that into a pose, and then imagine the type of creature that would embody that pose. Other times, I will get a feel of a potential shape while playing with a handful of bones, and the piece will come together naturally. In any case, there is a large amount of play and experimentation involved, placing lots of pieces together to see what fits and what happens when it does. Often the major body shape will be loosely inspired by a naturally existing animal, or a mixture of multiple animals, though the bones used to create those shapes are usually from different animals.
My current collection, Tidepool, began taking shape while I was working on my last show, Bloom. As I was making large flowers I began playing around with some different shapes, repeating mouse pelvis bones around a bird pelvis. I began making this shape as something inspired by a lily, but as the shape evolved it transformed into something more like a cuttlefish. As I felt the shape transforming I took it apart and began remaking it, adding tentacles to front and elongating them somewhat, and as I was moving it around and exploring it, I began seeing it as a skull for a larger creature as I looked at it from different angles. As soon as I saw it change into a skull, I immediately could see what its body should look like.
JW: Can you describe your process for creating an articulated bone sculpture?
GG: As touched on above, a large part of my creative process involves playing, putting lots of pieces together to see what works. Translating an idea from my mind into a sculptural piece can be challenging, as I prefer to work with bone in its natural shape and very rarely carve or alter the shape of the bone I work with, so finding the right pieces to fit the aesthetic can be a long process. My studio is set up for this—I have lots of shelves piled up with containers of cleaned animal bones, sorted roughly into species type or bone type (e.g., small birds or mice for species and tails or feet for bone type). While building a new articulated creature, I’ll often sort through hundreds of bones to find the right sized and proportioned pieces to suit the creature I’m making. When making multiple similar creatures, such as the creatures in Tidepool, I’ll often make lots of pairs of different sizes altogether so that I can go through these pre-paired pieces to find the right sized ones for each creature. I’m a very visual person—I like to be able to see all of the things I might want to work with all at the same time—so usually in the creative process every available centimeter of table space is covered in piles of bones organised by size and type.
Once I’ve arranged and sorted all the pieces I need to make the creatures, I then drill the bones and run armature wires through them for structural support. This also allows me to pose and position the bones repeatedly without the need for glues, until I am happy with the shape of the creature.
A theme that often pops up in my work is repetition. I really enjoy working with repetitious shapes and structures, as can be seen in lots of my floral work, which usually begin as semi-fractal-based patterns. I explore this a lot through play, and often the small experimental pieces I make become the seed from which a larger piece might grow.
JW: What connection does your art have to you spiritually?
GG: In some ways I feel like my art is an accelerated version of natural cycles and evolution. Nature recycles everything: when something dies, it breaks down and is redistributed back into the system. Over millions of years, dead corals on the seafloor fossilise and become limestone cliffs; in the short term, a dead animal feeds insects and scavengers while fertilising the ground, allowing plants to take up the nutrients. The process of evolution is endlessly creative: each form of life continually exploring new ways of existing and changing, with each new generation slightly different from what came before it.
Through the various processes of my work, I feel like I participate directly in this cycle. In preparing a specimen for skeletonisation, I compost all the skin, flesh and tissues that I don’t use, which, in turn, fertilises my garden and helps grow the food in my vegetable patch. The meats and tissues that remain on the bone are removed by my colony of flesh-eating beetles, which, in turn, grow and prosper. Their excrement, along with any waste produced from cleaning the bones, is then also turned into fertiliser for my garden. The cleaned bones are then restructured and rearranged to form something new and different from what they once were.
My idea of spirituality is deeply tied to the cycle’s nature. The transformation of matter from one form into another is something that occurs constantly in an evolving system, and through my work I feel that I am participating directly in this process, albeit in a different way. I like to think of my work as a practise in alchemy, where I take something that has been one thing and transform it into something new. For me, the process of creation and transformation is my connection to that cycle.
JW: What has been your biggest challenge in pursuing your art, either in terms of how viewers accepted it or in terms of the physical making of it?
