Amber Maykut is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!
For Amber Maykut, death is an everyday part of life. A champion taxidermist and oddity enthusiast, Amber's ghastly hobbies have turned into a rather successful career, with Maykut now employed as The Morbid Anatomy Museum's taxidermist in residence. She also runs her own private taxidermy business via Etsy out of her apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
It isn't very surprising that Brooklynites are at the helm of a maker movement, which, apparently, includes taxidermy; Amber's taxidermy classes (taken mostly by females!) are breaking the stereotypes about taxidermy as a hobby for old men. “A lot of people want to say that [taxidermy] is a white girl hipster thing nowadays. I don’t think it is actually; you’d be shocked by the diversity of people that are just interested in finding out more."
Despite her macabre interests, Amber comes across as somewhat bubbly in person with a smart sense of deadpan humor that has probably served her well given her profession. But her grim proclivities are nothing particularly new for her: “When my mom was a gardener and horticulturalist and painter, she worked for a floral shop that was across the street from the town funeral home,” Amber said, recalling her childhood. “She would make all the funeral arrangements and I would go with her to deliver the flowers and set up all the lilies around the caskets. My mom would do all the graveyard paintings. To me death was never frowned upon or seemed taboo. I never thought of it as dark or sad.”
“We had butterfly bushes in our yard growing up and I would always collect the dead butterflies from under the bush and hide them in my room.”
It also isn't surprising that Amber gravitated towards goth culture as a teen. “I was always the super weird kid,” she remembered. “I dressed super weird. I made most of my clothes. Made my own band t-shirts. I always had black hair. A little hippie punk kid. I grew up super poor in a mixed income high school in Hawthorne, New Jersey. I was just always the outcast, not the popular cheerleader. I would cut school and go to Saint Mark's.”
To me [death] was never frowned upon or seemed taboo. I never thought of it as dark or sad.
Eventually, Amber started taking her spooky hobbies more seriously. She collected her own cavalcade of amateur taxidermy and began experimenting. “I started going to stoop sales and flea markets to find tons of crappy taxidermy and buying a million books that had a million different things about how it should be fixed. It was a lot of trial and error and a lot of personal worsts and personal disasters over years of figuring things out on my own before I finally bit the bullet, paid for schooling, got certified in bird and animal taxidermy. I found a handful of old man mentors in the Tri-State area who actually kicked my ass in schooling and helped me so much to grow and have a clue what’s going on.”
As she amassed advisors, Maykut began competing in amateur taxidermist showcases and interning at The Natural History museum, leading her to quit her corporate job at a children's educational website. Slowly, she found herself becoming an expert in her field; she even began teaching classes on her own. “If you can prepare and cook chicken then you can probably take my mouse or any introductory taxidermy class,” she says.
Amber's practice does not involve any hunting or killing: she collects her specimens from a variety of ethical sources. For her intro-level instructional classes, for example, Amber uses feeder mice from pet stores, donating the discarded insides to friends with pet snakes. “I’ve definitely used lots of road kill, I’ve gone to fur auctions and have gotten animal remains and donations like casualties of the pet trade where animals are deceased from pet store deaths.”
But is taxidermy an art form? For Amber, this isn't even a question. “Anyone can be an artist; it doesn't have to be good or bad … I don’t think people realize how much artistry goes into all of the details in taxidermy.”
“It’s a physiological thing and it speaks to you on some subconscious level that you connect with it and it’s like any other art form,” she continued. “Like with an artist or band that you love: you love it because it speaks to you on a personal level, and maybe it says more about you than you can say about yourself sometimes.”
Amber notes goth culture and bands like The Smiths and The Cure as major influences, along with her passion for underground horror movies like Frankenhooker and Basket Case. “All of these cult-following B-Movies [were] shot on super low budget. I think that's really inspiring. You don't need to have a million bucks to make art and do something.”
"I don’t think people realize how much artistry goes into all of the details in taxidermy."
And on the challenges of specifically being a female business owner? “I think there's a lot of give and take. In some ways probably because I'm female I get more attention, people are more interested in it … But there's also dealing with creeps.”
That being said, her success despite (or because of) being a woman hasn't endeared Amber to outspoken displays of female empowerment: “I'm not into the feminist stuff. In a weird world I wish I could be anonymous and my work could speak for myself, and it wouldn't matter what I look like or who I am or any of my personal details in my life.”
No matter what the medium, it's hard out here for an artist in 2016. Amber explained the troubles of running an independent business on her own. “There was a New York Times article not long ago...” she started to explain. “The whole gist of the piece was that there's no more NYC artists. Now you have to be an entrepreneur. Unless you're SO f*cking good. You have to do your own social media, your own photography and web presence, you have to have all these social skills, do your taxes, maintain your books for accounting, pricing, sourcing materials...
“I wish I could just make taxidermy all day. Instead I spend more than half of my time trying to get hi-res good photos, photoshopping, editing, hiring friends and family, calling in favors … Neverending stuff!”
Amber's concoctions range from hyper-realistic sculpture to fantasy dioramas but some pieces have special places in her heart. Her most recent favorite is a David Bowie mouse, of course. She expects to have Prince requests any day now.
Photos by Victoria Pett