What stands out about the miniature can-can dancer isn’t just that she’s a dead squirrel, but that she’s a dead squirrel wearing plastic Barbie platform heels.
Barbie clothes tend to fit squirrels pretty well, Cindy Klippenstein explains. She used to get all of her squirrel costumes from the Barbie section of the toy store. Now, she just uses the shoes and makes the rest of the clothes herself.
“I don’t sew, I just glue-gun stuff together,” she says. “There’s a lot of glue-gun work involved.”
Heels aside, the squirrel’s outfit is remarkably similar to those worn by the Yukon Sourdough Rendezvous can-can dancers, with its black bodice and multi-coloured skirt. It’s even got a lacy garter on one of its furry thighs.
The can-can squirrel is one of a number of new pieces Klippenstein has prepared for her new show, Squirrels just wanna have fun!, opening March 3 at Northern Front Studio in Whitehorse.
All of the installations will be dead squirrels. Squirrel Gord Downie will make an appearance, dressed in the feathered hat and Jaws t-shirt he wore during his final Tragically Hip performance last summer. A grizzled squirrel Slash will also be present, hunched over his guitar, cigarette dangling beneath his whiskers — clearly past his Guns N’ Roses prime.
“It’s super weird. It’s really weird, I know,” said Klippenstein. She describes the show as a “strange art exhibition.”
But it’s the weirdness that makes it fun. “There’s a lot of laughs to be had, right? Walking around looking at dead squirrels.”
Klippenstein is an apprentice taxidermist at Northfork Taxidermy, where she works with the kinds of dead animals you might expect — sheep and bears and so on.
Her interest in squirrels started innocently enough. A few years ago, when she was just learning basic taxidermy skills, a friend of hers gave her some squirrels from his trapline to practise skinning. She said the rodents are a nuisance for many trappers.
“Inevitably just a bunch of squirrels get caught in their traps. So it’s just kind of like a throwaway animal at that point,” Klippenstein said.
She started skinning the squirrels and tanning their hides for practice. Then she started making little wire frames for them and shaping their heads with clay. “Then I got this idea because I’m weird,” she said.
Her first dressed-up squirrel was a pirate — for purely practical reasons. She’d accidentally cut off an arm and a leg, so it made sense to replace them with a hook and a peg leg.
Even today, some of her best work is inspired by mistakes. A couple of squirrels whose faces didn’t turn out quite right have become a glowering couple, the he-squirrel wearing overalls and glasses and holding a pitchfork in a furry recreation of American Gothic, the famous 1930 painting.
To date, Klippenstein has stuffed, shaped and dressed about 40 squirrels, including 13 that she used to recreate The Last Supper — a piece she opted not to show her Mennonite grandparents.
She held her first show in 2014 and called it Fur and Loathing. It included scenes from Dirty Dancing — Patrick Swayze lifting Baby over his head, of course — and Brokeback Mountain, with two cowboy squirrels holding each other beside a campfire.
It was the first time many people had seen her work, Klippenstein said, but she got a good response. In fact, she sold all of her pieces right there at the show.
“It’s just like a good gift,” she said. “It’s a good gift for your weird friend that has everything, you know what I mean?”
Since that first show, she’s made a few squirrels on commission, including Han Solo and Princess Leia.
But her workload has grown substantially, now that she’s putting together another full exhibit. As of last week, she had about 30 or 40 frozen squirrels on hand, still waiting to be skinned and sculpted. Once the hides are tanned, each squirrel can take anywhere from a couple of hours to half a day to put together.
The amount of labour gives the saying “going squirrelly” a whole new meaning, she said.
But the work hasn’t put a damper on her creativity. If she has time, Klippenstein plans to make the Spice Squirrels for her upcoming show. She also wants to make a squirrel version of Madonna — a Material Squirrel, if you will.
And looking ahead, she even has plans to branch out from squirrels to birds, logically. She has a frozen chicken in her freezer that she’d like to mount on rollerskates one day.
She’d also like to apply for a grant to make a squirrel-based Gold Rush diorama.
Certainly, stuffed squirrels are an unusual art form. Even Klippenstein doesn’t seem entirely sure why she loves making them so much.
But as a fine arts major, she’s very aware that her degree doesn’t have a whole lot of practical applications. Taxidermy allows her to use her artistic sensibilities as part of a trade. Squirrel taxidermy is just another artistic outlet.
“I need to do something with my weird ideas,” she said. “It’s just like creative expression, I guess.”
Squirrels just wanna have fun! opens at the Northern Front Studio in Whitehorse from 6 to 9 p.m. on Friday, March 3. The exhibit will run through March.
Contact Maura Forrest at email@example.com