GG: I would have to say that it was the social acceptance of my artistic practises that was the most challenging for me. When I first started making art using animal remains, most of the people around me were repelled a bit by the idea, mostly because of fears about hygiene and smell but also, I think, because the idea of working with death was off-putting for a lot of people. This challenge presented itself in a number of ways: finding spaces to work in, finding sources for specimens, finding spaces to display my work. I also found it quite difficult to talk to people about too. I think it took me a few years to find my own way of talking about what I do in a way that people could understand. For a long time, I felt like a weirdo whenever I spoke to someone I didn’t know about my interests, but over time as I developed both my confidence and vocabulary, I found that acceptance easier to obtain.
I do still face opposition on occasion, particularly whenever my work is shared in a new context. I find that people often make assumptions about the what, how and why of what I do; often these assumptions are based on an emotional reaction, and [they] often result in aggressive responses. Now, though, I welcome these reactions as an opportunity for both conversation and hopefully understanding.
JW: Is there a particular message or thought that you wish viewers to come away with from experiencing your work?
GG: Through my work I aim to provoke a sense of wonder and intrigue for the viewer, I want to challenge their notions of what is, to [get them to] question what could be. I want them to ask whether the creatures I make might exist, to imagine the possibility that they might be real. While I don’t directly make statements about animal rights through my work, I don’t use terms like ‘ethically sourced’ when describing my work, as I want the viewer to question that on their own. While I source all the animals I work with as conscientiously as possible, and neither kill nor have animals killed for me to make my work, I do want the viewer to question what they consider an acceptable source of animal remains. I hope that when viewing my work people might consider their own impact on the animals around them. My sculptures highlight the complexity and fragility of animal life—one can see directly how tiny most of the bones I work with are, and [viewers] often recognize how easy they must be to break—and I hope that this inspires compassion and awareness in the viewers.
JW: Can you describe how you’ve seen your work evolve through the years, from independent pieces and through the series you’ve undertaken?
GG: When I first started making sculptural works with bone, my pieces were a lot more simplistic. My earlier works were often a lot more anthropomorphic in design and shared less potential for anatomical realism. Over time I’ve developed my skills at capturing lifelike movement in my articulations, and my ability to make lifelike creatures in proportion has evolved too. Developing these techniques was a big influence in the gradual shift in my creative styles: as my work evolved, it became more naturalistic in terms of function, moving away from the anthropomorphic and into a more animalistic focus.
I think that the other major change my work has taken is the shift toward capturing the creatures I create in a snapshot of an environment. In my earlier works the creatures I made usually stood alone, whereas now I imagine the environment that they might live in and give them a place to inhabit. Fleshing out a world that my creatures might live in and building their habitats has in my eyes cemented their potential for being and creates a stronger sense that the creatures in my works might exist.
JW: Tidepool, your latest series, takes us back to the oceans a bit from an evolutionary standpoint. Tell us about the germination of this idea.
GG: I’ve always been fascinated by ocean-based life and the bizarre creatures that dwell in the deep. But this fascination is also coupled with an intense fear of the open ocean and the vastness of this space. After making a number of skeletal jellyfish a few years back, I became quite obsessed with the idea of making a skeletal structure for an animal that wouldn’t have a skeleton. I’ve since made a number of ocean-inspired creatures, many of which I’ve left unfinished on the shelves in my studio, which I will at some point bring out into the light!
The idea for this collection of work came about last year while working toward Bloom, when a flower shape I was exploring became a cuttlefish, which then became octopus-like before becoming a skull. I describe the process like this: sometimes the things I am working on take on a life of their own; they move and shift and change throughout the creative process. As the piece became more skull-like, I began to get a sense of what the body of this creature might have looked like, how it might have behaved, how and where it might have evolved. The cephalopod-like features of the creature gave a sense of intelligence, of adaptability, of elasticity in terms of how it would relate to its environment. I imagined it living outside of the ocean but still closely connected to it somehow and that its environment would reflect this connection. The environment that I envisioned for this creature was something akin to a mangrove forest, where when the tide comes in it would be directly connected to the ocean, and as the tide goes out the mangroves are separate once again. Once I had a sense of the creature and its potential environment, I then formulated the relationships and the stories that I wanted the creatures to tell.
