Browsing the illustration and fine art degree shows in London can introduce you to a range of interesting fresh work. Sadly, lately there seems to be a consistency to the style and output - a world of coloured pencil doodling and funny sarcastic handwritten comments. Then, just when I was reaching saturation point for pencil drawn owls and deers came Katie Brooke’s amazing ‘moi pas vous’ (me not you in French ).

While most illustrators are willing to artfully display dried out animals on their shelves and bookcases, this Camberwell graduate has gone one step further, incorporating taxidermy into her work. Most of her work has a predominant macabre feel, as you would expect when real dead animals are included to give emphasis to apocalyptic scenes. When it comes to the illustration side of her work, her line is intricate and confident. Her drawings are giant-sized, complex and so busy - you long for a guided tour of the journey they seem to depict.

Katie keeps a small fridge in her room full of small dead animals that she collects and which people keep giving her. It’s truly impressive the number of cadavers you can find without having to kill them yourself. But the blood and gore isn’t a problem for Katie as she has taken taxidermy to an artistic level. She speaks about her work with passion and despite the downbeat nature of it, Katie is probably one of the happiest and cheeriest artists I have met.

Speaking of which, meet the lovely Katie Brookes.

Hey Katie. Please introduce yourself and your work.
I have just graduated from Camberwell College of Arts studying Illustration and had a really successful end of year show titled ‘Save Our Souls’ on Shoreditch High Street.

I grew up in Belgium, so I have been influenced by Flemish renaissance paintings and their biblical symbolism and composition. I rely on my drawing and the use of weighted lines to tell a story within the image. My work is quite dark and fleshy, but more often than not with a comical lighter tone. My desire to explore dark subject matter lead me to study taxidermy, which I spent most of my third year engrossed in. I also try and incorporate this into my work and bridge the gap between drawing and taxidermy.

How did you get into taxidermy?
At school my art teacher had a wonderful classroom were she kept great thing for us to draw; a pig’s heart in a jar of vinegar, fresh octopus and skinned rabbits from the market and taxidermy. She built a garden around her desk with the left over Astroturf from our school field and dotted it with stuffed squirrels, birds, a fox and an eagle. We had life drawing classes in her room and the taxidermy creatures were always featured in the pose with the poor model. So I grew up with taxidermy animals in pretty much every drawing I made.

When I came to London I was introduced to the work of Polly Morgan by a friend and on a whim in 2008 I asked her for an internship. I was turned down at first but then a year later I received an email saying she had remembered my initial request, in particular  ‘having tried to preserve things/dead animals unsuccessfully in PVA glue and resin’ and now needed an intern for the summer.

Explain, step-by-step, the process of mounting a dead chick for display.
First you skin the chick leaving the skull, wing bones and leg bones, saving the body. Then take all the fat and flesh from the skin with tweezers cleaning the flesh off the leg and wing bones. Take the eyeballs and tongue out of the skull and clean the brain out. Then wash the skin in bleach, fairy liquid and cold water. Dry the skin and place it in potato flour, fluffing up the feathers again until dry. Next paint tanning solution onto the inside of the skin to preserve it.

Meanwhile, with the body taken out at the beginning, make an exact model of it with wood, wool and cotton and do the same with the neck using hemp twisted around wire passed through the body. Place clay into the skull and wire up the wings and legs of the dry chicks skin. Then glue the neck of the model into the clay of the skull. Pull the skin carefully over the body and connect the wings and legs to the body with the wire. Stitch up the skin where the incision was made, adding a bit of padding with fine hemp around the joints where needed. Next position the wings and legs and then model the face adding eyes and giving an expression. Finally, leave to dry for a week taping the feet in the position you want or they will curl up.



What animals have you done so far?
Literally hundreds of chicks, a pheasant’s head on a plaque, two curlews, a canary, a blackbird, a very shoddy robin and a few mice.

I am pretty excited about the animals I have in my freezer at the moment. I have a squirrel, a pine martin, a massive crow, a cat, a Camberwell pigeon and a Camberwell rat.  My friends also send me their dead animals, I recently received a rabbit and I have a hamster on its way.




Is there a species you particularly want to do, or is there one you are reluctant on stuffing and do you ever get grossed out?
Polly Morgan always used to say she could never taxidermy an animal she had seen alive and I used to agree. However my boyfriend’s dog nearly killed a hedgehog the other day and we were nursing it back to life, but I was secretly hoping it would die (sadly it lived). So no, I don’t think I’m reluctant on trying anything, maybe something massive because it would take ages and I am still learning.

The only time I was a little grossed out was when I first cut a chick open to find it still had a yolk inside which popped and seeped everywhere. I guess was more shocked than grossed out as I just wasn’t expecting it to be there but they feed off the yolk while they are still babies for about a week so I soon got used to the oozy yellow liquid. I was put off eggs for a bit though.

I would love to stuff a porcupine and get all those spines to stand up and stay there. In Belgium they have flocks of ‘wild’ Parakeets, which have escaped from captivity and bred amongst the garden birds, I would love to stuff one of them.

Describe your degree show final piece(s).
I made two main pieces for ‘Save Our Souls’. The first was a large pen and ink drawing titled ‘Path to Hell’. The image is a freeze in time where a human has fallen into limbo by mistake and is about to be savaged by monkeys and dragged down to hell or saved by birds coming down with a bundle of fabric to carry him away in. It is based on Dante’s Inferno and the drawings of Pieter Breugel and consists of hybrid creatures spiralling down towards to the nine rings of hell and chasms of smoke rising up from it.

The second piece titled ‘Saviours’ was a freestanding taxidermy bird installation made alongside the ‘Path to Hell’ drawing. It is depicts the birds coming to save the human lifting up their fabric to fly away with.


Your taxidermy work was cleverly introduced in your degree show by having parts of your drawing come alive by putting on display two stuffed birds that are present in the final piece. How did your teachers and peers react to the unusual direction your work took during your degree?
Well, I was probably doing too much taxidermy and my tutor told me to stop spending ‘too much time up a birds arse rather than doing your proper work’. However I think in the end I reached a happy medium and that my final pieces managed to bring both my drawing and taxidermy together.

As for friends and peers many have been eager for me to teach them. They give me dead animals and I have had offers of their bodies when they die! No thanks!

What are you currently working on?
I have a few things coming up; I have been asked to be in Nobrow 4 coming out in November, I have a space in the Plastic Art festival in Brussels 16th-23rd October where I am doing a bigger taxidermy installation. I am also taking part in a group show at the Macbeth, Hoxton in conjunction with their new film night in October and then generally looking for a work and finding time to make my own work.

I am also currently making editions of coloured taxidermy chicks to be displayed in grids to be exhibited and I am planning lots more large drawings.

What would be your ideal commission?
To be given a box of objects and a huge piece of paper and a few weeks to fill the paper with scenes and stories linking the objects together. Maybe someone would commission it to be done in a fantastic city, with lots of history so I could link that into the drawing, as long as its not a sunny warm one or I would never do any work. Maybe a commission in Moscow.



How do you manage to find that many dead animals without ever having to kill them?
It really is luck. I find most of them on the road side. It gets quite dangerous when I drive because I am constantly on the look out for a feather or a lifeless paw.

Its nearly game season so I’ll be heading down to Borough market to get my helping and I’m in contact with pet shops in the area for whenever one of their animals dies. Friends are great too, one has mice in her freezer for me that her cats brought home and one gave me the rabbit and is bringing down a hamster. My mum is great too, cycling home from work she saw a red squirrel get hit by a car and popped it in her saddle bag.



Thanks Katie. Bye.