Ankixa Risk is an affable and enthusiastic Hamilton business owner who just happens to enjoy skinning rats.

You know, for art’s sake.

She’s a Toronto transplant now living in Hamilton who started practising taxidermy about a decade ago. Now, she’s bringing it to the masses with one-day lessons in “casual taxidermy” where you too can learn to gussy up a rat and turn it into art.

“I’m making cute forever friends,” Risk told CBC Hamilton from her exhibit at Compilation on Wilson Street, near James Street North. “I love the presentation of the afterlife.”

'It took my mother a long, long time to be able to look at a piece.' - Ankixa Risk, taxidermist

That presentation varies – one of those “forever friends” is a rat riding a bike. Another is a graffiti artist rat holding a spray can. Next to that is a mounted, mythical Jackalope – a jackrabbit with antelope horns.

“I just realized I’m wearing the same skirt as she is,” she says, pointing to another one of her stuffed buddies.

Jackalope aside, most of her work is done using rats in an effort to keep things ethical and sustainable, she says. They come from reptile supply stores and after she or a student skins them, the meat from the animal is sent to reptile zoos to be served as dinner.

Occasionally though, a carcass will come to her through other means. Sometimes it’s someone’s pet that they’d like to have preserved.

She’ll only do that for rats and some other small animals like hedgehogs – no dogs or cats, as she feels like it could be traumatic for the person in the long run.

Then there’s roadkill. Risk isn’t above plucking an animal from the side of the road or the woods to use for her art. She’s still lamenting a roadside possum carcass she missed while driving not long ago because she didn’t have the right storage tools on her.

Taxidermy

Most of Risk's work deals with "anthropomorphic personification," and posing animals as people. (Adam Carter/CBC)

But in her classes, it’s all frozen, ethically purchased rats. Within an eight-hour session, students learn about taxidermy techniques that have been around since the Victorian Age, including how to skin a rat and then stuff it with cotton, fibre and pipe cleaners.

Then it’s all about finding the right accessories for the rat to turn it into a proper art piece. Bizarrely, most doll accessories tend to fit them. “They’re almost Barbie-sized – just with a more realistic waist,” she laughed.

Risk realizes this isn’t for everyone, but says most people have an open mind about her work. In some circles, taxidermy is even growing in popularity and becoming a bit of a fad. Her classes are small, but keep selling out. She’s even heading to the east coast this spring to teach there, too.

That said, some people will always find this fundamentally creepy.

“It took my mother a long, long time to be able to look at a piece.”

adam.carter@cbc.ca | AdamCarterCBC