THE SKIN HORSE

ON BEING REAL:

It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”

 

― Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

 

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I found a neglected bouncy horse on the side of the road, waiting for the garbage truck. Immediately, the Skin Horse from The Velveteen Rabbit came to mind, so I threw it in the back of my trusty Subaru and brought it home. To prepare the horse for its new incarnation, I had to cut it off the metal frame; remove the saddle and other molded elements that were in the way, then cover these with Bondo to remake the body; and skin / tan a number of hides to attach to the form. The Skin Horse has since traveled to Philadelphia for an Alt Taxidermy competition, put in an appearance at Art Beat, and took part in the Buchanan Art League's "All Creatures Great and Small" show.

Here's where it started—I found a neglected bouncy horse on the side of the road, waiting for the garbage truck. So I threw it in the back of my trusty Subaru and brought it home.

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First step: get the horse off the metal frame. After fiddling with bolts and springs, I realized that I'd have to cut through the metal frame to free the horse. Dremel to the rescue!

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Dis-assembly well under way!

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I was surprised to find a collection of random junk inside the horse's belly. Here's what the previous owners "fed" to their poor pony.

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I also discovered that the horse was filthy, inside and out.

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After a lot of thought, I decided to support the horse on a large post through the middle. So I cut holes in the top and bottom of the torso, ran a branch through, and filled the body with expanding foam to hold everything in place.

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Here's what it looked like after the foam set.

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I decided pretty early on that the molded details HAD TO GO. Again, I brought out the Dremel and began cutting off the saddle and stirrups.

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The foam I'd placed inside helped fill in the space left when the saddle was removed.

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Molded bits removed from the torso.

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The face was marred by a molded bridle, which was also slated for removal.

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Seriously, I don't know where I'd be without this tool.

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Most of the detail is cut away here.

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What I didn't realize was that friction from the Dremel heated the plastic so that the flying dust was essentially molten—and it fused to my fingers as it cooled!

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Back in the studio: time to smooth out the torso and fill in the space left from the saddle. I decided to staple some window screening over the exposed bits.

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Closeup of staples.

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I smoothed Bondo over the window screening to re-contour the body.

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First coat of bondo, ready for sanding!

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To attach the head, I filled it with spray foam and inserted a section of broom handle.

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The handle fit into a hole drilled into the torso for added support.

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Additional spray foam is used to secure the handle, and a mega bungee cord is rigged up to brace the head in place as it dries.

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A second application of Bondo is used to further smooth out the face and cover the neck joint.

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The four legs were all separate pieces.

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Back to the broom handle. I created more pegs and again used spray foam to secure the legs into place.

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Two legs attached with the foam drying.

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Once the legs were placed, I sanded down the foam and used more Bondo to smooth out the seams.

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I used a power sander and the Dremel's grinding attachments to shape, smooth, and contour the Bondo on the entire piece.

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A few of the leg pegs were too long, so I cut the ends off.

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Sockets were further smoothed out with clay.

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I had hoped to use the existing eye structure but decided it was hopeless. So I cut off both the molded eyes.

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Using clay and an easy-set taxidermy eye system, I replaced the eyes and re-contoured the head with clay for a more realistic presentation.

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The eye on the right has been placed and the clay has been built up. Unfortunately, I let the clay dry out prior to adding the skin here, so I lost/had to redo most of this work later.

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I stressed the anatomy but decided that it just wasn't going to be exact. Still, I carved out the nostrils to create a somewhat more realistic shape.

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I placed a faux septum, though you can't really see it on the finished nose anyway.

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Did you know you can buy horse tails online? I ordered 4 from a Native American trading post, not knowing how much I'd need. They were dried out and hard as a rock.

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Artemis thought the tails made a good place to sleep.

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Tails were soaked in the bathtub, washed repeatedly, treated with leave-in conditioner, and sprayed with Garnier glossing spray.

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Once the body was prepped, I still needed to get the skins ready. I'd been skinning, pickling, and tanning skins concurrently throughout the entire process. Here I'm fleshing out a fox pelt for placement on the chest and neck.

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More skin prep.

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Murder scenes have chalk outlines. Taxidermy scenes have salt outlines.

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Bucket o' pelts—deer, raccoon, fox, rabbit, and squirrel here. I actually ran out midway through the process and had to do a quick thaw on two squirrels from the freezer to prep additional skins.

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Here's the deer hide after a week of alum tanning. I'm really pleased with how it turned out!

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Once the deer hide was broken, it was cut to fit the back of the horse and hide paste was applied. You can see where I accidentally stepped on it, and I wound up tracking some paste around on the floor...

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Deer hide is placed and smoothed on!

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I kept the deer covered in plastic and misted with water when not working with it so it wouldn't dry out too much.

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Staining the post.

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Adding fox pelt to the chest.

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More skins have been added here—the horse includes fox, raccoon, rabbit, and deer at this point.

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I was flummoxed about how to do the eyelids, but decided to shave down the rabbit pelt and tuck it into place here. I think it worked pretty well. On an actual cape, you'd have real eyelids to work with, so I had to improvise.

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From Thursday into Friday I worked over 30 straight hours without stopping. Final skin count includes: fox, deer, squirrel, rabbit, raccoon, goat, and horse.

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I can't begin to describe what 30 hours of work with no sleep did to my hands. This photo doesn't begin to do it justice.

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I used the shaving trick again to cut the nose hair down.

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WE MADE IT! Here's The Skin Horse (and Laramie) in place at the competition in Philadelphia! Not pictured: I printed and framed the quote about being real from the Velveteen Rabbit. This was displayed on a pedestal in front of the horse.

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Another view, all set up.

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I was given 10 minutes to present on my pieces for the judges and attendees. I was nervous as hell but once I started my natural motormouth took over. Behind me is Beth Beverly, the organizer and queen of the evening!

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I didn't win a prize, but felt immense pride at finishing a really intense project. I also got to meet a ton of wonderful, like-minded people!

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Repping La Grotesquerie!

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