I had the pleasure of having a long conversation with Australian sculptor and jeweller Julia deVille while preparing her editorial for beautiful.bizarre Issue 009. The limitations of a single-page editorial did not allow the majority of this very interesting interview to appear in the publication and I am pleased to be able to offer this full transcript.
In a wide-ranging interview, Julia went into some detail on her background, inspirations, and the at-times challenging juxtaposition of being a taxidermy artist while also being a committed vegan and animal-rights activist. While looking for a suitable quote to accompany this piece I found I could do no better than the one I used in Issue 009, inspired as it was by Julia’s favourite musician and the common thread running through her works…
“I just found this world a hard place to be good in,’ says Bunny, then he closes his eyes and, with an expiration of breath, goes still.” ~ Nick Cave, The Death of Bunny Munro
Like many artists who we Australians like to claim as our own, you are originally from New Zealand. Could you tell me a bit about your background in New Zealand?
I was born in Wellington and grew up in the city. I had several relatives with farms where I spent time as a child, for me this was a big inspiration but possibly not in the way you would imagine. My uncle’s farm is actually what turned me vegetarian at about the age of 9 or 10. I went to stay there one weekend and when I turned up there was half a dead horse hanging from a tree. I asked my uncle why it was hanging there and he told me it was lame and it was of no use to them anymore so they shot it and they were feeding it to the dogs.
So that was a quite startling realisation at a young age! Later he took me to feed the piglets and I just fell in love with them, but then he told me he was fattening them up for his daughter’s wedding… and that’s when I realised that is what I had been eating up until that point. So when my parents came to pick me up I told them I wanted to be a vegetarian.
I was very lucky to have very open minded parents, my dad’s extremely eccentric and my mum has always been very supportive of me. She said “well that’s alright darling, but if you’re going to have to eat beans and tofu and vegetables”, which as a 9 year old I really didn’t enjoy that much! But I was pretty adamant that I didn’t want to eat animals anymore, so there were a lot of “not-dogs” and awful processed vegetarian food going on for quite a while, that was difficult when you’re a child of that age.
My friends were actually fine [with my being vegetarian] but it was always tricky when you were going to people’s houses and school camps as well. I actually had a pretty awful experience at one school camp, I brought all of my own vegetarian food and my Hindi friend also brought her own, but they confiscated our food and forced us to eat beef. They told us we would be sent home, and wouldn’t be able to participate in activities. For me, well it was bad because I was a vegetarian, but for my friend it was actually against her religious beliefs, and very distressing – you wouldn’t have that happening these days, that’s for sure!
I went from high school into fashion school, my only formal training in the arts was doings as many arts subjects as I could. I also did extra-curricular arts classes, some as early as I can remember. I started doing life drawing classes when I was about 8 or 9, and I remember they didn’t want to let me into the class because they thought it wasn’t appropriate for a child to be drawing naked people. My parents supported me, saying “she wants to draw, she likes drawing people” so they let me in and I loved it!
It was such good practice and I think I really developed a good skill-set.
Were your parents artistic?
My dad likes to think he is <laughs> he’s very creative, he’s a businessman but he has a creative mind. He could draw when he was younger and he could make jewellery, he learned in a few short courses and actually had a bit a jewellery setup, but he gave it up when his apartment burned down and he lost all of his equipment. He makes weird sculptures now, he gets rocks and he casts them in bronze – and they look exactly like a rock, you would never know they have been cast in bronze. And then he asks me if I want to put one in my next exhibition!
While the change from fashion to jewellery making can seem a fairly natural progression, taxidermy seems a bit more of a leap…
Well as soon as I figured out that taxidermy was something you could do, that it was a craft, I wanted to do it. I was 15 or 16 when the penny dropped and I became quite obsessed. I bought my first piece of taxidermy, an 8-pointer stag’s head, from an antique shop for $150. These days that would go for 6 or 7 hundred dollars, or more. I started trying to find someone in Wellington to teach me, but being a 16-year-old girl no one really took me seriously.
It wasn’t until I moved to Melbourne that I actually found a retired taxidermist who offered to show me the craft.
Was it difficult working with the animals given your vegetarian beliefs?
I’m actually not squeamish, it’s purely a moral decision. My dad’s a hobby scuba diver so he was always gutting fish around me, and I was always picking up dead things as a kid and that sort of thing. I’ve never had a problem with the actual physical side of it, when I first went to learn taxidermy I was unsure, I didn’t know if I would be okay with it or not. I thought I would, but you just don’t know how you’re going to deal with those things until you’re confronted with it, but it was actually really beautiful.
