New Brunswick·Feature

Creeped out by dead things? The tiny taxidermy creations at Back Road Crafts might not be for you

Cheryl Johnson is part-time taxidermist who specialises in stuffing small critters from the woods near her rural home near Titusville.

Not long ago, Cheryl Johnson came home to an unexpected gift from a neighbour.

"Someone dropped off a full-sized porcupine," she said. "I came up the driveway and there was a box with a foot sticking out."

Instead of being —understandably— dismayed, Johnson, 33, was delighted.

A part-time taxidermist, she specializes in stuffing small critters from the woods near her home near Titusville, about 45 kilometres north-east of Saint John.

"If they weren't being given to me, they'd just be thrown in the woods," she said. "I really like the idea of making the most of any animal that comes my way."

Johnson runs her studio, Back Road Crafts, out of her family's basement.

"I do taxidermy and I also do things with entomology, so that means bugs and things like that," she said. 

"I grew up on a farm: when I was a kid, our parents would show us all kinds of things about farm life. We used to butcher all of our own chickens and turkeys. One time, I saw a cow give birth off the back porch. So I'm definitely used to animals."

Just don't bring over any roadkill. 

"In New Brunswick it's illegal to pick up roadkill, which can have disease," she said.

Most of the animals with which she does work have gone to their reward "from natural causes," she said.

Johnson's projects range from rabbits and crows to pet gerbils and scorpions, as well as objets d'art fashioned from bones, skulls, quills, and other remains.

The CBC's Julia Wright paid a visit to her studio and captured these photos. 

Cheryl Johnson, 33, is a part-time taxidermist and the owner of Back Road Crafts, which is outside of Titusville. Most of her work involves small animals that are either donated, or which she finds herself in the woods. “I grew up on a farm and when I was a kid our parents would show us all kinds of things about farm life," said Johnson. "We used to butcher all of our own chickens and turkeys, one time I saw a cow give birth off the back porch. So I’m definitely used to animals.” (Julia Wright)
Before starting any specimen, she visually inspects the animal for noticeable problems. “I wouldn’t want to get sick,” she said. “If you come across an animal that has quills in its face that you’d think would be smart enough not to, it could have rabies. I avoid those, and obviously anything that has a bad smell - because once that smell gets into something it really doesn’t go away.” Unlike many taxidermists who work with hunting trophies, the objective Johnson’s work isn't always to make the animals appear as they did when alive. In some cases, like that of a creepy deformed kitten, pictured pinned for drying, the animal was never alive. With other finds, like the coyote jawbones, pictured near the bottom, Johnson applies vivid paint and other artistic embellishments. (Julia Wright/CBC)
Since she took up the hobby in 2015, Johnson’s taxidermy projects have included mummified salamanders and shrews, pictured in the foreground, and larger specimens like a groundhog, rear, who she’s fitting with a dress. In addition to her skills as a taxidermist, Johnson is a seamstress and part-time piano teacher, both skill-sets which she said have contributed to her success as a taxidermist. “It’s all fine finger-work,” she explained. (Julia Wright/CBC)
Several drawers in Johnson’s taxidermy room are filled with small animal bones she comes across on the ground in the forests and on beaches. For almost a decade, Johnson said, she and her husband have hunted almost all the meat they consume. “That means I go in the woods a lot, and I come across a lot of different animals that way.” (Julia Wright/CBC)
Yummy: this common field mouse, captured by a friend in a trap, was frozen in a baggie and stored in the freezer until Johnson was ready to begin the project. One the mouse has thawed, she brings it to her basement workshop to start the preservation process. “My favourite is mice,” she said, “because I’ve done them the most, and they’re the least difficult for me now. It’s neat to be able to see them up close.” (Julia Wright/CBC)
Johnson places the mouse on its back and prepares to make an incision along the length of its abdomen. The work isn’t as messy as one might expect: with practice, she said, it’s possible to remove the innards with minimal gore. The skin is then stretched over a form made of wire and cotton batting. (Julia Wright/CBC)
Johnson wears gloves as she applies Borax - soft, colourless crystals of sodium borate - to the interior of the mouse's skin. Once the internal organs have been taken out, remaining flecks of muscle must be also be removed, and the inside of the skin treated to keep it from decomposing. (Julia Wright/CBC)
Due to allergies, Johnson wears a mask and gloves when working on her specimens. Before she starts, she visually inspects the animal for noticeable problems. “I wouldn’t want to get sick,” she said.“If you come across an animal that has quills in its face that you’d think would be smart enough not to, it could have rabies. I avoid those, and obviously anything that has a bad smell - because one that smell gets into something it really doesn’t go away.” (Julia Wright/CBC)
Zombie mouse: once the creature's innards have been removed and its skin stretched over the wire-and-cotton form, it must be pinned in place to dry - an extremely unsettling, pinhead-like effect. The pins hold the skin in place as the specimen dries, after which it becomes rigid and cannot be re-positioned. (Julia Wright/CBC)
"A lot of times people ask me what I’m working on," said Johnson. "When I tell them, sometimes they’ll be like, ‘ew.’ But other times they’ll be like, ‘wow, how did you do it?” The biggest animal she's completed so far is this rabbit, who she calls Mr. Bun Bun. The smallest: a tiny shrew. (Julia Wright/CBC)
Very Georgia O'Keeffe: in addition to small, furry creatures, Johnson works extensively with skulls and bones. Between gifts from friends and the specimens she finds on her own, the work can pile up. That why, Johnson said, "I have a dead freezer - that was one of my first investments. At first I was putting it in our normal freezer, but then one day my husband was looking for something to eat and was like, ‘hey, look, I found some jerky....oh wait.’ So we pretty much decided I have to have my own freezer." (Julia Wright/CBC)
The line of taxidermy goods Johnson has created for sale include pendants that capture tiny, delicate insect wings, and minuscule bell-jars filled with the bones of birds. To the left are fur piece she’s fashioning into coyote and fox tail keychains. (Julia Wright/CBC)
Some of Johnson's completed creations, including a skull in a jar, and a taxidermy mole in a china pitcher, sit on a shelf ready for sale at Heartbreak Boutique, an independent clothing boutique on Germain Street in Saint John. Since Johnson developed the line of creations with the assistance of boutique owner Pam Wheaton, she said, they've found there's a surprisingly large market for small taxidermy works in New Brunswick. (Julia Wright/CBC)

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