Asheville oral historian and documentary filmmaker Erin Derham will screen her latest work, Stuffed: A Documentary History of the Art of Taxidermy, on Saturday at the Orange Peel.

Get your tickets here.

Derham’s doc is a look at the flip side of the macabre, death-obsessed view that comes with a stereotypical approach to taxidermy. In Stuffed, Derham and her team travel the world to talk to taxidermists about their artful approach, and about their obsessions with preserving life. she sat down to talk with me earlier this week about her documentary, which got a great buzz at SXSW and may very likely end up on a streaming service near you. Here’s a breakdown:

Why a movie on taxidermy? Derham met Rachel Price, the daughter of Julian Price, when she was working on a documentary about Julian, a well-known philanthropist whose work helped bring downtown Asheville back to life with his significant redevelopment efforts. Rachel is a digital archivist based in Seattle.

“She had been emailing me for a while saying she wanted to work with me.
she wrote me almost three years ago right before thanksgiving – saying i’m serious, send me pitches,” Derham says.

Derham, an animal lover and vegan with a masters of history with a focus on environmental history, had been itching to do a doc an environmental focus. Derham did her graduate thesis on a woman who turned her backyard into a woodland bird and animal sanctuary while she was fighting the government to stop the use of DDT, so she pitched that idea.

Price responded. “She was like, ‘That’s cool, but what about taxidermy?’ She sent me links to articles about current events, books, and nothing else,” Derham says.

Hooked on history: Derham says she was hooked after reading Price’s recommendations: an article about Allis Markham, a young taxidermist with an artful approach who is heavily featured in Stuffed; and the book Kingdom Under Glass by Jay Kirk. That book tracks the adventures of legendary explorer and taxidermist Carl Akeley, who revolutionized taxidermy and environmental conservation and created the famed African Hall at New York’s Museum of Natural History. That story captivated Derham, and she was in.

The taxidermists: Stuffed follows an array of taxidermists who Derham says she was thoroughly impressed her. Taxidermy is both a science and an art, she says, and the taxidermists she met “know anatomy, chemistry, biology and sculpting and painting, and they know it at an academic level.” In addition, taxidermists are working in a field that friends, family and society in general hold at arms length because of its association with death, she says.

On death: “Death is not this scary thing in my head any more,” Derham says. She hopes that message will come across to Stuffed viewers.

On conservation: Derham hopes viewers also see that the art of taxidermy is about “to get people to understand what’s happening around them to care more about it.” For example, conservationists and educators can’t put a real mountain lion in front of children to teach them about the endangered species, but they can put a preserved animal before them so they can get up close and engage, she says. “There’s an emotional connection to nature” that happens, and that’s critical, she adds.

The Asheville connection: Derham says her filmmaking team of Jan Balster, Nick Iway and Adam “Tiny” Pinnell was “the core group” that did a lot of the in-the-field shoots, and they’re all Asheville folks. The documentary’s wonderful opening animation is the work of Asheville animator Robert Kline and an amazing illustrator who often works with Steven Spielberg, Derham says. And composer Ben Lovett of Asheville created a soundtrack that was just what Derham said she wanted: “a mix of Wes Anderson and Pride and Prejudice.”

On the screening: All proceeds from Saturday’s screening of Stuffed will go to benefit the Friends of the Western North Carolina Nature Center. Tick Tock Concierge is a primary sponsor of the Saturday, June 29, screening.

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