Katie Innamorato had no plans to become a professional taxidermist. As with many non-traditional careers, it just sort of happened, which surprised even the once-hopeful veterinarian. She talked to Pacific Standard about balancing teaching classes with creating her own work, being a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, and how taxidermy got trendy.
How did you find your way into this?
When I was younger I wanted to be a veterinarian. As I got older, I realized that it was really difficult to go to school for. It's mentally taxing because you have to deal with people mourning all the time and animals in pain. I didn't know if I could physically do that. Plus, it's expensive. I've always had an interest in natural history, and I started collecting roadkill off the side of the road to have skulls and bones. I wanted to use everything I could. I found a local taxidermist who has a few daughters, but they aren't interested in taking over the business. He was entertained by the fact that I wanted to learn. I went to his shop and hung out with him for a little while. I took a class with him and have continued to work on and off with him for the last five years.
Is there a formal process or a certification?
"It just so happened that things have been working out, which is bizarre because who would ever think that taxidermy and dead animals would be an up and coming hobby."
You could go to school for it, but they cost $40,000 a year, and I've heard mixed things about schools. I prefer to learn from one guy because it's more hands on. Each state is different in terms of licensing. In New York and New Jersey, you don't need anything. But licensing doesn't mean anything; it only means that your state requires you to do it.
Did you ever formally think about making this your career?
No. It's been this weird thing. When I first started five years ago, I didn't know any younger women in the field. I just did it because I was interested in it. In the last two years, it has definitely picked up and started getting more trendy. It just so happened that things have been working out, which is bizarre because who would ever think that taxidermy and dead animals would be an up and coming hobby. I'm really thankful that things have worked out, but I didn't plan it.
When you say it's an up and coming hobby, what are some examples?
One of the things is the number of teachers. When I first started, I had a really hard time finding someone to teach me. I called around a couple of people, and my mentor eventually got back to me and said it was no problem. But you can pretty much find classes in any big city now. I travel and teach classes. My friends Divya Anantharaman, Lauren Kane, and Allis Markham teach classes, too. It's not common but there are more people doing it than you would expect. When I first started, I knew no other girls in the field. It was all men and me. Now everyone and their mom do it. It's really weird.
Do people who take classes seem serious or is it just some weird, fun thing to do?
There's a good mix. I tend to get more people who have had a genuine interest in it for a really long time. More of them don't want to do it as a career choice. Most of them just want to learn for themselves. I have had a few people who want to get into it as a professional job, but I don't think they have gotten very far because the market is so flooded right now.
You were ahead of the curve. Has that helped in terms of establishing a career?
I like to think so. I have been a board member of the New Jersey Taxidermy Association for the last three years. I compete every year. When I first started, I did amateur and now I compete in the professional division. It doesn't mean that much, but at least I can fall back on that credential. A lot of other people don't compete. A lot of people don't use references either. It's weird seeing how the discipline has evolved. When I first started, it was really traditional stuff. Now, everyone is jumping into it, doing whatever, and people who are getting into it now don't have any interest in quality.
How does your income break down between classes, commissions, and other streams?
I make enough to get by. I don't want to complain about anything because I get to travel around, seeing friends and new places. I do what I enjoy doing. I make most of my money off the classes. Every so often I do a commission. I've been pretty picky with it lately because I spend a lot of time working on things, and I don't want to spend all my time working on something where I don't like the concept or idea. Also, the market is so flooded. I know what I need to charge and what my product is worth. A lot of people don't want to pay what I need to charge. They will go to someone else, learn their lesson, and come back to me.
How much does a piece cost?
I've been doing these Moss Fox pieces. People usually ask for them, and I say they start at $850. I can't do them with any fox skin. I only use really damaged ones to do pieces like that. I don't want to fuck up something that's in perfect shape to make something like that. If I have a skin that is messed up enough to do that, I'll use it but I don't have that many of them. I have to source the skin and space out the pieces. I sell them as art pieces, too, so they are more expensive. I sell them at galleries.
It's hard to justify your pricing when people don't know what goes behind it. A reporter was interviewing me in advance of a class to help promote it, and she asked why the class was $215. I told her it was pretty cheap compared to classes in New York and Los Angeles. I was dumbfounded for why she would even ask for a breakdown. The students are paying for my time, my experience, all my knowledge, and you're leaving with a skill and a piece. When you think of it that way, $200 isn't all that much but people don't know what goes behind it all. At the end of class, it's always nice when someone says that they have no problem paying a taxidermist because they realize you can't half-ass it. The rat classes are between four and six hours and my other classes are between five and eight hours. When you're in class for that long, you realize how long it takes to do the whole process.
What's the kind of place that wants you to teach a class?
Lately, it's been oddity-type stores. I've been trying to get into more academic places because I want to elevate myself above everyone else who is doing this. It sounds better than doing classes at shops. I have been trying to reach out to museums and galleries. My friend Alice in L.A. is the county taxidermist. She invited me to do a residency at the Natural History Museum. That'll be cool.
How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.