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Petah Coyne: taxidermy and ecofeminism.

Known for her elegantly composed, physically substantial, and metaphorically elusive installations, Petah Coyne creates sculptures that are tenuous despite their stability. They are at once vulnerable and forceful, beautiful and bizarre, life-affirming and morbid. By inviting dichotomies into her work, Coyne not only acknowledges but embraces the fact that contradictions permeate all aspects of modern existence. Furthermore, due to her attraction to the decadent and morose, Coyne allows Romantic and Victorian undercurrents to infiltrate her art and influence her material choices. Particularly, Coyne features taxidermy, a product associated with antiquated mentalities of the nineteenth-century, in many of her sculptures. In Untitled # 1336 (Scalapino Nu Shu) (2009-10; Pl. 3), for example, twenty-seven stuffed birds--ten roosting peacocks and seventeen hanging pheasants--fill the blackened branches of a Japanese apple tree, while Untitled #1242 (Black Snowflake) (2007-12; Fig. 1) features a single peacock.


Petah Coyne was born in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, in 1953. Her mother had a Master's Degree in Ikebana (the art of Japanese flower arranging) and her father was in the military, which led the family to move approximately fifteen times over the course of twelve years before settling in Dayton, Ohio. This itinerant lifestyle exposed Coyne to a variety of cultures, landscapes, and attitudes toward nature. (1) While living in tropical environments (the family spent several years in Hawaii), Coyne engaged with nature on a very personal level. Her family tended to a Japanese garden that was always filled with exotic birdlife, and she once helped save a beached whale. (2) Coupled with fond memories of visits to natural history museums, these formative experiences inspired Coyne's lifelong interest in nature, fostered a deep regard for all of its inhabitants, and were foundational for her artistic endeavors.

Coyne enrolled at Kent State University in 1972, later transferring to the Art Academy of Cincinnati, where she earned her degree in 1977. After graduation, she moved to New York City. Being sensitive to her environment, Coyne sought inspiration in her immediate surroundings. No longer surrounded by crystal-clear oceans, uninterrupted blue skies, and exotic wildlife, she trolled the streets around her Soho neighborhood and elsewhere in the city. Most interesting to her were Chinatown, where she was taken by the many vendors selling produce and seafood, and Brooklyn, where she found in trash bins discarded taxidermied specimens (presumably discarded by museums and private collectors). Appalled that beautiful animal bodies were either being sold to passersby or buried in the trash, Coyne sought to remedy the situation. She purchased the dead fish and exhumed the stuffed animals from their dumpster graves and placed them in her artwork, giving them a proper burial and a new life. Coyne had found the material--both intellectual and physical--from which to create.

During an interview with the author, Coyne reminisced about how she was always taught that "you're supposed to take what is thrown away and make something good from it, to make something beautiful." (3) Encountering rejected animal bodies deeply upset her. Not only did she feel as though these creatures had received "a terrible send-off," she "felt so bad that [their previous owners] thought they were of no value." Coyne decided that she "was going to make them valuable." The inclination to bestow worth on pounds of dead fish and numerous pieces of unwanted taxidermy was fed not only by environmentalist inclinations but feminist ideologies. According to Coyne, the disregard she saw for these animals mirrored her generation's sentiments toward women.

While attending the Art Academy of Cincinnati in the late 1970s, Coyne experienced this prejudice firsthand. She felt her male colleagues did not respect her as an artist or believe she could succeed in the profession because of her gender. She was determined to prove them wrong. Now, as then, as a female artist, Coyne strives to give value to that which has been deemed valueless, specifically women and animals. She accomplishes her goal by "tying things together and making strong bonds between all of us," emphasizing the intrinsic worth of all living things.

For some feminist artists, a woman's body is a battlefield on which political and religious wars about contraception, abortion, and power are waged. (4) For others, the female figure is a place where Cartesian dualism can be challenged: where the spiritual and corporeal, the emotional and rational, or the natural and cultural meet, mingle, and merge. Taxidermy, comprising both animal and artificial materials, symbolically functions like the female body because it is also a site of such collision.

