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Life After Death

Life After Death

Behind the scenes of a Northern taxidermy workshop
By Hannah Eden
Jun 12
2017
From the June Issue Issue

"I have something to show you.” A surprise visitor bursts through the workshop door as Greg Robertson of Robertson’s Taxidermy is fleshing an eight-foot polar bear hide from Taloyoak, Nunavut.
Yanking a phone from out of his construction jacket, the customer rushes over to show Robertson a photograph of a polar bear skin he is looking to purchase from Gjoa Haven. “Looks good,” Robertson says, the visitor already dialing the number of the hunter selling him the fur. Robertson’s focus is back to the bear; he moves the knife over its skin with expert skill. The phone, now on loud-speaker, rings and breaks his train of thought.
 “Are his ears tucked inside-out?” Robertson asks, though never taking his eyes off the skin. “The ears—they need to be the right way around. He’ll look better that way.”

Every detail is important to the Yellowknife taxidermist. His gallery and workshop are filled to the brim with his work, sought by galleries, collectors and museums across the world. Lynx and Arctic hare sit in harmony with each other; posed for eternity. An eight-foot tall grizzly bear stands on its hind legs in the middle of the showroom. Its eyes glisten under the overhead lights. “I like life-sizes because you can get creative with them,” says Robertson. Bears especially. “They have such expressive faces.” Robertson uses clay to manipulate the facial expressions of the animals he works on, breathing new life into their skin. “You are always trying to create realism,” he says, shaping the face of a grizzly bear lying across his workbench. “The animal had to die, so you have to do the animal justice.”

Robertson became interested in the art at a young age. After spending childhood summers in Saskatchewan trapping with his grandfather, he picked up taxidermy as a hobby after a 10th grade class project.

Now in his 37th year in the profession, Robertson says the love of animals and of storytelling keeps his interest. On occasion, Robertson will himself pose like the animal in order to understand its movements. “You have to imagine yourself inside that skin, looking out,” he says from across the showroom. 

“Curl your lip. Does your bottom lip move at all?” He turns back to a wolverine mount and pulls its lip in an upward curl, mimicking the one he is practicing on his face.

  • Robertson fleshes an eight-foot polar bear hide from Taloyoak, Nunavut. “Everybody who loves taxidermy, loves wildlife,” he says, working his way around the flesh inside the nose.
  • Glass eyes, fake noses and teeth are some of the finishing touches Robertson uses to create realism in his pieces. He spends the most time on faces—that’s where you can tell a professional from a hobbyist.
  • To make the foam bodies, Robertson uses a ‘sandbox’ technique invented by his brother, Dean. Each limb is wrapped in aluminium foil and placed in sand to make an impression, with liquid foam poured in its place. Once the foam hardens, it's sanded down.
  • The limbs are removed from the frozen carcass so each arm, leg and the torso can be used to make an exact foam replica.
  • “I travel all over the world when I’m fleshing a hide,” jokes Robertson, explaining how he daydreams during what can be a tedious process. “Sometimes I go as far as Costa Rica.”
  • The tanned wolverine skin is pulled onto the mount like a jacket. The skin will then be glued and sewn together to hold it in place.
  • “You have to take a mental picture of the animal before you start,” Robertson says as he poses a skinned wolverine on a frame with strings. The wolverine, and frame, will be frozen overnight. Robertson puts the animals in positions that tell a story.