David Harper visited by Suzanne Carte-Blanchenot

I was introduced to your work only recently through the exhibition that Peter Dykhuis curated at the Dalhouise Art Gallery, Exalted Beings: Animal Relationships. I was immediately fascinated (and scared) by the piece The Look and Feel of a Real Woodstove Without the Hassles, which is a huge, stuffed bear teetering on faux wood-burning stove with an ornately stitched tattoo on its shaved back. How did the art of taxidermy first find its way into your practice?

There has never been a time in my life, as long as I can remember, where I have not felt a strong connectedness with animals. From this love comes a deep-seated influence to include animals, in many forms and representations, into my work. I find taxidermy fascinating in many ways, looking at a long, sordid history, many different cultural connotations, forms, styles, and histories. The art of taxidermy is exactly that, an art form. What truly fascinates me about the act of taxidermization is the human hand in the process. Animals on their own are natural beasts, needing no human contact, but we, as humans, are constantly demanding control over our surroundings. We have taxidermy as trophy, novelty, remembrance, and decoration, but what I like to focus on is the act of man’s need to integrate representations of the “natural world” into domestic interiors.

Growing up, a neighbour had numerous hunting memorabilia, photographs, and taxidermy animals proudly displayed around their house. Deer hooves sprung out of the wall and pheasants flew in from the corners of the room, but it was a lone groundhog that held my attention and frightened me most profoundly. Rearing on its hind legs the fierce creature was positioned, claws ready to strike and jaw open to consume. I imagined the battle that must have ensued, the struggle with my neighbour victorious over the “man-eating groundhog.” The story almost wrote itself.

I mention this because the deer forms in your studio are in keeping with the image of the hunter braving the greater Canadian landscape as well as the previous work that you have done with pelts and the bear. So it seems outside of that imaginary hunter to find the demure stuffed mouse and the proud majestic horse within your space. Though, like the groundhog, they speak the loudest in a room full of more typically preserved species. How do you locate your “models”?

I did not grow up with taxidermy in the home, but I can remember the feeling that came over me the first time I saw a mounted deer head. There was a feeling of fascination, excitement, fear, sadness, and pain, but there was something else there, something more interesting. This inquisitiveness was about the make-up of the object itself. What I was looking at was natural and man-made at the same time. It became a symbol for a direct connect to something bigger, something within us, a cultural icon of what I would later realize to be a symbol of human behavior.

I am more drawn to what would be seen as “Northern woodland animals”, because it is what has always been around me. My mouse is a muse. Though I have worked with large animals, there is something that makes that mouse larger than life.

I pick my models based on the story I am trying to tell with the sculpture. For every idea that I have, there is an animal that belongs with it. Sometimes I don’t use an animal at all.

Doing a quick survey, could you give me a list of the animals (and animal parts) you currently have in your studio?

If you don’t mind, I’d like to keep that one private. I have to have some secrets.

The embroidery work directly on the animal speaks to two seemingly opposite “hobbies” — hunting and stitching. Where do you find yourself within these polar opposites of hyper masculine and feminine acts?

The hyper masculine and feminine acts work very well together. They are both actions that have through history passed hands multiple times. They have always carried gender archetypes that often contradict themselves. For me they are immensely important. When you embrace what can be seen as the farthest ends of the “archetypically gendered” spectrum, everything in-between is made much more clear. I connect with both and find them to be extremely fascinating. I found something in both taxidermy and embroidery that I love and connect. Perhaps it is their histories, purposes and roles within our lives.

In your older embroidered pieces, the stitch-work functioned as a transparency allowing viewers to see what had at one point lain underneath the skin of the animal (much like the invisible man and woman figurines), yet your new stitch-work adds a layer on the flesh, mimicking contemporary adornments. What is your connection to the art of tattooing?

The older skeletal works had a strong focus on the skin (or hide), examining that thin layer that connects the workings of a creature to the outside world. My intentions were to show the viewer how the corium (a structural layer of the skin) acts as almost a canvas or shroud which covers what we may or may not know to be true underneath. Embroidering through that layer connects the inside (the unseen) to the outside (the seen). The use of embroidery to show the inner workings of an animal was also speaking to a more affectionate and devotional way of revealing the bones of a particular animal to the viewer.

In more recent works, the focus has been not what lies beneath this layer, but what could be represented on the layer. The tattoo works spoke directly to the culture of story telling. Appropriating well-celebrated old military tattoo flash that historically told the stories of those who wore them proudly on their skin was a means to examine one’s act of using their personal canvas to visually tell their stories. My connections to tattoo culture started at a very young age. Fascinated and determined to visually tell my stories to the world, my first tattoo was given to me at a young age. I wanted to visually mark important and life changing moments. It is the same reason many people get tattoos, to act as visual reminders and a road map of my history on my skin. Hanging out in tattoo parlours and having tattoo artists as friends dictated spending a lot of time in that world, both as a fly on the wall and willing participant. Story telling is a huge aspect of both my art making process and tattooing records. The permanence and cultural significance of story telling and land-marking will always be something that I look at with curious eyes.

Lately my imagery has a stronger focus on ornamentation and the excessively lavish adornments of the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

What new stories do you want to tell with this ornamentation?

There is just something so right about that time period in terms of aesthetics. Most of my research over the years, and I have done a lot, has looked to that time period. For example: nineteenth century French pet-keeping, Italian cabinets of curiosities, work revolutions, craft revolutions, art revolutions… it’s all there. It was a time when artists had their hands in everything. Everyone was looking at form and function. It really comes down to the ornamentation of things. In the skeletal work, I use a beautiful form of textile ornamentation to depict the less appealing inner workings of a creature. With the tattoos I was using body ornamentation. My work will always be ornate.

In terms of story-telling, I think my Shadow Puppet embroideries are the best example. I took nineteenth century shadow puppetry illustration and modified them to embroider onto hides once again. This whole process speaks directly to a story of action and creation. The work in the end is an intricate hand-created process (embroidery) used to depict the image of hands, which are manipulating themselves to depict an animal on the animal.

The story is process.