Wall-Hangers that Swim

Wall-Hangers that Swim

Four decades ago James McGregor and Shawn Galea were a couple of brash young teenage artists with nothing but a vision capable of transforming the way people view sport anglers.

Since then they have been recognized as global pioneers and leaders in developing fish reproduction techniques in taxidermy versus traditional skin mounts where the fish must die as part of the process.

Today they are currently working out of their new 15,000-square-foot facility, that includes a stunning 2,400-square-foot showroom but life certainly wasn’t always like that back when they first started developing their reproduction process. Imagine not just trying to get good at an artform but having to make up how to physically do it at the same time.

“It was very frustrating, there was zero knowledge available, no courses, no books, no taxidermists who were willing to train someone new,” said McGregor. “It was very ground level, self teaching. It was very challenging finding materials that worked, we used what was available to us at places like auto body shops and Canadian Tire and were able to create our own materials by mixing these available products. Keep in mind this was before the Internet or Google were around – almost 40 years ago.”

They credit one of their high school teachers who was willing to show them the processes involved in creating moulds and getting them started.

The industry on the other hand, was nowhere near as welcoming. Other taxidermists said what they were doing was a silly idea that would never take off. “They couldn’t imagine a client accepting it and not wanting an actual skin mount.”

But when you think about all the advantages, it’s clear with hindsight that thinking was way off and what they were doing would not only disrupt the taxidermy industry it would give anglers a way of hanging a trophy on their wall while still having the opportunity to catch the same fish of a lifetime again.

“One of the obvious advantages is that the fish doesn’t have to die. If you consider the two processes, for a skin mount, the skin comes off the carcass, which is then disposed of. A Styrofoam mannikin is then carved to replace what the carcass was, it is almost impossible to get a duplication of what the client caught. It will look kind of like what the client caught, but not exact. With a skin mount you are also dealing with a large percentage of moisture, which when excreted causes the scales to be dry and rugged. This drying and dehydration also causes the skin to shrink, so you always end up with a smaller fish than what was caught.”

Durability over time is another big difference. “Painting on a skin that is going to deteriorate over time you can’t achieve the same detail or effects as your can with a fish reproduction. With the fish reproductions a specific paint with a specific purpose is being used to achieve and capture all of the effects and details of the client’s particular fish. Fish reproductions also are advantageous to the angler who travels. For example, it is easier to bring home pictures and measurements of a 50-lb. salmon than it is to bring home the actual salmon.” 

By the time they were 18 things had already started to change when they developed a commercially-viable product that was already considered to be the best in the world at the time. In the years since they have perfected their process while working for over 100,000 clients globally.

“We are one of the only studios who charge the same for a skin mount as we do for a fish replica,” he said. Yes, they will do a traditional skin mount for the angler who unfortunately only learned of their world-class services after putting their trophy in the freezer. (But I mean, why would you otherwise?) “Turn around time varies on how busy the season is, though now with the new facility we are looking forward to quick turn around times. Also with reproductions, there is no drying time, so it is faster than a traditional mount.”

If by chance your trophy gets damaged some how down the road, it can generally be repaired or, failing that, replaced with an almost identical duplicate.

They start from a photograph along with length and girth measurements. From there it is a matter of time to create a masterpiece that any angler would cherish, an exact duplicate of the fish they caught and released to admire and appreciate forever.

“Just like any type of artform, every piece is its own individual work of art; it will vary in hours depending on what the client wants us to create. Simple displays are just matching size of fish and painting to match. More elaborate displays involve illustrations and multiple conversations with the client prior to starting the work. A minimum would be 25 hours, all the way up to 100s depending on the display and complexity.”

Those more elaborate displays often combine timeless woodwork to form one-of-a-kind custom furniture pieces. They are each so individual and special in their own way, it’s impossible to pin down a favourite.

“Some of the more memorable pieces we have created would be poker tables, board room tables and bars featuring various species of our fish reproductions,” said Galea.

Of course some jobs are bigger than others, especially when your client list includes Hollywood, the scientific community, and some massive commercial superstores. “We have been fortunate enough to work for the two largest outdoor stores in the world, Cabela’s and Bass Pro Shops. One of the more memorable projects would have been a 55-foot humpback whale for Bass Pro. When it was complete it weighed over 4,700 lb. It is now hanging in a Bass Pro Feature Store in Boston,” he said. “It is challenging doing work for clients like this, it’s like breaking new ground with every order, each store is different, nothing can be the same. We invent new dioramas and displays for each location that are very space specific, with certain habitat and species requirements. Every store is something new, so experience from the last store doesn’t apply. Thankfully we are always eager to accept the challenges that come our way.”

With such demanding careers in an industry full of boom-and-bust seasonal cycles, finding time to get away and recharge in the outdoors is not only critical in terms of shedding work stress, but also the best form of professional development a taxidermist can undertake they contend.

“Fishing and hunting means something very different to us,” said Galea. “When we go out we are studying the habitat and plant life in the area. When we go fishing, we spend hours documenting, sketching, taking notes, photos and videos of the specimen. James’ favourite fish to paint are trout and char. Particularly browns and brook trout as they are the most diverse ranging in extreme differences amongst their species. The details are very intense, intricate and the colours are intense in their spawning phases. Simply put, they are beautiful fish.”

One could argue that every finned creation from the team at Advanced Taxidermy is in fact a beautiful fish – whales notwithstanding

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