Skinning the bird – I’m interested in anatomy and the workings of the body so it was actually fascinating. It was also really clean, there’s no smell and there’s no blood. When you skin a small bird it just looks like a miniature chicken or a miniature quail or something, so it’s very familiar. It was actually a lot more pleasant than I imagined it would be.
Did you start to integrate your taxidermy with your jewellery from the beginning or was that something you started later?
Pretty much from day one, the first few pieces I worked on with Rudy, my teacher, were just pretty much straight up taxidermy as I was learning. The first thing I worked with was a starling, which one of my housemates had found dead on the side of the road and gave to me. That was just a very traditional piece of taxidermy but I ended up wedging a gemstone between its beak when I got it home. After doing a few pieces with Rudy I started doing my own stuff, mainly small mice and birds, because as a vegetarian I only work on things that have died of natural causes.
So the most readily available things were little mice and birds, and they lend themselves perfectly to the scale of jewellery. I had just started to do jewellery about the same time I met Rudy, so straight away I started sticking little diamonds in the mouse eyes and giving them silver tails then putting a brooch back on them and making them into wearable pieces.
Both of them are, taxidermy and the jewellery are obviously of that scale, so I live in that world, where millimetres are big. A few millimetres make a big difference, so you think in fractions of millimetres, 0.1 of a mm is a visible difference in a gemstone. There’s a thing they say that jewellers get that’s called “bench madness” which is where you’re sitting working in this world of tiny things all day and when you come out into the real world it can take you a while to adjust. I do end up being quite immersed in tiny things when I do extreme detail.
You also do some larger pieces such as horses.
It is different but at the same time the larger pieces also have a lot of minute details incorporated into them. Even though I’m working on a large scale there are a lot of the same techniques that are needed for those pieces.
Your taxidermy work often has a very emotional response from certain parts of the community. I’m sure you are more than familiar with the type of responses your work can elicit… yet even when you explain your beliefs in animal rights and that you are a vegan they continue, why do you think this happens?
With social media I’m starting to see a lot more of that now. Prior to having a social media presence I would occasionally, say once every few years, get a piece of hate mail via email from somebody. I could tell they were generally young as they would write their email like a text message, they would use a lot of profanity and verbally abuse me and say all sorts of things. I would just write back a very polite email explaining my background and my beliefs, and suggest a couple of organisations they should be approaching.
I understand that they’re coming from a good place, we probably have some shared ideas in terms of animal rights, but they are just young and they haven’t learned to voice those ideas in a proactive way. Generally I would never hear from them again and occasionally I would get an apology from someone, but never any follow-up on the original theme.
Since social media has become more widespread there’s been a bit more of that stuff, but not a huge amount, and again most people are happy with an explanation but there’s always a few that are not satisfied with that. The other thing that I see happening quite a lot is that others will respond on my behalf in social media, there are giant conversations happening below my images with all of these people going backwards and forwards around this issue.
Are your pieces with their “Memento Mori” background a commentary on death or merely an expression of beauty for you?
My philosophy, the reason I have taken inspiration from those periods, Memento Mori from the 15th to 18th centuries in particular, began when I first discovered that I was really taken with all the symbolism they used to depict death like the skull-and-crossbones and the hourglass, the skeleton and that sort of thing. Also the mottoes, “Memento Mori” meaning “remember you must die” and “Disce Mori” which is my jewellery label, which means “learn to die”. Those came about from a very god-fearing Calvinistic period, basically people would wear these symbols and these mottoes to remind them of their day of judgement before the lord, so it was a warning to be a good Christian so you would go to heaven.
The symbolism drew me in but the message wasn’t relevant to me, so I use the same symbolism and the same mottoes but my message is more like a modern “carpe diem” (seize the day). I believe that if you can accept your own mortality, be aware of your own mortality, it can help you appreciate life, your own and the lives of others. I like to see those things in a more positive light – death is just a part of life, it’s all part of the cycle, it is as important as birth.
The Victorians of course had a very interesting take on death; they were much more open with it, often in a very theatrical and visual way. They would do the mourning jewellery, and they would make the trinkets, make pieces with people’s hair, and the funeral photography often featuring the deceased and that sort of thing. I kind of like the way they were so open with it, I think it was a lot healthier than our society and the way we deal with death now.
In running away from death we are ultimately just taking ourselves closer. We have lost touch with our true nature, we are animals, we are creatures. I think humans used to have a lot more intuitive and there was a lot less fear around death. In modern materialistic life there is a lot less emphasis on spirituality and self-discovery and increasing fear about death, fear of the unknown, instead of acceptance.
