Natural Causes

Jeremy Johnson turned his self-taught taxidermy hobby into Meddling with Nature, a full-service anatomical and educational enterprise that embraces the world around us. And within us.

Something massive lies hidden beneath a sheet on a table in an Over-the-Rhine storefront. The room is dim, save for the cloaked object, which is showered in light. It’s Valentine’s Day. A dozen or so people nibble on bacon-wrapped dates and drink red wine, perhaps a tad nervously, as they carefully watch the evening’s host, Jeremy Johnson, grinning and chatting as he sips his gin. “It’s very important,” Johnson says later. “While everyone else is drinking wine, it’s just a full glass of gin.”

Jeremy Johnson, photographed in the Meddling with Nature workshop, in front of a Marvin Player Piano from the early 1900s.
Jeremy Johnson, photographed in the Meddling with Nature workshop, in front of a Marvin Player Piano from the early 1900s.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Johnson is here at GOODS retail shop on Main Street for an educational demonstration—a signature element of his Covington-based enterprise Meddling with Nature, which approaches taxidermy from a naturalist’s point of view. The attendees, some of whom are fans of Meddling with Nature, others of whom saw the event previewed in the news or on social media, share one attribute: curiosity. And maybe fear.

As usual, Johnson is crowned by his signature porkpie hat—a Selentino—complete with a squirrel tail and tragopan feather. “Everything has a backstory,” he says about the hat. A few years back, he was working as a full-time taxidermist and living paycheck to paycheck when, out of the blue, representatives from Ralph Lauren contacted him. They had seen some of his work and wanted to know if he had any white swans. Johnson had some in his freezer, and the swans wound up in a winter clothing display on Madison Avenue in New York City. He wound up with a rather large check, and went to Batsakes to celebrate.

“This is a dissector hat,” he says, studying it. “The one in the room who’s got the hat—that’s the one doing the dissection, that’s the one who’s got the professorship.”

The time has come to indulge. Johnson removes the sheet, revealing a massive bovine heart and lung system, glistening under the floodlights. Some in the audience gasp. Johnson takes out his scalpel and instructs everyone to put on gloves as he digs in, barehanded. He slices and prods, explaining the workings of the cow’s anatomy as he goes along, and invites everyone to explore with him. The room smells heavily of flesh. The next few minutes involve poking, inspecting, dissecting, and hooking an air hose up to the mass to show how the colossal lungs inflate. “If I did the whole lung it would cover up this table, which is really cool,” he tells the crowd.

Johnson performed a similar public heart dissection at Meddling with Nature’s studio a couple years earlier, where his team really got into the spirit of things and made heart-shaped cakes and cookies for visitors to snack on. But the attendees were weirded out by the presence of food at an event where a heart was being sliced open. So tonight, Johnson has decided to double down. Everyone takes a seat as dinner trays arrive. The first course is beef heart, garnished with peppers, asparagus, and other vegetables. It tastes earthen, a tad like liver. Bold. Hearty. Perhaps seasoned with allspice. Next: chicken hearts Peruvian-style on skewers. Later: a pork heart.

This anomalous blend of education, entertainment, comestibles, and abnormality is right in Johnson’s naturalist wheelhouse. He feels most people understand food processing and where their meals come from as much as they understand plumbing—which is to say, very little—and he’s working to help Cincinnati understand the hidden layers of life around them. “There are so many cooking shows, but there are not a lot of slaughter shows,” he deadpans.

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Photograph by Jeremy Kramer


Meddling with Nature is, somewhat surprisingly, a “no-kill” operation. “Taxidermy” might call to mind big-game trophy hunters or shades of Norman Bates, but Johnson, who is 36, is neither of these. He doesn’t do hunting trophies (“That’s about the domination of one species over another,” he says) and primarily uses road kill in his taxidermy—or as he calls it, zoaslaughter.

“It’s kind of like manslaughter,” he says. “Tons of machinery rolling over you is not a natural cause of death. And I really want people to start understanding the impact of our civilization on the natural world that’s around us.”