Deriving from the Greek words taxis (to arrange) and derma (skin), the term taxidermy refers to the act of re-arranging the skin of a deceased animal over a premade form in an attempt to make it look alive once again. Extensive knowledge of animal physiology and expert sculpting skills are needed to fashion a successful piece of taxidermy. First, the dead body of an animal must be broken down, skinned, cleaned, and chemically preserved. Next, its internal structure must be replicated. Metal armatures, wire, and steel rods replace the skeleton; clay, plaster, fiberglass, and plastic become muscle; glass beads serve as eyes, and varnish mimics saliva. The animal skin, however, retains its original form. An animal exterior now holds a human-made interior. What was once fully animal now only appears so. Through taxidermy, the animal becomes a representation of itself, an object that merges artificial and natural materials. Taxidermy is therefore simultaneously scientific and artistic, a means of understanding the animal body and a conduit for admiring its beauty.

During the Victorian era taxidermy was a popular activity for the domestic woman. The Ladies' Manual of Art, for Profit and Pastime, published in 1887, dedicates 91 pages to the art of taxidermy. This home journal urged educated and refined women to see art and all of its incarnations as a "source of profit as well as pleasure," a means by which they could "earn a good livelihood and famous name" while "disseminating beauties everywhere." (5)

Although this branch of taxidermy can be easily categorized as 'decorative' or described as a passive activity with aesthetic rather than intellectual applications, it also should be understood as a means for women to transgress culturally imposed boundaries. Publications such as Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies, and Richard Sennett's The Craftsman aim to understand "the overlooked and often despised categories of women's decorative arts and homecraft activities as sites of important cultural and social work," demonstrating that these activities are actually forms of knowledge production because "making is thinking." (6)

In the Victorian era, the emerging discipline of natural history was a male-dominated sphere. However, practicing taxidermy gave women the opportunity to break free from social borders and engage in the natural sciences. Studying, fashioning, and writing about taxidermy allowed the Victorian woman to step "outside the boundaries of domestic womanhood" and invade "the masculine world of specimen hunters and professional taxidermy." (7) Coyne, by making taxidermy a vital element in her sculpture, associates herself with both the (female) Victorian housewife and the (male) Victorian naturalist. The use of taxidermy enables Coyne to break free from prescriptions of feminine propriety, investigate the dualities of modern life, and conduct patriarchal interventions.

Coyne's interest in the subversive aligns with the politics of ecofeminism. In the 1960s, feminist philosophies were extrapolated to encompass issues related to animals, which, like women, have historically been valued for their physical attributes. (8) Ecofeminist Karen Warren claims that there are undeniable correlations between the cultural treatment of women, animals, and nature. She asserts that as 'othered' minorities, they are systematically controlled and oppressed by male-biased authorities. Ecofeminism "theorizes the interrelations among self, societies, and nature," striving to integrate dualisms in order to produce a holistic society built on mutual respect. (9)

Coyne began filling her SoHo apartment with the taxidermy she recovered and the carcasses of dead fish purchased in Chinatown. (10) After preserving the fish by dipping them in resin (Fig. 2), she strung them up throughout her living quarters and on the roof of her apartment. When neighbors started to complain about the stench, she was urged to tackle new projects in which she could honor and preserve animal bodies. (11) Encouraged to expand her material repertoire, it was at this point that her artwork began to evolve. She used wax to combine her findings--besides taxidermied animals, chicken wire, horsehair, silk flowers, ribbons, and old car parts are only a sampling of the found objects that Coyne shrouded in wax.


Untitled #850 (Three Peacocks) (1996; Fig. 3), features animal figurines, a lavish mass of curled satin ribbons, manipulated wire, and iridescent bows that have all been dipped in candlewax, shaped around a steel understructure, and hung from the ceiling. Perched on top of this chandelier-like object are three fabricated miniature peacocks, their feathers deceptively dripping with hardened wax. Fashioned in black and white, from both delicate and strong objects, Three Peacocks acknowledges that opposing binaries--such as the masculine and the feminine, the sturdy and the fragile--can come together to make a harmonious whole.

In the early 1990s, Coyne began to free her sculptures from their wax tombs, allowing them to directly engage with the world around them. A wax-less bobcat peers from behind a dark mass of flowers in Untitled # 1205 (Virgil) (1997-2008; Pl. 4). In Untitled #1180 (Beatrice) (2003-08; Fig. 4), a flock of ducks tumble in and out of a conical cloud-like pile of black velvet and purple silk flowers while stuffed squirrels burrow down into its driftwood core. Fragments of some animal bodies are concealed by dark matter while others are revealed; meaning is simultaneously hidden and exposed; reality and fantasy become indistinguishable.