The saddling or harnessing of the animals, is that a statement of animal rights or the transformation of an empty shell into a child’s plaything – hobby horse..?
I first started making pieces of this type when I had a show called “Night’s Plutonian Shore” (a line from Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven), the show’s title references Hades or the underworld. I was looking a lot into Greek and Roman mythology, a lot of different cultures have animals or people that guide the soul of the departed to the underworld. For example Charon, the Greek ferryman who takes the souls across the river Styx to Hades. There are psychopomps from other cultures which can be ravens or other animals, it’s not their job to judge or anything else, just to get the soul to the afterlife safely.
That’s why I often use deer or kittens or that kind of creature, because you definitely don’t associate judgement with those animals, they are very innocent and naïve. The saddles, carriages and hearses are literal representations of carrying.
Of course there is definitely also an expression of animal rights ideas, that we see all animals as transport or food, whereas in actual fact they are their own beings that have their own rights and should have the choice to do these things. The other aspect is also the childlike – the drawing on the imagination of our inner child, to play with toys and referencing my own childhood and my own imagination of these things.
Danijela (beautiful.bizarre editor-in-chief) and I particularly love your work with crows and fawns. Is there a particular species you would like to create a work with but haven’t had the opportunity?
Actually I am having that experience at the moment, as I am working on a stillborn giraffe. I am holding an exhibition at Linden New Art (St Kilda, Victoria) in July 2017 which is what the giraffe will be for. Originally from the Adelaide Zoo, he was in a freezer at Queen Victoria Museum (Launceston, Tasmania) for 30 years. I found out about that and asked if I could buy him. Initially they were adamant that they wanted to use him, but eventually they got to the point that they realised that after being there for 30 years they actually wouldn’t anytime soon so they sold him to me.
I have started working on the piece, he’s about 2 metres tall standing but unfortunately I can’t do him that way. He’s not in the best condition after being in the freezer so long, so we had to freeze-dry him instead of taxiderming, which is a different process. Unlike taxidermy all the muscle and bone remain inside, but most of the other steps such as wiring up and positioning are similar. The freeze dryer that I use, even though it is the biggest in Australia, is not big enough to do him standing up so we had to do him lying down, which still looks beautiful. It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.
I have quite a few contacts in museums, people often donate the animals to museums and I get quite a few things that way as they cannot use them all. I have so many fans these days who also offer animals for me to work with, people occasionally give me their pets but more often give me birds that they have found and that sort of thing.
I have three full-size freezers at home which are full of these donated animals. One, a chest freezer, has a foal which I have no idea how I am going to get out – it weighs more than me.
The jewellery design influences are very clear in your taxidermy work, are there any other fields of art or artists who influence or inspire you?
Definitely! Not a lot in the visual arts, but I get a lot of inspiration from Nick Cave, I often just play his music on loop while I am creating works. I met him on his recent Australian tour and made him some jewellery, some cuff-links and a raven necklace which he loved – a pretty massive highlight for me! There are others as well, often more general than specific people – nature, history, the Victorian era, jewellers such as René Lalique from the Art Nouveau.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am doing as small show with Leslie Rice who I always work with now as our work complements so well. I had a joint exhibition booked with him in July 2015 in Jan Murphy Gallery in Brisbane, but I got quite severe adrenal fatigue at the end of last year as I did about 18 months without a day off. I had 10 exhibitions in a 12 month period – a pretty insane volume of work. I was going to cancel the Brisbane show but instead I scaled back to 2 or 3 pieces, it’s nice to be able to do one without pressure.
A lot of your works, your exhibitions, are themed. Is this a conscious choice you make when you are preparing for a show or do you take each piece on its own, decide as you see the animal you will be working with?
It’s kind of funny, the themes just seem to happen. I don’t sit down and think – well, this one is going to be based on a child’s bedroom, or this one is going to be about food – all of a sudden there is just a whole lot of work that seems to tie in together. I generally do just make each piece as it comes, for example I will have a lamb, and I will position it in a way that I feel it needs to be positioned, and then the decoration generally comes after that. Then all of a sudden there are 3 or 4 pieces that seem to fit a theme and I might start working further on that theme once I can see where it’s going.
There’s definitely not a lot of conscious thought that goes into it, even Phantasmagoria, I was just in the shower one day and all of a sudden the word Phantasmagoria popped into my head. I didn’t know what it meant so I went online and looked it up, it seemed to be a perfect description of the theme of the show I was doing. There seems to be a lot of intuitive stuff that happens with it.