He’s certainly had an impact on those around him. His penchant for zoaslaughter acquisitions means he is perpetually on call, plans and schedules be damned. “I think everyone that I’ve come to know at some point says, ‘Whenever I see something dead on the road, I think of you.’ ”


Sometimes you need to get kicked out of the nest

Johnson’s subtle charm and straight-faced humor comes across the moment his mouth opens—he recognizes the macabre in what he does, and embraces it.

Growing up in the middle of Kansas in a conservative Mennonite/Lutheran community, he loved butterflies, snakes, and creatures he discovered lurking beneath the cinder blocks in his family’s garden. He was an inquisitive kid, and there weren’t a lot of people in town to make friends with, so he fell in love with nature instead. While his dad managed a trucking company and a reclaimed pipe business, Johnson would explore the terrain nearby and keep a tackle box filled with butterfly wings and dead birds. “Just like every proper creep does,” he says.

Back then, he kept his hobby a secret from his parents. He once found a dead pheasant that had been hit by a grain truck and ran it to his backyard. He had a hatchet, and was expected inside soon.

“So I took the hatchet and just kind of ripped this thing down the center to see what was on the inside, and I was just amazed to find out it was basically chicken,” he says in the faux-hillbilly accent he sometimes deploys.

Johnson’s passion seems to stem from a deep place of curiosity, a need to bear witness to how things function, to understand their inner-workings. Growing up, he was interested in medical illustration and art, but the only taxidermy he was familiar with was the standard ornamentation of the Midwest—deer mounts and similar hunting conquests. Yearning to escape his conservative community, he accepted a scholarship from the Art Academy of Cincinnati in 1998.

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Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

Before he officially moved east, he used the money he had saved from two years of working at Subway to go on a two-month-long European grand tour. It changed his life. He learned independence. He had all of his belongings stolen in a park. He got lost in the art of Europe, notably that of La Specola in Florence, famous for its taxidermy and wax anatomical models. He learned what could be done, and what he might do. Still, when he first settled in Cincinnati, he had to readjust. He was so used to driving 20 miles to go to a coffee shop that he would find one 20 miles away and drive to it rather than walk to a place nearby. Craving nature, he spent time in Eden Park and Spring Grove and took on personal challenges, such as trying to survive off of nothing but what he could find in neighboring yards. He figured out how to cook different roots and plants, and lived like this for six months.

“I think it was a pushback to having everything in the environment that you could possibly want,” says Johnson. “You just go to a grocery store. I wanted to kind of fight against that. I was also a poor art student.”

He had hoped to enroll in the Art Academy’s conservation program, but it was discontinued before he started, so he left to work at the Cincinnati Art Museum, doing odd jobs for a couple years. It didn’t stunt his curiosity. Perhaps the most fascinating of the many fascinating things about Johnson is that he is completely self-taught: His introduction to taxidermy and anatomy, his passions, came by way of a Victorian tome on preserving specimens for museums he stole from a library as a teenager. He didn’t buy his first modern taxidermy manual until he had been doing it for five or six years, at which point he discovered that, having put himself through a lot of trial and error, he was already utilizing the correct methods.

His first taxidermy pieces in Cincinnati were marionettes, like the ringneck pheasant puppet he created. He was a huge fan of Jim Henson’s artform, and Johnson’s brother was a puppeteer during his teenage years. Stop-motion animation, such as Jan Švankmajer’s 1988 film Alice, a dark retelling of Lewis Carroll’s original, was another major influence on his thinking and aesthetic. Taxidermy tends to be thought of as rigid and stationary, Johnson notes, but he wanted to bring life to still-life. His pieces have always been far from ordinary. “I like to put arms on them, and give them little smoking pipes, and things like that,” he says.

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Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

A few of Johnson’s creations, including a rather studious porcupine.

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

At the time, it was still just a hobby. Jaded from his experiences at the Art Academy—and his lack of a college degree—in 2001 Johnson took a job at the St. Joseph Orphanage Altercrest Campus in Anderson Township for kids in grades 6–12, and quickly rose through the ranks. He hired, he fired. He became a certified trainer in therapeutic crisis intervention. He taught drawing classes. Many of the residents had behavioral issues and were unable to earn particular school credits because they weren’t allowed to handle objects like knives; instead, Johnson brought in items such as a tiger paw and conducted various demonstrations with them.