The parenthetical titles of these pieces refer to Dante Alighieri's fourteenth-century masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, in which the characters of Virgil and Beatrice act as two of the author's guides through Purgatory, Heaven, and Hell, while he searches for Paradise. (12) Instead of portraying Virgil as a human, Coyne envisions him as a stuffed bobcat. While Beatrice is represented here as a piece of cast-wax statuary, which inconspicuously peers out from the apex of Beatrice, several taxidermied creatures attempt to navigate through the darkness that surrounds them. Furthermore, Coyne associates certain birds with particular people. In pieces dedicated to specific individuals, she allows taxidermied avian bodies to stand in for loved ones. The peacocks of Scalapino Nu Shu and Untitled # 1375 (No Reason Except Love) (2011-12; Fig. 5) carry the memory of Coyne's cherished confidant, the late poet Leslie Scalapino. The peacock reappears in Black Snowflake (Fig. 1) to commemorate the life of Coyne's deceased father. Mallard ducks stand-in for Coyne and her older brother in Untitled #927 (BZ+CD+Put-Put) (1997-98; Fig. 6).


By unabashedly associating an individual with an animal in these works, Coyne repackages ecologically minded Romantic ideals. Artists active in the early nineteenth century prided themselves on being social outsiders with a disdain for the ordinary. (13) They opposed Enlightenment thinking by highlighting "the symbolic unity of the universe, in spite of all its apparent diversity." (14) By reconnecting with nature, Romantics constructed a distinctive identity for themselves by discovering the animal within. Ultimately, their desire to interact with animals and re-establish links with nature provided them with a means to assert their difference from dominant social norms. (15) Coyne exemplifies this 'ecological sensibility' by forging a union between natural and cultural worlds. In many of her large-scale installations, the human figure is absent while the animal body is fully present. In the aforementioned Virgil, for example, Coyne allows a stuffed feline to embody a human alter ego. Therefore, by identifying with Romantic sensibilities and alluding to the history of feminist Victorian taxidermy, the use of taxidermy aids her in undoing distinctions that separate the human from the animal, while her tendency to associate individuals with animal counterparts brings awareness to the animal otherness within humans.


Although Romantic and Victorian allusions abound in her work, Coyne's use of taxidermy is best understood when looked at from a feminist perspective. Feminist artists--including Kiki Smith, Carolee Schneemann, and Ana Mendieta--have artistically associated the female body with the animal body. Smith's Lilith (1994), alluding to medieval Jewish folkore, depicts Adam's first wife as an animalistic woman. Brutally rendered in bronze, Smith perches Lilith upside down on the wall in an active crouching position. Looking as if ready to pounce, Lilith's stiff left arm morphs into a horse's hoof. Schneemann intimately interacts with her cat in the photographic series Infinity Kisses (1981-88), where the artist documents mornings spent embracing her beloved pet. In Untitled (Silueta Series, Mexico, L02836) (1974), Mendieta fills an impression of her silhouette that she has dug into the earth with animal blood purchased from the butcher, connecting herself to nature in multiple ways.


In the 1960s and 1970s, women artists began incorporating the body--especially their own--into their work. Body art, writes Laura Cottingham, is largely seen as a "form of self-assertion that doesn't end with the corporeal body, but actually begins there. Many of the artistic processes that have incorporated the artist's body are really about transcending it, getting outside of the corporeal limitations of the human frame." (16) One way to accomplish this task is to extend the concept of the female to that of the animal.

Carolyn Merchant wrote in The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution that women have been associated with nature for centuries. This association is argued to be one of the many reasons why the subordination of women is accepted in Western patriarchal societies. In multiple mythologies and origin stories, the earth is portrayed as a caring mother and "bride whose primary function was to comfort, nurture, and provide for the well-being of the male," while her non-human inhabitants are regarded as commodities. (17) In the 1960s, a renewed interest in conservation and animal rights simultaneously emerged with the birth of the modern women's liberation movement. (18) Merchant notes that "the conjunction of conservation and ecology movements with women's rights and liberation has moved in the direction of reversing both the subjugation of nature and women." (19) In this context, taxidermy serves as an interesting medium for the female artist for it offers a way to transcend the physical borders of the human body, enter the realm of the animal, and comment on contemporary ecological and political issues.