JW: Your sculptures have led you to branch out into other areas: creating mementos for people whose pets have died and holding workshops to teach your skeletal articulation to others. How did these opportunities present themselves to you?
GG: When I first started showing my work, the majority of what I was making were wearable pieces. A number of these were made from a pet that was given to me from a friend, and of these pieces I had given one to her. Making custom work this way came about quite naturally; during the exhibition I had a number of people ask me to make something for them using their pets when they inevitably pass away. This was never something I actively had to seek out but was something that was more often asked of me. Over time, and as I developed my skill set, I decided to make natural articulation something I could offer to people wanting to preserve and cherish the remains of their pets.
Through sharing the work that I do, and from making a lot of wearable pieces, I soon realized that there was interest in learning how to do what I do but not many places to access the information. Throughout my own development, I had reached out to multiple taxidermists hoping for some kind of apprenticeship or training but was constantly rejected. Soon enough I had people reaching out to me wanting to learn how to clean bone, and not long afterward I was running roadkill taxidermy and bone preservation workshops in some strange places. My first one was at ConFest (a hippie camping festival in NSW) and then at various music festivals. It feels surreal to reflect that my workshops originated on the dirt floor of a crystal healing tent!!
A few years after running these workshops I wound up being introduced to Natalie Delaney of Rest In Pieces, and after a few years of friendship I eventually decided to join forces and write a skeletal articulation workshop to run under her banner. It made sense for myself, as I had been contacted by a lot of people wanting to learn this art form, and for Natalie as a natural extension of her business.
JW: You’ve noted that a lot of the participants in your skeletal articulation workshops are women. Do you have any thoughts as to why more women than men gravitate toward these workshops?
GG: This is a really great question, and one that I have thought about a lot over the last few years. Before trying to get my thoughts on this out I think it’s important to acknowledge that I often consider and speak about skeletal articulation as under a broad umbrella of taxidermy – and will use the term ‘taxidermy’ to broadly describe works that utilise the remains of animals. While taxidermy specifically refers to the preservation of an animal’s skin in a lifelike manner, therefore excluding the use of skeletal remains, I prefer to use this term over others such as ‘animal art,’ as I feel it is more accurate and more readily understood.
One of the things that I talk about a lot during my workshops is that the use of animal remains as an art form is something that has been undergoing a revival (so to speak!) over the last decade or so, and this revival has been predominantly driven by women. When I think about the incorporation of taxidermy in art, the bulk of the artists that come to mind are women: Sarina Brewer, Jessica Joslin, Polly Morgan, Tessa Farmer, Brooke Weston, Julia De Ville, just to name a few. All of these artists reimagine the animals they work with in unique way and present them in unconventional manners to tell their stories. They have taken taxidermy out of the traditional context of the past—from museums, as hunting trophies, etc.—and bought a new life to the art of preservation by combining it with storytelling.
In the past, taxidermy has often been thought of as killing and stuffing an animal, whereas the contemporary taxidermy art movement places strong emphasis on the ethical sourcing of animals to work with and celebrates the lives of the animals through the works. This isn’t to say that there is a single, cohesive movement that all contemporary taxidermy umbrella artists are a collective part of but is an observation I’ve made over the years.
I think that the women who have paved the way in making this art form what it is today have opened up the door for those new to or interested in the field. Old stereotypes about who and what taxidermy is are changing, and it’s been argued that the contemporary taxidermy movement is inherently feminist. On top of this, Rest In Pieces (the company I run my workshops through) is a female-led company—as are most of the businesses and artists around the world that teach taxidermy workshops, as far as I am aware. Looking at the statistics from my Instagram and Facebook profiles, the majority of the people who follow me on these platforms are women, roughly 65% on both platforms combined. Through speaking with other taxidermists and bone artists, this seems to be a trend around the world right now.