“It was the sort of thing that not even the best of private schools in this city could ever offer,” he says. “And these are the kids who have been thrown away by society.” In normal classes, it was difficult to control six students, but Johnson was able to control 30 by exposing them to the things he was passionate about.

The seeds of Meddling with Nature began to germinate. Working third shift at Altercrest, immersed in paperwork, Johnson would go outside and collect large moths, which he subsequently turned into a breeding program. His Rory the Raccoon creation—a series of ecstatic-looking raccoons that have proven to be ceaselessly popular over the years—was born in his workspace. Johnson also assembled an entire nine-and-a-half-foot lion skeleton at Altercrest. (He was looking for a human skeleton on eBay and found the lion for the same price. “You can get humans all day long; it’s hard to find a lion,” he says.)

Ultimately, everything was good until it wasn’t. After working at the orphanage for nearly 15 years, he found himself in charge of the residential and day treatment programs, managing 55 direct reports. But he says funding was cut and his programs were shuttered and the facility began taking on conduct-disorder children. One night in early 2015, Johnson says that some residents broke through the doors and took over the facility while he was working. He had to shelter employees in an empty office until the situation was stabilized. After that, he called it quits, and decided to throw himself into Meddling with Nature full time.

“Sometimes you need to get kicked out of the nest, I suppose,” he says. “That was it.”


The Crumpled Peacock

Johnson’s crowded workshop on Greenup Street in Covington is filled with biological ephemera galore—a surprised-looking groundhog reclining atop a cigar box, plastic containers loaded with bones, an entire organ system of some unidentified genus floating in a colossal jar, a preserved black widow. “Sweet Lucinda,” says Johnson, lifting up the spider. “Raised her for two years.”

Meddling with Nature officially turned 10 years old in August. In that time, the multi-hyphenate company has evolved from Johnson’s side project to a team of one employee and two volunteers, plus interns. They put on educational workshops and anatomy demonstrations. They do prop work for films. They host podcasts. They take taxidermy commissions such as the Ralph Lauren display, or the pair of sheep testicles Johnson is turning into a doorknocker for a farmer.

“My original mission statement was Learning about nature by fucking with it,” says Johnson. “I realized I probably needed to be more professional about that later on. But it was really about that.”

One of Johnson’s creations
One of Johnson’s creations

Photograph by Jeremy Kramer

His first major show was at the Prairie Gallery in Northside circa 2010. Prairie founder David Rosenthal became interested in Johnson’s taxidermy work, and was looking for shows with hands-on components. Johnson dissected an entire coyote in front of a live audience.

“We had some criers, maybe one barfer on the first night,” he says. “At least now we’re getting to the point where people who throw up come back later.”

Taxidermy work remains the company’s principal modus operandi. In his workshop, a peacock sits crumpled, seemingly disregarded. Johnson will eventually transform it into a wall-hanging specimen akin to a relief sculpture, framed in mitered walnut and resembling an Art Nouveau stained-glass piece. It will likely fetch somewhere in the neighborhood of $8,000 to $9,000. The team has also produced numerous versions of Rory the Raccoon, one of which landed on the cover of Jenny Lawson’s bestselling memoir, Furiously Happy. They’ve created pieces for film and TV, including a dog for Robert Rodriguez’s From Dusk Till Dawn: The Series, and crafted a Segway-powered chariot led by a team of “flying” pigs for Johnson’s assistant Corinna Young, when she ran for the Bockfest Sausage Queen of The Crazy Fox Saloon in Newport. Johnson also made a full-size Bengal tiger for the now defunct Obscura nightclub—which he delivered downtown in the back of a Ford Ranger.

As he’s describing the tiger, he again drops into his hillbilly accent when pronouncing “Ford Ranger”—perhaps acknowledging the Deliverance-like stereotypes often associated with his work, perhaps apologizing for them. When asked about it, Johnson says he lapses into numerous accents when discussing his work, but he uses the hillbilly one the most because it strategically disarms people. It can make light of the darker things he is showing them, or directly state what might be on their minds, allowing them to move past the bizarro aspects along with him.

