Kimberly Witham, who has a cool, firm handshake and uses words like “whack-a-doodle,” wants you to know most of her work doesn’t actually involve taxidermy.
“Mostly,” she says, “the animals are just straight up dead.”
It’s chilly in Charleston, late in the afternoon, and she is wearing a yellow peacoat, a cozy sweater with large buttons, jeans and cowboy boots. She has short blonde hair and a frank, wide-set gaze.
Pointing out a tiny cut on the belly of a silvery blue snake, she tells me she’s been photographing road kill since 2007.
“See, he was probably clipped by a lawnmower. This one was interesting. With roadkill, you know, most things are stuck in rigor. But snakes are flexible. They have a little give. So I wrapped him in position around this vase with wire, and stuck him in the freezer.”
She stepped back, looking at it. “But it’s amazing how fast snakes melt.”
She’d poised him to coil upwards, after a beetle she perched in the vase’s bouquet. But as the snake thawed, he began to droop, and she had to pop him back in the freezer.
“This deer over here-” We walked to a collection of large photographs, each of a different fawn, positioned with milk glass, berries, vegetables. “I had to put him back in the freezer three or four times.” She uses a stand-up freezer with the shelves taken out. “It’s big enough that you, for example, could just walk into it…”
“And this is twine, here? Wrapped around his… what is this called…”
“His foreleg! Well- so my studio is a sun porch. It’s glassed in, so I get this wonderful natural light. All my images use natural light. But it’s small, just 5 or 6 feet. I’d figured out exactly how I wanted him, but the way his leg was, I couldn’t get him all in frame. I couldn’t back up far enough, you know. So I took a hair dryer- this is gross, maybe you don’t want to put it in print- and I just bent over him and kind of… moved his leg…” She moved her hands, making the gestures women use to explain how they did their hair.
The fawn weighed, oh, about 45 pounds. She found it while running a trail near her house and carried it home in a laundry basket. “It’s remarkably easy to sneak a dead baby deer past the neighbor’s children. But it’s possible they suspect… Ah! Perhaps also of note: all the flowers and vegetables you see here are grown in my own garden.”
The flowers and vegetables were beautiful. Moving to a different photograph, Witham pointed out the correspondence between the shadowy pattern of the milk glass with the pattypan squash positioned beside it. The squash had roundish yellow markings; the fawn, curling upwards into the air, balanced perfectly atop the glass, also possessed roundish markings. Which were, of course, white.
“And this series I call ‘The Suburban Ossuary’- the place where bones are kept.” Now we were catty corner to the fawns, looking at an evocative series of jaws, skulls, a pelvis. One set of jaws, slightly grungier than the other, formerly belonged to a dog; the whiter pair, a fox.
“These jaws actually belonged to that guy over there,” she said, pointing to a fox (who was tailless) in a photograph across the room. His paw was propped in what looked like a light fixture.
“I bury the animals after I finish photographing them. Sometimes they get dug back up- by dogs and other things; we live near the woods- and I find them again. And so the same animals reappear in my images, but in different forms.”
In the center of the room was a squirrel she called Buster, perched atop a totem made of a candy dish, goblet and watering can. On the pedestal beside him was a tiny, finger-length mole inside an egg cup. One of his paws was raised ever so slightly, almost playfully- on top of a doily and a bit of sunny embroidery.
“A whimsical grotesque,” Witham called it. As I admired the embroidery: “I find all this great stuff at yard sales, thrift stores,” she said. “When I’m done, I’m going to have the most amazing garage sale ever.”
But working hand in hand with death this way- had it changed her relationship with her own body?
“Actually, I’m inspired by this idea that everything goes away, is temporary- you know Vanitas paintings?” I did not. She explained to me the Dutch still life paintings of flowers, dead rabbits, bones. “Right now I’m working on a darker series, with kind of this Caravaggio theme…”
“When I see these dead animals, it makes me sad. There’s this conflict between people and nature- these photographs are, I guess, a kind of testament to the fact that they lived. That they lived, and they were beautiful.”
The dead things were beautiful still in her photographs. Photography is a strange art. As I’ve said here before, it gives the feeling of possessing a moment, an object: a life. Maybe in the same way an obituary does. In the captured time of a photograph, everything seems clear, obvious. Preserved? Maybe so.
“Also I play a bit on this domestic aesthetic, that Martha Stewart idea of domestic perfection. When I was in New Jersey, every day I saw so many dead deer in the road. I’d say to my students, ‘there’s so many dead deer!’ They’d just shrug and be like, “Oh, yeah. It’s always like that.” But to see between five and ten new ones in the road every day- and there are these trucks always coming by to pick up the bodies, to dump them in the landfill… I started photographing them. But it was too literal, maybe. Eventually I brought home a squirrel. And from there it just… went.”
She is especially interested in squirrels. There is a magnetized squirrel in a picture frame (code name Bubba), and pictures of many: one is curled up like furry filling in a pie dish; another is keeled over, stiff-legged in a dish, his tail drooping, Davy Crockett style, over one edge.
(Side note: Davy Crockett was purchased by an art lover who hates squirrels. “Got to have it,” he said.)
We looked at a nuthatch in a soap dish- this particular nuthatch had dispatched itself against her mother’s window; another had a dried nasturtium in its beak. The nasturtium arced over his small, gritty body- like a banner; his own epitaph, almost- or else a killer fungi.
I found myself studying her photographs long after she left. I kept coming back to Witham’s statement that many of the same animals reappear throughout her work, but in different forms– here is the creature entire: and here now are its bones-
Maybe this is the way of all things. We visit upon an idea, it goes subterranean for a time, and then surfaces again. Dreams evolve over a lifetime; lessons deepen; old loves become new. For Kimberly Witham, the resurfacing of ideas is tangible.
Wunderkammer is here until March 8th, 2014. Come and see.
Pauline West is a novelist and member of Redux Studios. She is at work on a Southern Gothic about a girl who opens a door between the lands of the living and the dead.