JW: I know that in addition to creating articulated bone sculptures, you process and sell diaphonised wet specimens. Do you see this as an extension of your artistic practise or something separate? Do you have any plans to combine your bone sculptures with diaphonised specimens?
GG: Diaphonisation started out for me as a hobby, as a way of looking a little bit deeper into the anatomy of smaller animals without having to remove all the flesh. I love how accessible it makes anatomy, and for a lot of people it provides a window into the anatomy of an animal without the discomfort that often goes along with it. I’ve always seen it as something that sits alongside my creative practises; while the technique is definitely an art form, it is a technique nonetheless and there are limits as to what you can really do with it.
In saying this, I am working to push those limits of what can be done with the process. I have been experimenting a lot with various techniques over the years to try and create new colours for diaphonised specimens and have had some success in this regard. Last year I completed a ‘diaphonised rainbow’ which combined a lot of different colours, creating a spectrum across 8 juvenile rats. The bulk of the colours from this rainbow have (as far as I could tell from 2 years of research) never been made before, and the creation of this piece involved a lot of trial and error on top of loads of research! I even had to have certain chemical compounds manufactured for me to do this. It’s interesting to me as this process allows me to work a different kind of creativity, one driven entirely by science, where creativity comes first, and research and experimentation follow. Very different to my normal practises!
In the past, I have combined articulated creatures with diaphonised specimens; however, the challenge with this comes from the way that diaphonisation works. A diaphonised specimen looks impressive and beautiful, because the liquid that it is stored and displayed in has the same light refractive index as the cleared tissue. What this means is that light is allowed to move through the liquid and the tissue at the same speed, creating the illusion of transparency. Once taken out of the solution, a perfectly cleared specimen loses its transparency, which detracts from the aesthetic. The piece where I had previously explored this was one I am happy with; however, in wanting to combine the two forms I would like to find a way to maintain this transparency much more effectively. Currently I am working on developing a technique to do this with a good friend of mine. In short, it effectively involves incorporating techniques used in plastination, so it is a slow and challenging process. I do have some plans for potential future works should we succeed!
JW: While you originally started with no formal training, you eventually decided to pursue a degree in biological sciences. Have your studies led you to consider other pursuits, or do you see them as primarily a way to enhance your artistry?
GG: I decided to study biological sciences initially as a way to enhance my understanding of animal anatomy and the connections between animal and environment. My intention was to find ways to apply this knowledge to my own creature and habitat design primarily. What I found through studying was somewhat of a surprise to me: I realized I was more interested in plants and the environment that I had initially thought, and I also found a lot more passion in chemistry and biochemistry than I expected.
I am currently deferring from my course at the moment, having had to take time off from my third year of studies for both work commitments and some amazing opportunities that came up for me last year, and at the moment I am unsure when I will complete my studies. I am debating whether to go further down the biochemistry rabbit hole or whether to shift toward vet sciences. Both are incredibly appealing to me but more for the sake of curiosity than any particular end goal. In any case, though, I do feel that my time spent studying has definitely provided a lot of inspiration for my artistic work.
JW: What do you see for yourself immediately ahead? And do you have any long-range goals for where you’d like to take your art?
GG: At the moment I’ve been really enjoying exploring working on a larger scale. The titular piece in Bloom was the largest-scale sculpture I had ever made, and I really enjoyed working on it. I have a few pieces planned at that same kind of scale, and I am hoping to continue making works that combine larger size with increased complexity. I am also working toward developing a new technique utilising diaphonisation techniques and combining them with plastination techniques, to attempt to incorporate these practises within my artwork. This is likely a long-term goal, as there is a lot to develop before we get there. But I am very much enjoying the stressful chaos of innovating techniques and the collaborative process needed to make it happen.
Aside from this, I am hoping to continue building my connections with various institutions (such as universities, museums, zoos, etc.) so that I can utilise my skill set and artistic practises for public education. At the moment for me this happens on occasion, but I would like to eventually do more work in this sector. I am currently writing an intermediate skeletal articulation class for Rest In Pieces and am looking forward to facilitating many more classes in the future.