It started out as a love story. At the time, Nate Hill lived in Florida — specifically, a part of the Sunshine State where dead armadillos regularly lay belly-up along the side of the highway. He never thought much about taxidermy, but he liked a girl who liked preserving animal corpses. So he did what any enterprising and romantic young man would have done: He cruised around for dead animals, pulled over when he found one, and made it a gift for the object of his affection.
He never got the girl, but by the time he moved to New York City years later, he’d acquired a new skill that would be the beginning of an artistic career… of sorts.
For the past several months, Hill has hosted the Chinatown Garbage Tour, a scavenger hunt through the neighborhood’s waste sites. He provides the participants with latex gloves and leads the curious through trash containers, looking for dead fish and amphibians. Everyone is welcome, and no experience is necessary.
Although the practice was honed in rural Florida, it was made for New York City, whose dark underbelly is generally where the more interesting pastimes can be found: thrill-seekers hosting parties in abandoned subway tunnels, gourmet environmentalists protesting over-consumption by diving for food in dumpsters. It was only a matter of time before bands of taxidermists made use of Chinatown’s wild assortment of dead animals.
Hill’s free tours attract diverse groups and have drawn sizeable crowds each month. “I like to decorate with found objects,” says Williamsburg artist and attendee Sara Worden. “You know how Victorian hats had birds on them? I was thinking about doing the same thing, but with fish.” A couple of medical students came prepared with their own containers for specimens, and a documentary filmmaker zoomed in on hands rummaging through innards.
Hill helps by giving useful hints to the uninitiated. His website, for example, advises to “Treat that box of dead fish like a lady.” It’s not just a creepy image, it’s helpful advice; you never know when you might find sharp objects buried inside the mounds of slick scales and gills. He also informs participants how and where to buy inexpensive preservatives, and where one is most likely to find frogs (one of the most coveted prizes of the hunt).
As a host, Nate walks a fine line between flamboyance and reserve. He shows up to each meeting dressed in a random costume. When I first encountered him in December, he was wearing a milkman uniform. Is he contrasting the juice of life and birth with the decay of death? Is he using an icon of the wholesome 1950s to make a sly and ironic comment on the underworld of taxidermy? “I just want to confuse people,” he quipped. A month later, he showed up to the tour with the equally inexplicable uniform of a paratrooper.
On the other hand, he’s not much of a showman. He keeps his speeches short, and is almost always accompanied by his long-term girlfriend. She was conservatively dressed and reserved when I met her, hardly what one could describe as a rogue taxidermist’s groupie. When I asked if it took her a while to come to terms with her love’s hobby, she stated, “I’m a social worker, so I’m pretty open-minded,” as though this should explain it all.
The term for this seemingly unsavory group activity is “rogue taxidermy.” Whereas mainstream taxidermists try to respect and preserve the animals to the best of their abilities, the “rogues” manufacture their own oddities by sewing several pieces of various animals together. For instance, the press material for the Minnesota Association for Rogue Taxidermists boasts about sideshow-esque hybrids like “Siamese Frogs,” “Screaming Housecats” and “Road-kill Opossum.”
Hill takes this interspecies bricolage to new levels of ingenuity with A.D.A.M. (“A Dead Animal Man”), a man-shaped, man-sized thing sewn together from parts of thirteen different animals. He unveiled the creature at the end of January, at his studio in Bed-Stuy, and crowds, who were offered both free beer and free odor-reducing face-masks, shifted uneasily before a man made out of chicken, conch, cow, crab, deer, duck, eel, fish, frog, lobster, rabbit, shark and dog.
Yes, dog. Hill found a decapitated pooch on the side of the road in Florida. He decided to keep it for A.D.A.M.’s head.
Turning the head of a domesticated animal into art takes a dark imagination. Perhaps equally disconcerting to the faithful, Nate says that he’s “obsessed with imitating God,” and he means it. On his website (stoproadkill.org), he published the Bible Rewrite Project, where so far he’s revised the first 42 chapters of Genesis. His testament starts with, “In the beginning, Nate created Nate.” Add necromancy, and Nate’s project sounds downright Faustian.
It might surprise people to know that in person, Nate is quietly religious, and almost hesitant to discuss his faith outside prepared press statements. “I feel God would have a sense of humor about what I do,” Nate explained to me, as we downed our beers following the tour.
I spoke to him about his beliefs at Home Sweet Home, a taxidermy-themed bar on the Lower East Side, and the place was decorated with what a believer might call the majesty and variety of God’s creation. There was an open lion’s mouth locked in a permanent growl next the liquor bottles, and the bar had a display case with rabbits and owl heads. Perched on a branch hanging from the ceiling, an eagle — which a bartender confided was smuggled from Canada because American environmental law prevents using them as taxidermy — seemed to keep watch over the drinkers.
During our interview, Hill seemed almost reluctant to talk about his religious beliefs, a reticence at odds with the obvious parallels he’s created with a project named after the first human character in the Bible (not to mention the whole rewriting the Bible thing). I asked him whether he believed in God, and his reply was short and simple: “Yes.” When I asked if he subscribed to any organized religion, he said he was a Christian. There was neither cheek nor sarcasm in his voice, and I wondered whether Hill’s use of religious language in his work was earnest, mocking or posturing. Is Hill making a Lazarus out of the opossum, and is he recreating Jesus’s resurrection with the 13 animals that make up his masterwork? Or is he just putting us on?
It’s hard to say, but judging by the numerous congregants who make the pilgrimage down to Chinatown, Nate’s curious sermons would seem to have an appeal beyond the merely grotesque. And that has to count for something.