Catherine Coan is the creative mind behind the website CanarySuicides.com, a site devoted to the taxidermy art of small canaries in imagined tragic demises. All the birds are from reputable breeders, the birds having passed away naturally. Coan took time out of her creative schedule to speak with the Mistress of Death and FangirlNation.com to give insight into her process and what got her started in the art of canary taxidermy.
MOD: How would you explain your work to say, someone’s grandmother? How does it differ from standard taxidermy?
Catherine Coan: My work is what is called “rogue taxidermy.” To people unfamiliar with rogue taxidermy, I usually explain that it is like trophy taxidermy (for hunters and fishermen) in process but not in result. In rogue taxidermy, taxidermy becomes a sculptural medium for artistic expression beyond the attempt to mimic nature (which is the older art form, and which takes years of experience to perfect).
MOD: What was it about canaries that caught your eye for your dioramas?
Catherine Coan: I have always been drawn to small spaces which frame or protect something precious — medieval reliquaries, fish bowls, gem cases, specimen jars. I’m also interested in the relationship between person and pet — so many things to unpack, there, especially the line between love and captivity. My mother and grandmother bred and raised canaries, so that iconic yellow form has long been in my mind as representative of “pet” — probably the same for many, if Tweety Bird is evidence. And of course there is the notion of the canary in the coal mine — that creature (like bees and frogs) who dies first, alerting us to what’s coming for us.
MOD: Why did you choose to portray these canaries committing suicide?
Catherine Coan: Like us, they live in cages. Like us, they are hypocrites (you may have noticed that each canary has its own pet, often in its own cage-within-cage).
MOD: What started you in Taxidermy?
Catherine Coan: I have backgrounds in literature, writing, and fine art. I was running an art gallery in L.A. and had the idea for the Canary Suicides. At first, I purchased the mounted canaries from a woman who did lovely work with them, and I integrated them into the pieces. Then I decided that I wanted to do the taxidermic work myself, so I went to taxidermy school in Montana and learned how to do not just birds, but all animals. There, I became interested in doing larger installations with larger creatures as well.
MOD: You were a judge on AMC’s Immortalized, a taxidermy competition show. What was the experience like? Was it difficult to review the work of another taxidermist?
Catherine Coan: It was totally unexpected (I got a call out of the blue asking me to do a camera test through a friend of a friend of a friend); scary as it was something I’d never done before and thought I’d probably be horrible at (I hate being in front of a camera, generally); and so much fun with so many creative, positive, curious and talented people. It was difficult to review other taxidermists’ work, both because I am newer to the medium so know whose shoulders I’m standing on and because we were not doing straight critiques of classic taxidermy — We were also looking for things like stretching imagination and attention to some pretty edgy themes.
MOD: Your website lists you as a Professor. Have you ever brought your art to your students? What do they say about it?
Catherine Coan: I teach mostly English courses and Humanities surveys, so we are not heavy on contemporary art. And the professor’s podium is already a bit of a pulpit, so I try not to force what I do down anyone’s throat. Some students do find my work in a gallery or online, and I’m always open to discussing it. They tend to react the same as most other people — They either find the pieces interesting and funny or grimace and back away slowly.
MOD: Your work is all done with humanely acquired animals from a reputable breeder. How did you approach the breeder for this partnership?
Catherine Coan: Um, carefully. You can imagine how many breeders I had to call and email to get a few positive responses (or any response at all). “Someone who wants me to freeze birds who die and send them to her?” Delete. The breeders I work with see what we do as a second life in art for the canaries.
MOD: Other than the many dioramas available on your website, you also offer commissions. What was the strangest commission that has ever been requested?
Catherine Coan: I’m working on one right now that is a “Goth Kabuki Ophelia” per discussions with my client. No title yet. I’m shopping for cages and making tiny flowers. It’s a lot of fun.
MOD:Will your work be on display any time soon for curious folks? Are you working on anything special right now that you can tell us about?
Catherine Coan: My work can be seen right now at the Gallery Store at Lois Lambert Gallery/Gallery of Functional Art in Santa Monica and at La Luz de Jesus gallery in Silverlake. The pieces in Santa Monica are Canary Suicides. The ones in Silverlake are larger mammal pieces. I’m working on several other larger mammal installations right now, including a unicorn with some interesting friends hanging from his mane and tail. Very excited about showing the larger pieces together, maybe late this year or early next.
MOD: What is the best way to contact you for a commission?
Catherine Coan: Email: [email protected].
Catherine Coan’s work can be found on http://canarysuicides.com/