Major sales, such as the peacock, account for a hearty portion of Meddling with Nature’s income, but the team also swaps out offerings from its online shop according to the season. Hearts are popular around Valentine’s Day. For Halloween, bones. Insect pendants and other gift-y items for Christmas. And the workshops have picked up over the years—in 2016 alone he has hosted an entomology workshop at the Lloyd Library and Museum, two Valentine’s Day heart dissection dinners, and took part in the annual BugFest at the Cincinnati Museum Center. Johnson sells tickets to some, like the Valentine’s Day dinners and bug workshops, but does as many as possible for free, including open studio dates or his recent CreativeMornings talk for CET. (It pays off: As soon as his CreativeMornings talk was announced in August, Johnson got a fresh taxidermy commission from someone who took notice.)

The Meddling with Nature team is currently prepping a major 2017 show at the Lloyd Library called Off the Page, in which they are bringing to life Maria Sibylla Merian’s 1705 classic Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium by recreating the illustrated scenes from the book with real plants and bugs. Off the Page generated some grant money, and in the long run there’s a possibility of sending it on tour and eventually selling it to a museum. Johnson also has workshops planned in Toronto and Chicago, but is invested in the Cincinnati area as his company’s home base. He’s even back at the Art Academy, teaching a class on naturalist arts this fall, training the next generation to do what he does.

“I think this city is just the right size to have something like this take hold. And it already has,” says Johnson. “It’s a lot easier to do that here because you don’t have to scream as loud as you do in Brooklyn.”

All told, the sum of Meddling with Nature’s output is Johnson’s life.

“There is no time off for good behavior. And I think that’s really good. I’m not exhausted. This is why I wake up,” he says. “I’ve had a lot of brain space opened up by not having to work with social service. I don’t cry myself to sleep at night anymore, so that’s nice—the stress of having so many people’s lives dependent on you, rather than just having so many deaths dependent on you.”


90-POUND RODEO GIRLS RIDING A TIGER

Johnson takes out a human skull and sets it on the table. “eBay!” he exclaims, answering the obvious question.

He has done a fair amount of research into the forensic anthropology of the skull, and estimates it belonged to an Indo-European, probably in his late 20s or early 30s. “I do see this as a person,” he says. “It is a face, it is a real thing.”

During presentations, he often begins by showing different animal skulls, such as his lion. He then brings out the human skull—a representation of someone who had a brain, thoughts, feelings, relationships, love—and immediately takes the lion skull back out for his audience: “The same thing happened in this head, too.”

People can get uncomfortable or turned off by Johnson’s works and he believes it goes back to a question of one’s mortality. He recalls visiting Our Lady of the Conception of the Capuchins crypt in Rome, loaded with bones and skulls, featuring an inscribed plaque: What you are now, we once were; what we are now, you shall be. Johnson has struggled to define Meddling with Nature over the years, but has lately arrived at an apt précis. “It is using the natural world and cooperating with the natural world to tear down a lot of the boundaries that people put up between themselves and animals, because people are animals,” he says. “The respect of life is a very difficult thing. You have to have humor in it, but also be able to back it up.”

“Respect of life” may be a seemingly ironic statement for a man so enamored with the dead, though it’s anything but. As much as Meddling with Nature is about death, life is, after all, the backstory. A true respect for one can’t happen without a deep understanding of the other. “That which makes you recognize death makes you appreciate life even further,” says Johnson. “I think that’s a lot of what we do.”

The unsung heroes of the Meddling with Nature enterprise are undoubtedly the freezers. There are four. They’re big. And they’re loaded with everything from a beagle Johnson found on a bridge to a Polish chicken, cats, raccoons, a trio of black swans, and Tupperware containers full of iguanas, geckoes, and snakes. “I’m not going to open this one,” he says, pointing to one of the freezers, “because it’s full of skunks.” An intern accidentally opened it the other day, and the workshop is still paying the price.

The fact that Johnson obtains the majority of his specimens via road kill and other forms of zoaslaughter is one of the most significant differences between him and many other taxidermists, who he claims will often buy skins online, or purchase forms onto which they’ll apply skins after they’ve sent them out to a tannery. The less experienced among them more or less tack the skins onto a badly made form. “They’re making stuffed animals, really,” he says.

