Divya Anantharaman places a scalpel into the chest of a sparrow that lies belly-up on a cutting board. “You have to find the natural part, and cut along that,” she explains. “He has a part in his feathers, just like we have a part in our hair.”
No, this isn’t one of Divya’s wildly popular taxidermy classes. She’s at her Greenpoint studio, preparing the bird to be used as flair for her very first pair of taxidermy shoes.
Divya knows footwear (she graduated from Pratt with a degree in fashion and sculpture, and until recently was a freelance footwear designer) and she knows taxidermy (you might recognize her as the “dead animal addict” from the TLC series “My Strange Addiction”). So it’s only natural her two pastimes would come together in the form of some very sick kicks.
She designed this debut pair in front of us, and sent her sketch to a cobbler in London. The shoe is extreme – open toe, covered in silver scales, with a dramatically curved six-inch heel — even without the sparrow on the back of the right heel, surrounded by smoky quartz crystals.
“I want to have crystals growing out of the shoe, and this sparrow flying in, to really make it all about movement,” Divya said.
As if all that weren’t enough, the insoles will be infused with perfumed oil that Divya, inspired by the Victorian art of perfuming leather, mixes herself. “Instead of smelling like Odor Eaters, your shoes will smell like natural cedar perfume,” Divya laughs.
When the shoes are unveiled (this fall, she hopes) they’ll be closer to sculptural art than traditional stilettos. “A shoe this high, even if it was plain, is not made for taking the subway,” she points out. “It’s something you could wear to the Met gala.” Given the expected price tag of $2,500 to $3,000, you might just want to put them on the mantle, she suggests.
The shoes are just the latest development in a five-year-old obsession with taxidermy that has transformed into a full-fledged career. Divya’s classes at ACME Studio in Williamsburg sell out weeks in advance, and she now travels regularly to teach up and down both the East and West Coasts.
During a recent Saturday afternoon at ACME, she guided a dozen students as they skinned some mice.
“Yeah, keep going,” she encouraged one student. “You should feel the inside of the skull. It’s great.”
In black leather shorts, a black tank that exposed her midriff, stockings and black ankle boots, Divya looked like she should’ve been at brunch. But when it came time to pull out the mouse’s tail, she was all business. “You have to pluck it out…really pull,” she told the class. “It’s very satisfying, isn’t it?”
This particular class was on anthropomorphic taxidermy – in which animals are dressed up and positioned in human poses with miniature props (because “it’s so cute!”).
For each of her animals, Divya creates a story. “I love fantasy and fairy tales,” she says. “There’s a lighter side to them, if you look for it. I’m not as interested in the dark and drab stuff.”
One of her scenes is about revenge: a mouse, decked out in jewelry and a pink tutu, stands on her hind legs, waving a wand over a miniature plastic grey cat. “She shrunk the cat,” Diyva explains.
Divya’s fascination with dead animals goes back to childhood. One of her earliest memories is of finding a dead lizard in the backyard. “I felt so bad for it. I was so upset that it was dead,” she recalls. She put it in a box with her rock and shell collection, where it remained until it started to rot; her parents eventually found it, and threw it away.
“Ever since then,” Divya mused, “I’ve been curious about nature – super curious about how you could preserve something so that it can last.”
While in high school in Miami, Divya’s curiosity about anatomy grew: “I was totally that kid doing lots of dissections for extra credit.” At the same time, she became rebellious: her parents, who had both grown up in rural India, had a laundry list of rules, and Divya tried to break them all by staying out late, smoking, drinking, dying her hair.
Two weeks after she graduated from high school, she moved to New York City to study sculpture and fashion at Pratt. After college, as she launched a career as a freelance designer of shoes and accessories, she continued to be fascinated by the idea of dissecting and preserving dead animals. But living in Brooklyn, she didn’t have casual access to specimens, so she pored over detailed taxidermy manuals she found on Amazon instead.
Then, one winter day, she went on a hike upstate and serendipitously stumbled upon a dead mouse lying in the snow. It was kismet. “I picked him up, and took him home,” she said. The mouse was both her first project, and her ugliest: “because I had only read about how to do things, he came out really awful. There were definitely a lot of errors to learn from.”
And that’s exactly what she did. She began practicing in earnest, collecting small animals she found, already dead, on her many hikes and trips to the park. And she started inviting her friends to casual, impromptu classes at her home in Ditmas Park (she now lives in Fort Greene with her boyfriend, and a collection of her favorite pieces).
About a year ago, a close friend approached Divya with a request to taxidermy his cat – “luckily,” she laughs, “it came out really awesome” – and now she receives upwards of five a month, some from bereaved pet owners with odd requests. “Recently, I was commissioned to do a turtle,” Divya said. “The turtle was named Squirtle, and the owners wanted it to be dressed up to look like the Pokémon character.” Another time, a frozen ferret arrived with a miniature top hat.
And then there are the witches. “I’ve received two or three requests from witches who need material for pagan ceremonies,” Divya said. “They’re looking for black rabbits’ feet, particular animal parts, stuff like that. They want to do magic with bones and skeletons.”
For the most part, Divya’s students at Acme Studio aren’t interested in pagan rituals: her last class included a hedge fund manager, a gynecologist, two artists, a banker and a lawyer.
Gaing Don, a pretty Asian woman who works as an architect, had wanted to learn taxidermy for years before she discovered Divya. She paid $110 to take the anthropomorphic mouse class and walked away with a mouse on a miniature scooter, his tail raised jauntily behind him, creating the illusion of motion.
Now Don has signed up for Divya’s $250 squirrel class. “I’m completely addicted,” she says. “Pulling the skin from the muscles, being able to actually see how everything is connected…it’s amazing.”
And Divya is kind of amazed, too. “Even just a few years back, the mentality was ‘this is really gross,’” she says. “Now, it’s like, ‘This is really fucking cool.’”
It remains to be seen whether such enthusiasm will be shown for Divya’s taxidermy shoes. But as she explains, they’re less crazy than they sound: “All leather shoes are made out of taxidermy, really.”