Ecofeminist discourse aims to destabilize male-dominated hierarchies while asserting the value of subjugated minorities. As argued by Robert McKay, postmodern feminist interest in the body transfers to the animal, because both parties have been deemed valueless when compared to their white male or human counterparts. (20) This notion serves as the cornerstone of the ecofeminist argument that women and animals are bound together by a shared history of patriarchal oppression. Moreover, understandings of 'the female' and 'the animal' are biologically and socially constructed, causing both to serve as a place of passage where nature confronts culture. (21) Both malleable constructs, 'the female' and 'the animal,' are, as Donna Haraway would say, "bonded by significant otherness" and able to define difference in postmodern society. (22)

The art historian Steve Baker has noted that "many postmodern or poststructuralist artists and writers seem, on one level or another, to adopt or identify with the animal as metaphor for, or as image of, their own creativity. Whether it connotes a sense of alienation from the human or a sense of bodily freedom and unboundedness, this willing taking-on of animal form casts the fixity of identity as an inhibition of creativity." (23) Taxidermy, as an artistic medium, aids artists in asserting their identity. Taxidermy signifies an individual's desire to be seen as distanced from typical notions of humankind--an 'othered' yet empowered individual.

In Scalapino Nu Shu, a gnarled and fruitless Japanese apple tree, whose trunk has been artificially blackened with colored sand, tries to root itself in the surrounding wooden floorboards but is only met with opposition. Seventeen stuffed melanistic pheasants limply hang upside down from the spindly lower branches. Their wings are fully spread, caught in motionless flight, as gravity causes them to descend toward the ground. The weakened tree also supports ten taxidermied peacocks, which delicately sit atop its branches. With furled tails cascading behind them, the birds gracefully gaze downward at their unfortunate brethren. Their iridescent jewel-toned plumage shines brightly in contrast to their somber surroundings. The external fragility of the peacocks is balanced by their sturdy interiors. Because their delicate appearance is contradicted by their internal strength, these taxidermied birds exemplify Coyne's characterization of the way in which women are perceived by contemporary society. The respectful repurposing of the dead animal body as seen in Coyne's practice gives worth to that which has been deemed worthless. Through the materiality of taxidermy, Coyne not only fashions something beautiful from cultural detritus but uses the medium to transgress established patriarchal opinion.

Patriarchy, or the systematic institutional domination of women by men, has long served as an oppressive conceptual framework in society, producing a widespread male-biased mentality. (24) Historically, the Catholic Church is understood as a misogynist edifice. (25) A religious institution that adheres to strict masculine-driven hierarchies, Catholicism embraces an "archaic attitude toward women." (26) By defining Mary, the mother of Christ and the Queen of Heaven, as an eternal virgin, Catholic mythology denies her a sexual identity. As argued by art historian Eleanor Heartney, there is widespread belief that this perspective gives the Catholic Church "doctrinal justification for its refusal to deal honestly with female equality and human sexuality." (27) Through her art, Coyne--who is a lapsed Catholic--aims to destabilize the patriarchal beliefs Catholicism promotes by tapping into the Catholic Imagination and appropriating its imagery to subversive ends. More specifically, Coyne aims to empower women--and by association, animals--by challenging long-held Catholic opinions.

Heartney describes the Catholic Imagination as "an imagination that is not simply a matter of official church doctrine ... but brings together the pomp and beauty of Catholic ritual and the seductiveness of traditional Catholic art" while encouraging one to re-connect with the supernatural world of Early Christianity through representations of the physical body. (28) Notions of the body and images of the Madonna have fed Coyne's conception of feminine perfection. As a young Catholic school girl, Coyne was taught that the Virgin Mary is the epitome of beauty and womanhood. Coyne grew up believing that all women should grow into this ideal. As she aged, however, she was only met with disappointment because she was never able to equal the Virgin's faultlessness.

