As a taxidermist, Vincent Kersey started learning his craft on gray squirrels. He mounted eight squirrels in his quest for realism, learning how to get the anatomy right and making eyes and ears look natural. Today, he has a reputation for accurate detail as proprietor of Three Arrow Taxidermy Studio in Ludlow. While taxidermy is often thought of as being about glassy-eyed deer heads hanging in a man cave, when done correctly, it’s actually a masterful accomplishment of technique and material. And while Kersey fits the traditionally white, male, and rural demographic of a taxidermist, taxidermy also has become part of the homesteading aesthetic of some millennial do-it-yourselfers.
Kersey’s fastidious work has won national and world championships and he proudly mounts – not stuffs – every animal as if it were his own. He has a library of photos that show painstaking details like hair patterns and pictorial studies of animals in their natural environment. He’s also been commissioned to mount safari and game animals, including deer, bear, moose, impalas, and more.
While anyone can hang up a shingle that says “taxidermist,” Kersey has his taxidermy and fur-buying license and is permitted in the town of Ludlow as an artist. His work materials include foam, polymers, clay, air brushes, tanning agents, pigments, and casting molds. But he refuses to do any more squirrels. “I want nothing to do with squirrels anymore — enough is enough.”
The Globe spoke with Kersey about making a living from an age-old art form.
“I was at a hunting camp in the Catskill Mountains when I met a taxidermist from New York. I went over to his house and saw his work and was fascinated by the beauty of it all. You name the animal, he had it. I ended up buying a book and video on how to do taxidermy, and made some more connections. I purchased some hides, ordered some forms, and practiced putting bigger animals together, like deers and badgers. One day, I was invited to a taxidermy competition and ended up placing third in the New England professional division. I was so surprised. One of the judges offered me a two-week course in Minnesota at his studio. He had two pet black bears, and I was able to observe them in their natural settings. I also studied white tail deer mounting with a national champion taxidermist.
“Everything the books taught me were thrown right out of the window. All of a sudden the light switch came on and I realized this was what I wanted to do. For the first time in my life, I enjoy every project that I do. Things started taking off for me in the shop.
“In the right market, I can make a very comfortable living. This past hunting season, 120 deer came in — 80 black bears; two muskrats and brown bears from Alaska, as well as mountain goats and elk.
“The hunter shoots the animal and takes it to the butcher who processes the meat for the customer. The skin gets salted, dried, and sent to a tannery, which turns it into leather. It gets shipped back to me and I prep it, sand it, and sew up any bullet, arrow holes or nicks. I’ll order glass eyes and ears and start putting it together. I use a styrofoam mannequin in the shape of the animal that has to be carved. The hide is glued and sewn onto the form. There’s a lot of air brushing and painting and some clay work to bring back the natural colors once an animal dies.
“Maybe the most unusual aspect of taxidermy is my colony of flesh-eating beetles, called dermestids. If someone wants just the deer or bear skull, I’ll put the head into the tank and the bugs will eat the meat right down to the bone. I started off with 65 bugs and now I have a million or so. But no worries, they can’t hurt humans. I just use them to get a deer skull with antlers.”