Jazmine Miles-Long, Ethical Taxidermist
“I just fell in love with it,” declared Jazmine Miles-Long, the ardent taxidemist of Stepney, when I visited her tiny workshop yesterday, “You only do it if you really love it, because taxidermy is such hard work.” A tall woman with straight hair, dark gleaming eyes and a serious self-confident manner, at twenty-four years old, Jazime is already ruffling feathers in the secretive and competitive British taxidermy community, with her radical and witty approach to this controversial art form.
The first thing you should know about Jazmine is that, as an ethical taxidermist, all her creatures died of natural causes or perished in accidents. No animals were killed in the making of these works. In fact, Jazmine herself has been a vegetarian since the age of nine and her work is an expression of her lifelong devotion to animals. “I’m completely obsessed with animals, I think they’re wonderfully interesting things and incredibly beautiful. As a child, I was only allowed cats and rats, and I still keep three rats in a cage in my bedroom,” she confided to me fondly.
You might wonder where Jazmine gets the dead animals that are both the raw material and subject of her of art, but I discovered that finding them is not a problem, as she explained to me, “Most of the animals come from the road outside my parents’ home in Herstmonceux, East Sussex.” You might think Herstmonceux is a black spot for roadkill, but Jazmine revealed that the entire modern world is dangerous place for wildlife, “Once you start looking for dead animals, they’re absolutely everywhere. The other day, I said I wanted a magpie and I got five in a row at the side of the road. Sometimes people find out about me and they’ve been hoarding birds in their freezer that crashed into their windows and died, but were too nice to throw away.” No-one could fault the cool logic of Jazmine’s scheme to create inspirational sculpture from these pitiful tragedies of animal life.
Jazmine studied sculpture at Brighton where she created environments in which she cohabited with animals, as a means to explore the relationship between animals and humans. Leaving college and seeking a living, Jazmine chose taxidermy, only to discover that it was as difficult as pursuing art. “Taxidermy was my idea of a career, and it’s been a bit of a struggle.” she confided with a weary smile, recounting her dogged attempts penetrate the small world of British taxidermy,“My learning has been completely self-directed. I joined the Guild of Taxidermists and, after calling up asking a lot of questions, I persuaded Jack Fishwick of the Museum of Scotland to let me join his studio on a voluntary basis, watching and helping him. But it has taken me three years to get to this point, where I have been doing commissions for the past year and now I have my first solo show which puts forward my own interpretation of taxidermy – because there’s quite a lot of pressure from the taxidermy community to do it in a certain way.” And Jazmine knitted her brows to illustrate the oppressive resistance of the taxidermy establishment.
“When I see a squirrel, I put a certain personality onto it and I may imagine it’s flirting with me,” revealed Jazmine delicately, as if that is what everyone thinks when they see a squirrel. Rejecting the conventional practice of creating stuffed creatures that are impassive within a natural environment, Jazmine seeks to emphasise the characterful presence of her creations, arranging ingenious and startling dramatic tableaux to confront the viewer. She is a taxidermist of the post-Marcel Duchamp, post-Maurizio Cattelan, post-Damien Hirst school and she is top of her class.
Jazmine is the first to admit that her work polarises opinion, “For a lot of people, the whole idea of touching something dead is disgusting, when they don’t have a problem eating meat.” she posited wryly. One of her most controversial pieces is a tiny lamb curled up, apparently sleeping, in a suitcase. Jazmine explained that her father, who fits kitchens for living, found the lamb. It was born unable to drink and was being kept alive in an Aga by a four year old girl who had knitted it a jumper. When it died, he told the little girl that his daughter would take care of it for her and so Jazmine acquired the lamb in a sweater. “Some people love it, others run away and can’t take it. They think it’s too morbid, they don’t like looking at death.” admitted Jazmine plainly. I found the sculpture to be an affectionate elegy for young life, contemplative and plangent like a Metaphysical poem.
Unlike conventionally lifeless stuffed animals, Jazmine’s are full of vibrant life and feeling, which is a both a measure of her achievement and may also explain why they draw strong responses. Some people find them too lifelike. As with the paintings of Peter Roa around the neighbourhood, which Jazmine admires, these creatures demand our respect, challenging us to empathise and, in doing so, examine our relationship to the natural world.
In a former engineering works in a quiet corner of Stepney, Jazmine has constructed a modest two room cottage of breeze blocks where she lives and works, sleeping in one room with the three rats in a cage for company, and working alone each day in the other room surrounded by all her cherished creations and works-in-progress. Here in this secret windowless space, Jazmine single-mindedly pursues her art of perfectionism with big ambition, as she confessed to me candidly, her eyes glistening with excitement, “I want to be the best taxidermist ever. There’s a competition run by the Guild of Taxidermists and I mean to win it one year. It’s a very exclusive world and at the moment they think I am quite amusing, but I want to become a threat to them.”
Jazmine has an acute feeling for the strange poetry of animals and birds. They unlock something in her. This is personal work in which the creatures become vehicles to express aspects of Jazmine’s psyche. Jazmine Miles-Long is a fearless original. Out of the East End, a new star rises in the world of taxidermy.
Catch Jazmin Miles-Long’s debut exhibition at Rob Ryan’s shop Ryantown in Columbia Rd, open for two more weekends only, until Sunday 24th October.
Jazmine proudly showing her first fox.