Heartney acknowledges that Coyne's appropriation of the Madonna figure, as seen in pieces such as Untitled #1093 (Buddha Boy) (2001-03; Pl. 5), rebels against perfectionism. (29) In this piece, a statue of the Virgin Mary is encrusted with bows, ribbons, feathers, and silk flowers. More are strewn about the surrounding floor. The virgin's arms serve as candlestick holders. Beads are meticulously draped over her now undistinguishable form. The statue, as well as these frivolous markers of femininity, is encased in white wax. All of these disparate objects are unified under a protective casing. Buddha Boy simultaneously embraces purity and extravagance. Coyne's version of the Virgin Mary, who is both sterile and fecund, (30) criticizes Catholic perceptions of femininity by insinuating that the religion's tenets force women to be burdened--or weighed down--by their sexuality. While Heartney fully investigates how Coyne challenges Catholic perceptions of female perfection, she does not wholly consider how Coyne's respect for the body also feeds her attraction to taxidermy.

A number of stories concerning the body are integral to the Christian faith. Heartney writes that "Christ's Incarnation in human form, his physical death and his bodily Resurrection, the Immaculate Conception and the Transubstantiation of the Eucharist in the Mass" are all central to the "drama of Christian history," which "hinges on the moment when 'the Word was made Flesh,' and God became man in order to assume mankind's guilt and absolve its sins." (31) Additionally, Catholicism (a sect of Christianity) holds an intrinsic morbidity--a predilection for fetishizing dead body parts and fixating on the body at the time of death--for it considers death the ultimate border, the moment of one's passing and rebirth. (32) Taxidermy, which is made from the corpse of a once living animal, allows Coyne to investigate Catholicism's obsession with death, the body, and resurrection while asserting the importance of animals in the drama of Christian history.

The need to preserve is embodied by the practice of taxidermy. Anxiety surrounding losing something fragile to decay drives some to protect it from imminent deterioration. Being taxidermied, the stuffed animals in Coyne's work embody paradox: they "beautifully capture the tension...between our fear and fascination with death" by revering the corporeal and metaphorically straddling the border between the living and the dead. (33) Historically, the preservation of bodies is "frequently associated with religious ceremonies and mystical rites." (34) Various cultures believe that bodies which are carefully preserved after death provide the deceased with a means for peaceful passage into the afterlife. (35) Furthermore, Catholic churches have traditionally collected, preserved, and displayed bodily fragments of divine leaders, believing that the worship of these corporeal relics could "alleviate suffering" within their beholder and "transport worshippers to a higher spiritual plane." (36)

Although there is no evidence suggesting that animal bodies were revered as Catholic relics, Laura Hobgood-Oster, a professor of religion, argues that animals were once highly regarded in Christianity. Although many Biblical stories present animals as subordinate to man, such as Genesis 1:26: "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth," (37) Hobgood-Oster asserts that many early Christian parables place much importance on animals while celebrating them as agents of Christian divinity, not simply its objects. (38) "As the history of Christianity became intertwined with that of patriarchal and imperialistic Mediterranean and European powers," in the Middle Ages, however, "the dominant forms of Christianity became increasingly anthropocentrica." (39) Animal-centric tales were left untold, and the integral role of animals in the religion was diminished.

Hobgood-Oster argues that animals were once portrayed as martyrs, spiritual guides, and exemplars of piety in alternative liturgies such as visual art, legends, and hagiographies. (40) For instance, Saint Francis of Assisi not only recognized the ability of animals to worship the almighty but acknowledged the special talent of birds to preach the word of God. Paul the Hermit, who lived in a cave for sixty years, was befriended by a plethora of animals that did God's bidding by providing him with food, safety, and camaraderie. Saint Jerome's best companion was a great lion, and the Holy Ghost, or the spirit of God, took bodily shape as a dove at the baptism of Jesus Christ. As a young girl in Catholic school, Coyne was influenced by stories such as these because she was taught that birds are intercessors, or agents of God, that possess the power to pass between the realms of the living and the dead as they usher souls to the afterlife.

