POWELL — A grizzly bear, standing over a rib cage from a recent kill, looks out from his perch as students move in and out of Jim Gilman’s vocational art class at Powell High School. The students move fast, working with feathers and fur.
The class is only 50 minutes — right after lunch — and there’s lots to do. Megan Cotter was under pressure to finish her project. With her hair tied back, Cotter confidently worked a scalpel to deflesh a goat — a donation from a local rancher. Next to her, Jasmin Preator worked with a bison. Not able to stretch its hide over a foam form in the allotted class time, the junior spent nine hours on the class project on her own, over the weekend.
“People don’t realize how much time we put into our projects,” Preator said.
The students aren’t forced to be here; the class is an elective. And yet, despite dealing with blood and guts to get their grades, there’s always more students signed up to take Gilman’s class than desks available. It’s one of only a handful of courses in the country that tackle the subject.
Powell is the only school in the state that teaches taxidermy as art, according to the Wyoming Department of Education. Wind River High School students have a self-sustaining business of completing European mounts (sans skin and fur) for area clients; they cultivate skin beetles, which clean skulls of tissue. Croswell-Lexington High School, about 90 minutes north of Detroit, may be the only other school in the nation with a similar program. Croswell-Lexington students must bring in an animal that they hunted, trapped or found dead. Road kill counts, the Detroit News reported.
But Gilman thinks his class is unique.
“Students aren’t just creating dead heads on a wall,” he said. “It’s art.”
The mounts incorporate wild settings, including sculpture of the landscape and background murals. “We have a composition that creates a scene — a story for someone to see and interpret.”
Several of the animals in Gilman’s class have been harvested by students. But the most exciting projects are donations from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The class will soon be working on a mountain lion, killed by Game and Fish on an area farm for feeding on goats. The department has also recently donated a wolf and black bear cub.
“It feels like its a win-win. The animals don’t go to waste and the students gain appreciation for wildlife,” said Dusty Lasseter, Cody Region Bear Wise community coordinator. “For the rest of their lives they’ll know species — not a theoretical view but intimate knowledge of the species.”
The students do everything, from field dressing, defleshing, tanning and cleaning the animals prior to mounting. There are challenges to the process.
“The grizzly was the stinkiest animals we’ve ever had,” Gilman said. “It was bad enough that I went home and took a shower at lunch. It was bad enough that you could smell it in the office from here while we were skinning it. It was awful. It wasn’t a dead smell. It was just the grizzly.”
Student Matt Hobbs brought in a porcupine he harvested by bow. Gilman, Hobbs and everybody who helped with the mount ended up with minor injuries.
“There were quills everywhere,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs “did an amazing job” with the display, Gilman said, but the mount isn’t being featured at the school for safety reasons.
A walk through Powell High School reveals dozens of art installations in almost every available corner. The class does more than taxidermy. Students create large-scale projects incorporating sculpture, painting and presentation.
Some are patriotic in theme. Others illustrate the early years of settling the West. But many are mounts of Park County’s wildlife.
“There’s more to it than just taxidermy. It takes a lot of skill and patience to get this done,” Preator said. “There’s a lot more detail in it than people realize. It’s not just a buffalo hide. We’re turning it into a piece of abstract art.”
“Taxidermy is art,” she said.
The classroom is filled with projects in various stages of completion — including Preator’s bison. It’s one of the largest mounts the class has attempted. Preator’s family harvested the bison locally for the meat. They donated the feet and bones to the Crow tribe for ceremonies and the rest will be art. The bison will eventually be displayed coming out the side of a mountain, breaking through the rocks, she said.
Gilman and other students are all involved in finishing the project. They affectionately call the sculpture Van Gogh — after the famous, one-eared Dutch post-impressionist painter — as half the bison’s left ear was “accidentally cut off” during processing, Preator said.
Students reconstructed the ear before stretching the bull’s hide over the prefabricated form. The class starts with an introduction to vocational art, with an eight-week unit on taxidermy in the second semester. Students don’t have to participate in the taxidermy.
“I used to make everybody do it,” Gilman said. “But I think it’s better to give kids an option.”
All have an opportunity to mount game birds. Some will go further to do small game. Others continue by electing to do independent study. That’s where the work gets exciting.
A couple students have gone into taxidermy, or plan to. Others know it’s a good way to save money through a life of hunting Wyoming’s exciting wildlife. Gilman also proudly tells of a recent student who has just become an art teacher. But for the most part, the lessons learned in his vocational art class will be applied to other careers, he said. Teamwork and perseverance are important lessons, Gilman said, no matter what career they pursue.
“I think the most important lesson is, you know, not giving up. They learn many life lessons here that you need for any job: persistence, creativity, craftsmanship,” he said.
“I teach life. Art is just a vehicle to get there,” Gilman added. “They’re not all going to be taxidermists or artists, but ... they’re going to be using those same skills later in whatever profession they choose.”
Wyoming is fortunate in that “a lot of districts still consider art a priority,” said Michelle Aldrich, state career and technical education director. “Powell schools are innovative and have an entrepreneurial spirit.”
Aldrich said it’s hard to quantify the importance of art classes, but they teach “foundational skills” like time management, research, teamwork and self-confidence.
Art education was once a cornerstone of curriculum across the nation. In addition to reading, writing and math instruction, early educators understood the value of teaching the arts. But, as budget shortfalls began to hit public schools, art instruction has diminished.
Despite the popularity of vocational art at Powell High School, the budget for the program is thin. Gilman hasn’t seen an increase in his budget since 1996, he said.
There are costs involved in materials, money that the district doesn’t pay. Students pay a $10 art instruction fee, which helps, Gilman said. But where there have been shortfalls, community businesses have jumped in. About a dozen businesses donated cash and supplies to help with the expenses of the grizzly mount. When there’s a need, Gilman isn’t afraid to ask for help. “It’s absolutely amazing the support we get from the community.”
The class has been controversial, but not due to complaints from students at PHS. Two unicorns decorated in mirrors stand out as odd among the students’ work. They were created as a result to complaints about taxidermy being entered in a statewide art competition.
“We did them to prove a point to some people who were bad-mouthing our taxidermy as not being art,” Gilman said.
Two years ago students decided to do the unicorns for the State Art Symposium. Organizers didn’t appreciate the Powell students entering realistic taxidermy in previous contests.
“They thought that it didn’t belong there,” Gilman said.
The unicorns won the Student Choice Award that year. “We made the unicorns as a kind of a protest piece. And that was the last time we went,” he said.
Now, the biggest problem facing the class is running out of room at the school to display the students’ art; PHS principal Tim Wormald said they need to start getting “creative with space.”
A student project recreating a stage coach has been on display in the school’s library for several years.
“It’s currently sitting where we need to put some bookshelves because our collection is growing in a library and so we were talking about trying to find a place for it,” Wormald said.
Gilman has ideas on how to fix the problem, quipping, “I told the superintendent that we need to just add another wing so we have enough room to do more.”
Local businesses have told Gilman they’d love to have the students’ work at their establishments, and he says that’s always an option.
“But as much work as the kids put in, they want them here. They want them displayed where people can see them,” Gilman said. “I think it’s one of the neatest things about this school; when we have visitors here, they walk through and they see the amazing things that these kids have done. They’re shocked that they don’t get wrecked and that it’s all done by high school students.”