Memory Palace

Memory palaces were what mnemonic artists used to remember complicated things. Before photos and movies and tape recorders. They would imagine the layout of a building—a palace—either real or invented, and then place things to remember in each room. Then, as they walked through this imaginary house, they would remember what things or ideas they placed on the table or in the cupboard. The hippocampus organized data by some complicated interaction of ideas and spatial associations. The more familiar the building, the better the method worked.
[She] rang the bell…[and] told the woman who answered she used to live there—grew up there—and would she be so kind as to let her walk through? The memory-palace trick could work the other way, too. Outside of your mind, in the real world. Walk through the place where you used to live, and the details—the ceiling molding, the light from a window, the feel of floorboards as you moved across the threshold of a room—could make you remember everything you did and said and felt in that place, so many years earlier.”
—from Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta

Taxidermy is the preserving of an animal’s body via mounting (over an armature) or stuffing, for the purpose of display or study. Animals are often, but not always, portrayed in a lifelike state. The word taxidermy describes the process of preserving the animal but the word is also used to describe the end product which are called taxidermy mounts, or referred to simply as “taxidermy”. The word taxidermy is derived from the Greek words “taxis” and “derma”. Taxis means “to move”, and “derma” means “skin” (the dermis). The word taxidermy translates to “arrangement of skin”. Taxidermy is practiced primarily on vertebrates (mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and less commonly on amphibians) but can also be done to larger insects and arachnids under some circumstances. Taxidermy takes on a number of forms and purposes including, but not limited to, hunting trophies and natural history museum displays. Museums use taxidermy as a method to record species, including those that are extinct and threatened, in the form of study skins and life-size mounts. Taxidermy is sometimes also used as a means to memorialize pets. A person who practices taxidermy is called a taxidermist. They may practice professionally, catering to museums and sportsman (hunters and fishermen), or as amateurs (hobbyists). A taxidermist is aided by familiarity with anatomy, sculpture, painting, and tanning.”

Don’t know why I’ve been painting a deer mount. It’s small, and I hate painting small. It’s random. But my brain seems to be spectacularly ADD right now, and I have finally stopped fighting it—and am trying to stop feeling distressed by it—and just permit myself to leap from task to task, creation to creation, memory to memory, idea to idea. I know there is a logic buried deep in the chaos. And that some of that chaos is instinct. And that the instinct is solid.

So. A deer I have spent a lot of time staring at, my brother-in-law’s first buck. I know it’s a hunting trophy—and I honor that—but for me, it’s more like church. This absorbing and intimate study of animals—in part through live observation, but, for wild species, through taxidermy—is an enduring fascination from Montana. You could touch a hide, observe its texture, the cowlicks and swirls, the coloring, the patterns, you could observe the spatial relation of lips to nostrils, how the mouth was formed, where the eyes were set, the ears, and absorb instinctively, if not fully, what these characteristics meant…or at least figure out the questions to ask. So many people, where I grew up, knew the answers. Or the theories.

These animals were, in childhood, and remain now, magnetic. So maybe that’s why I am painting them. Because they are touchstones, from back across several lifetimes. Anywhere in the world I see animal taxidermy, I am gone. They draw me to them, and I am lost in the observation, the gift of seeing them so closely.

A wonderful painter/teacher/curator friend said to me, years back when, upon my return to the Bay Area from a visit home, I started a small series of deer heads (from the same source as this piece), “These are not ironic to you, are they?” (She was not being ironic. She said it with respect.) No. They are not ironic to me.