Despite Christian theology promoting the divine capabilities of animals, the religion was deeply impacted by theories of Cartesian dualism during the Enlightenment and again during the Second Vatican Council (which took place in the early 1960s). During these critical moments in the Church's history, Catholic leadership suppressed the religion's sacramentality, or the belief that God is present in all creation. (41) Ultimately, Christianity, "a religion centered on the idea of God becoming a male human being," not only disempowered women but "played a great role in strengthening the idea that humans are not only unique but superior to other animals." (42) Coyne's artwork, however, encourages us to look at animals from an early Christian perspective.

While on sojourn in Italy to visit a friend, Coyne spent one "weekend visiting dozens of churches and lighting candles," spurring her friend to gift her a box of candles to honor her ritual weekend. (43) The wax from these candles gradually worked its way into Coyne's art. Among other things, she used it to encase "fragile birds in wax prisons," turning them into passive decorative elements, as seen in works such as Three Peacocks and Untitled #810 (Filipino Hat) (1995; Fig. 7). (44) In later works, such as the previously described Scalapino Nu Shu, Coyne's birds are no longer entombed in wax. Instead, her taxidermied peacocks are released from wax mausoleums and allowed to act as divine chaperones that can lead us toward the afterlife. Thus, by featuring pristine animals in her work, Coyne feeds off of a Catholic fondness for death and the body while asserting animal sacramentality. She makes visible animal presences which Catholicism once revered but has since deemed trivial.


Moreover, incorporating taxidermied birds, in particular the peacock, into her work has provided Coyne with a way to cope with death, mourn the loss of loved ones, and offer them a peaceful passage to the afterlife. The aforementioned birds of Scalapino Nu Shu, No Reason Except Love, Black Snowflake, and BZ+CD+Put-Put not only honor those lost but attempt to provide them with a means to enter the hereafter. BZ+CD+Put-Put, featuring stuffed mallard ducks, commemorates the beautiful, chaotic, and too-short life of the artist's older brother. Coyne made this piece immediately after he lost his long battle with cancer. "It was the only thing to give me solace," says the artist. Mounted to the wall, multiple birds attempt to spread their wings as they try to free themselves from a synaptic tangle of black horsehair. Thick braids and delicate tendrils intertwine loosely at the work's core and tighten up as they near the entrapped avian bodies. Creating a lace-like neurological map from which the birds cannot free themselves, this seemingly diseased "two-dimensional mind projection" symbolically hovers between heaven and earth, offering either the deceased a plan by which to reach the afterlife or the living a path by which to reconnect with the departed. (45) These plans are not easily followed; the proposed routes are intricate and difficult, mirroring the emotional and physical turmoil Coyne and her brother experienced during his illness. Although the serpentine braids suggest a hopeful destination, they promise a threatening journey. No matter how hard they try, the taxidermied birds will always be stuck in a liminal state of being, between life and death, never able to reunite.

Stuffed birds also abound in Untitled #1388 (The Unconsoled) (2013-14; Pl. 6), where a silver pied peacock, a pair of snow geese, and a sulphur-crested cockatoo swoop in and out of a lush garden filled with red and white silk chrysanthemums. These blooms, reminiscent of those used in funerary arrangements, are suspended in four large gray freestanding frames. The full, sinuous arrangements of the silk flowers are ominously punctuated by lightning-like silver branches. The flowers conceal what is behind them, while negative space surrounding the branches provides a glimpse behind the installation. One of the large frames is disconnected from the other three, creating a doorway into the mysterious unknown. The white peacock sits upon the corner of this break, beckoning visitors to enter, to discover the dark fantasy behind The Unconsoled's beautiful exterior.

These works allude to Coyne's conflicted emotions regarding the afterlife as well as conjure associations with contemporary literature. The Unconsoled is inspired by the work of Japanese authors Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, and Kobo Abe. All three writers weave narratives that investigate dark spaces--both emotional and physical--one can enter but not easily escape, dark spaces that both console and confound their inhabitants. (46)

The peacock is also indicative of Coyne's interest in the writings of Flannery O'Connor, who was a devout Catholic and a peacock lover. In her short stories, mostly set in her native South, O'Connor finds beauty in the grotesque. She conceives of characters that are bigoted and deeply flawed but otherwise serve as prophets and "agents of grace." (47) She frequently employs the peacock, which sheds its tail feathers in summer and regrows them in the New Year, as a symbol of conflict and resurrection. O'Connor raised peacocks, pheasants, Muscovy ducks, and Chinese geese on her Georgia farm but had particular affection for her peacocks because they are simultaneously attractive and repulsive. With alluring plumage, threatening talons, and a repelling call, the peacock embodies contradiction, making it an appealing figure through which O'Connor--as well as Coyne--can challenge patriarchal dogma. Furthermore, by featuring taxidermied examples of the bird in her installations, Coyne enhances the peacock's paradoxical powers.