Johnson does his own skinning and tanning, and creates his own forms using a Dremel and hand sanding—the forms being where he believes the most artistry is involved. Despite his criticism of contemporary taxidermy, he’s also fully aware that he leaves himself open to calls of hypocrisy for, say, his smiling Rory Raccoons, or the tiger he made for the nightclub.

“This is where it gets into that, Did I do a good thing or did I just really destroy this tiger’s afterlife?” he says with a laugh. “If there are a bunch of 90-pound rodeo girls riding this tiger, then maybe I did a bad thing.”

So this is how Johnson attempts to bring balance to those naturalist philosophies of his and the comically grisly items he sometimes creates: He eats the meat of the road kill he collects. “In the same way that hunters do,” he says, again dropping into that drawl. “Ah use everythin’.”

Johnson has eaten opossum, raccoon, even coyote. He doesn’t try to put on airs and pretend it’s “normal,” it’s just part of how he stays true to his convictions. “I think growing up in Kansas, where you see exactly where your food comes from—because you slap it on the ass before you send it to the slaughterhouse—it’s something that people in Ohio almost get, but not quite, not when they’re living in the city.”

His husband, Nate Wessel, currently a Ph.D. student in planning at the University of Toronto, has joined Johnson on his culinary explorations over the years. The two met on OkCupid and had their first date over coffee. “I don’t think he mentioned the taxidermy very prominently in the profile, or maybe I would have thought twice,” says Wessel with a laugh. For their one-year anniversary, Johnson served a multi-course candlelit meal featuring an entire swan breast, elaborate desserts, a hand-bound menu, and a full swan mount adorning the head of the table.

When asked what he likes most about his husband, Wessel pauses for a moment. “I would say that he’s ultimately introspective in a fairly intense way,” he says. “I really think that he’s constantly aware that part of him is a skeleton. And that part of him is kidneys. And that he has a really visceral feeling for what those things are, and how they work together. I think that would be an incredibly interesting perspective to just try on for a moment, to be a mechanic in a world of machines.”

The hat, the dissections, the skulls, the freezers, the road kill dinners, the Rory Raccoons that snicker away from the corner of your peripheral vision—at the end of the day, they’re all a brilliantly and delicately crafted model to get at what really drives Johnson. “To appreciate how ridiculous it is that we’re these walking, thinking pieces of meat with all these complex ideas,” says Wessel. To Johnson, everything is relatable; seeing how an animal’s heart works helps him see how his own heart works, how everyone’s heart works. And once he lures you in with the massive thing hiding under the sheet, you listen, and hear what he has to say. You think about the road kill. You ponder what you’re eating. Through death, you see the inner workings of your own body, and grasp its miraculous existence.


THE ORGAN GRINDER

In his workshop, Johnson has an old Marvin Player Piano from the early 1900s. It’s covered in massive feathers, a jar of cicadas from 1987, and a series of preserved kitten fetuses.

“You wanna hear it?” he asks. “This is actually our theme song—the ‘Viennese Waltz.’ It’s my favorite.”

He tinkers with the perforated song scroll that’s already loaded. “No, that’s ‘Danny Boy.’ What the hell’s ‘Danny Boy’ doing in there?” He rummages through a box loaded with more vintage scrolls, looks beneath books, preserved bugs, around a rabbit prop he created for a film. Finally he finds it and works it into the piano, another relic from another time, its inner workings meticulously studied in an effort to resurrect it with stunning clarity.

“There’s been some issues with this rocker, but we’ll see how this goes,” he says, working it with his foot. “It’s a really remarkable invention, often said to be the first computer.”

The piano whirs to life with the ambient whoosh of a vacuum while Johnson tweaks a few switches and makes adjustments, the gears churning. He studies it closely, taps some keys—and suddenly it springs into action. Slowly at first and then consistently, the music comes pounding out.

And it’s lovely. A bit out of tune, a bit scuffed and worn around the edges, but operating on a strange beauty all its own. He works the motor, speeding the music up and slowing it down. Some believe that the Viennese Waltz is such a beloved dance because it mimics the beat of the human heart with its three-quarter time.

Around the room, woodchucks, squirrels, and raccoons look on. The lion skeleton seems on the verge of a grin. An army of bugs stands at attention, frozen in time. It’s all perfectly macabre.

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