For his art, Alaska sculptor uses animal carcasses

Posted: Monday, April 12, 2010

FAIRBANKS - As a kid growing up in a deer-hunting family in Wyoming, John Morton has vivid memories of skinned deer hanging in the garage.

Eric Engman / The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
Eric Engman / The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

"I remember going out at a real young age and seeing these dead, hanging animals and being fascinated, but at the same time being kind of scared and freaked out," he said.

More than 20 years later, Morton is trying to solicit the same reaction from people who view the clay sculptures he makes using molds built from skinned animal carcasses such as wolves, lynx, snowshoe hare and grouse.

"I feel my pieces deal with this idea of attractive yet repulsive you know you shouldn't look at it but you can't help it," Morton, a graduate student in the University of Alaska Fairbanks art department, said in his master's thesis presentation on Tuesday.

"I think most people are repulsed by the idea of a skinned animal," he said. "I feel the surfaces are really beautiful."

Or gross, depending on how you look at it.

"There's a fairly immediate visceral reaction and then you start pondering it," UAF art department chair Todd Sherman said of Morton's work. "To me that's an integral part of art; your gut feeling and your head thinking. They don't always correspond.

"There's all this beauty and the content is kind of disturbing," he said. "That's a dichotomy you find in a lot of good artwork.

Morton, 28, was beginning to question his decision to go to graduate school at UAF when he decided to marry his interests in the outdoors and hunting with his passion for art about 1 ½ years ago. He had spent his first year making more traditional pottery and that wasn't providing the motivation or material he was looking for.

"I kept thinking, 'Why do I spend more time thinking about hunting than I do thinking about pottery?' " Morton said. "I wanted to have something more personal in the work."

Morton experimented with taxidermy forms before switching to actual carcasses to make his molds.

"Why use a taxidermy mold when you can use the real thing?" Morton said.

That's when Morton paid a visit to Al Barrette, a local trapper and owner of Fairbanks Fur Tannery, the only fur tannery in town.

For Morton, walking into Barrette's warehouse was like a kid walking into a candy store in a eerie sort of way.

"He had all these bear hides, trapped furs, horns and trophies being made," Morton said. "There was piles of wolf carcasses and lynx carcasses. I was fascinated."

When Morton explained he was looking skinned carcasses to make molds for sculptures, Barrette was more than happy to help out.

"If a guy is willing to cart a carcass out of my shop so I don't have to take it to the dump why not?" Barrette said.

Barrette had fooled around trying to make some molds and sculptures of animals himself and the idea intrigued him.

"I think it's pretty neat," said Barrette.

During the course of two years, Barrette provided Morton with skinned carcasses of wolves, lynx, fox, wolverine, otter, marten, Dall sheep heads, snowshoe hares and grouse.

Barrette has only seen a couple of finished pieces, a snowshoe hare and a Dall sheep head, but he plans to check out Morton's show, titled "Unbecoming," on display at the UAF Art Gallery through next week.

"I'm going to go check it out," Barrette said. "He turned out to be really neat guy."

Building one of Morton's sculptures is like putting a puzzle together.

Using plaster molds that he has cast from an animal, Morton presses them into clay forms, glazes them and then pieces them together. He has to fire the pieces multiple times to achieve the surface he is striving for.

Morton uses the same mold to make multiple forms. All the snowshoe hares he created come from the same molds, as do the grouse, lynx and arctic fox. Morton has two wolf molds, which are the hardest to make.

The first sculpture Morton tried using a carcass on was an arctic fox. He cut the legs off, cut the head off and then made separate two-part plaster molds of the different body parts.

"Right away I was really happy with the results," Morton said. "It was interesting."

After making a few pieces, Morton began thinking more conceptually. He wondered if he wasn't simply turning an organic object into a ceramic object. If that was the case, was it really art?

"I've sort of just scratched the surface," Morton said.

And if you ask Morton, it's a beautiful one.

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