Although taxidermy is largely understood as morbid, Coyne sees it as hopeful. No longer using vintage taxidermy in her work, Coyne now purchases mounted birds that are ethically harvested from government-supported pen-raised programs. As described by the artist, these programs, which are run by humanitarians and hunters, rehabilitate injured birds that were wounded in the wild. If their injuries fully heal, they are released back into the wild to replenish depleted ecosystems. If they do not make a full recovery, they are left to live the rest of their days on protected grounds. (The administrators of these programs are given permission to use 1 percent of their birds as a source of food or income, making taxidermy a viable revenue stream.) These programs demonstrate respect for animals, providing them with a second chance at life, and "feed wildlife systems in America," Coyne says. "And I think that's a beautiful thing."

In Coyne's work, taxidermy serves as a site of passage, paradox, and healing. It provides the artist with a means to honor deceased humans and animals once their souls have departed. She can metaphorically mend rifts between life and death, love and loss, as well as man and animal with its material presence. In ecofeminist terms, taxidermy "help[s] heal the wounds of patriarchy where cognitive and behavioral strategies alone are not enough" by challenging binarism and "re-find[ing] cohesion in a shattered world." (48) By featuring taxidermy in her art, Coyne puts forth a new conception of social cohesion. She couples the abject and the beautiful while merging the human and the animal, all while respecting individual difference. By intervening in patriarchal belief systems, she encourages "movement toward healthy, life-enhancing, nourishing, and restorative values, beliefs, practices, and systems." (49) She creates an ecofeminist reality by undoing histories of oppression and finding holism in a world rife with multiplicity.

Heather Cammarata-Seale is Curator for the Corporate Art Program at Johnson & Johnson, and a fifth year doctoral candidate at Rutgers University. Her dissertation investigates the historical, cultural, and theoretical implications surrounding the use of taxidermy in contemporary art.


(1.) Carrie Przybilla and Terrie Sultan, Petah Coyne: black/white/black (Washington, D.C.: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1996), 28.

(2.) Petah Coyne, "Sculpting Myth and Metaphor," presentation at the Art + Environment Conference, Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada, Oct. 10, 2014.

(3.) Petah Coyne, Interview by author, digital recording, (West New York, NJ, Oct. 17, 2013). Unless otherwise noted, all quotes or statements about the artist are from this interview.

(4.) Eleanor Heartney, Postmodern Heretics: The Catholic Imagination in Contemporary Art, (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 2004), 163.

(5.) Ladies' Manual of Art, or Profit and Pastime. A Self-Teacher in All Branches of Decorative Art, embracing every variety of Painting and Drawing on china, glass, velvet, canvas, paper and wood. The Secret of All Glass Transparencies, Sketching from Nature, Pastel and Crayon Drawing, Taxidermy, Etc. (Philadelphia and Chicago: American Mutual Library Association, 1887), 3.

(6.) Beth Fowkes Tobin and Maureen Daly Goggin, eds., Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies, (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009), 1; Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2008), 7-10.

(7.) Tobin, "Women, Decorative Arts, and Taxidermy," in Tobin and Goggin, eds., Women and Things, 1750-1950: Gendered Material Strategies, 315, 322.

(8.) Robert McKay, "Identifying with Animals": Language, Subjectivity, and the Animal Politics of Margaret Arwood's Surfacing," in Mary Sanders Pollock and Catherine Rainwater, eds., Figuring Animals: Essays on Animal Images in Art, Literature, Philosophy, and Popular Culture, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 207.

(9.) Janis Birkeland, "Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice," in Greta Gaard, ed., Ecofeminism: Women, Animals, Nature (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1993), 18.

(10.) Alison Wilson Lloyd, "Petah Coyne's Waxworks: Petals on a Black Bough," New York Times, Jan. 16, 2005, accessed April 27, 2014,

(11.) Coyne, "Sculpting Myth and Metaphor."

(12.) Suzaan Boettger, "Petah Coyne: Not Afraid of the Dark," Art in America 98, no. 8 (Sept. 2010): 122-27, accessed October 11, 2012, magazine/petah-coyne/.

(13.) David Pagel, "Romanticism's Aftermath: No Illusions, A Little Desperation, Lots of Imagination," in Mary Christian, ed., Damaged Romanticism: A Mirror of Modern Emotion, (Houston: Art Museum of the Univ. of Houston, 2008), 36-37.

(14.) Wendy Wheeler, A New Modernity?: Change in Science, Literature and Politics, (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1999), 12.

(15.) Adrian Franklin, Animals and Modern Cultures: A Sociology of Human-Animals Relations in Modernity, (London: Sage, 1999), 27.

(16.) Laura Cottingham, "Are You Experienced?: Feminism, Art and The Body Politic," in Seeing Through the Seventies: Essays on Feminism and Art, (Amsterdam: G+B Arts International, 2000), 121.

(17.) Carolyn Merchant, The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, (New York: Harper & Row, 1980), 9.

(18.) Ibid, xv.

(19.) Ibid, 294.

(20.) Robert McKay, "Identifying with Animals," 207.

(21.) Jack Ben-Levi, Craig Houser, Leslie C. Taylor, and Simon Taylor, Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art, (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993), 34.

(22.) Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, (Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 2003), 15-16.

(23.) Steve Baker, The Postmodern Animal, (London: Reaktion, 2000), 18.

(24.) Karen J. Warren, Ecofeminist Philosophy: A Western Perspective on What It Is and Why It Matters, (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 46, 195.

(25.) Birkeland, "Ecofeminism: Linking Theory and Practice," 34

(26.) Heartney, Postmodern Heretics, 134.

(27.) Ibid.

(28.) Alison Knowles, Eleanor Heartney, Meredith Monk, Linda Montano, Erik Ehn and Bonnie Marranca, "Art as Spiritual Practice," in PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24, no. 3 (Sept. 2002): 20-21.

(29.) Heartney, Postmodern Heretics, 168.

(30.) Ibid, 136.

(31.) Ibid, 6.

(32.) Ibid, 106-07, 121.

(33.) Ibid, 107.

(34.) Rachel Poliquin, The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing, (University Park: The Pennsylvania State Univ. Press, 2012), 23.

(35.) Ibid.

(36.) Ibid.

(37.) The Official King James Bible, Genesis 1:26, accessed January 19, 2015,

(38.) Laura Hobgood-Oster, 'Holy Gods and Sacred Bunnies: Animals in Art and Religion,' in What Are Animals to Us?: Approaches from Science, Religion, Folklore, Literature, and Art, (Knoxville: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2007), 189-90.

(39.) Ibid.

(40.) Ibid, 191,198.

(41.) Andrew Greeley, The Catholic Imagination, (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 2000), 24.

(42.) Laura Hobgood-Oster, The Friends We Keep, (Waco, TX: Baylor Univ. Press, 2010), 162.

(43.) Przybilla and Sultan, Petah Coyne: black/white/black, 36.

(44.) Ann Wilson Lloyd, Petah Coyne: Vermilion Fog, (Milan: Magna Charta, 2008), 14-15.

(45.) Douglas Dreishpoon, "The Still Point of Time," in Petah Coyne: Above and Beneath the Skin (Buffalo: Albright-Knox Art Gallery, 2005), 40.

(46.) Visual Arts News Desk, "Galerie Lelong Presents Petah Coyne's The Unconsoled for The Art Show," Broadway World (Feb. 28, 2014), accessed May 1, 2015, article/Galerie-Lelong-Presents-Petah-Coynes-THE-UNCONSOLEDFOR-The-Art-Show-2014-20140228#.U2JnwvldWQw.

(47.) Przybilla and Sultan, Petah Coyne: black/white/black, x.

(48.) Warren, Ecofeminist Philosophy, 211; Wheeler, A New Modernity?, 133.

(49.) Warren, Ecofeminist Philosophy, 198.
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Author:Cammarata-Seale, Heather
Publication:Woman's Art Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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