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Former trooper uses same attention to detail in taxidermy

Nature’s law enforcement

Posted: Sunday, February 18, 2007

 

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  After sustaining an injury while in the line of duty, Greg Landeis, of Sterling, ended a more than 20-year career in law enforcement and opened Black Spruce Taxidermy and Wildlife Art, a business that specializes in fish and fowl reproductions. żIżd never speak bad about my previous career. I met a lot of good people and did a lot of good things, but this new business is really exciting,ż he said. Photo by Joseph Robertia

After sustaining an injury while in the line of duty, Greg Landeis, of Sterling, ended a more than 20-year career in law enforcement and opened Black Spruce Taxidermy and Wildlife Art, a business that specializes in fish and fowl reproductions. Id never speak bad about my previous career. I met a lot of good people and did a lot of good things, but this new business is really exciting, he said.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

Much like a detective skilled at looking for subtle clues is critical to solving a crime, so too is a taxidermist with an artistic eye for recognizing slight differences in the color, texture, expression and muscle movements of animals key to creating a high-quality mount.

Greg Landeis of Sterling knows the nuances of both professions. He traded tracking down criminals and putting them behind bars for a new career preserving fish and flying creatures to be mounted on walls, and said it was an easy transition to make.

Landeis was a police officer from 1982 to 2003 and the job took him around the United States and to several locations throughout Alaska, including Dillingham, Anchorage and Soldotna, the latter being where this line of work drew to an end after Landeis sustained an injury while on the job in 1995.

Landeis said he tore tendons and ligaments in one of his ankles while in a physical altercation with a suspect.

“I still got the bad guy, even with my leg flopping around,” he said.

The damage to his limb was irreparable, despite two surgeries and still another scheduled.

“I had to, and still have to, wear a brace on my leg, which cut down on my mobility,” he said.

 

Landeis compares a carving of a clown fish still in the early stages of reproduction to a picture of the real thing. He said, like police work, taxidermy requires close attention to detail. I think the more detail you look for, the better youll be at whatever you do, he said.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

After much deliberation, Landeis made the decision to shed his blue suit and badge in order to spread his wings and take flight on a new career path.

“Even though I was a cop, I spent all of my free time fishing, hunting and being in the woods. So when I knew I was retiring, I wanted something to fall back on, so I put myself through taxidermy school,” he said.

After completion of his animal preservation and replication studies, Landeis opened Black Spruce Taxidermy and Wildlife Art, a business he has been steadily growing for the past few years that specializes in fish and fowl. He also co-owns Tundra Tanning and Taxidermy in Wasilla, where more of the large furbearing game animals are processed into rugs, clothing and artwork.

“In a way it’s a lot like police work,” Landeis said.

As a law officer, Landeis might arrest a drunk driver one day, a shoplifter the next day and a domestic assault suspect the day after that.

“Now, I may work on moose, bear, or recreate a duck in flight, the whole nine yards really, so like police work, I’m not doing the same thing every day,” he said.

 

A reproduction of an oldsquaw — a sea duck that breeds across northern Alaska shows the intricate detail that Landeis prides himself on.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

When he retired Landeis was a detective — a position that, like taxidermy, required close attention to detail.

“I think the more detail you look for, the better you’ll be at whatever you do,” he said.

“Take king salmon for example. If you line up 15 of them all the same size, they’ll look pretty much the same to the average person,” he said.

But to the trained eye of one charged with not just recreating reality, but recreating a reality of the same intensity as a salmon struggling for life, no two kings appear the same, he said.

“When you really get to looking at them, looking at the shape of the head and body, you begin to notice,” he said.

Working as a taxidermist Landeis has put in only a fraction of the time he did as an officer, yet he already finds the work equally stimulating.

 

An enormous king salmon mount hanging on the wall of Landeis studio glistens as though it just came out of the Kenai River. He said taxidermists are charged with the task of not just recreating reality, but recreating a reality of the same intensity as a living creature would display.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

“I’d never speak bad about my previous career. I met a lot of good people and did a lot of good things, but this new business is really exciting,” he said.

Landeis said taxidermy also allows him to express his creativity in more ways.

He often spends hours carving scales, taping feathers or painting the bands of rockfish to make sure the colors blend as perfectly as they do on the living creature.

“This really is an art and you have to be creative. I don’t want to just mount a harlequin duck. I want to do them justice. I want to put it on a piece of driftwood with some seaweed and maybe some mussels on there. I want people who don’t know anything about them to look at that mount and say ‘That must be a sea bird,’” he said.

Doing these types of reproductions take a lot of time, and not all of it is in the studio. Field work also is necessary.

 

An audience of still-to-be-carved aquarium fish watch Landeis as he works in his Sterling studio.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

“To recreate a duck coming in for a landing, you’ve got to know exactly what that looks like,” Landeis said. “You’ve got to spend hours watching exactly how the birds flap their wings. You’ve got to think about the grass and the water, and I love all that. I love animals and I love looking at them, so this just seems like a natural progression for me.”

Working on an individual mount is fine, but for Landeis the real fun is in putting together entire habitat scenes.

For example, rather than just mounting a fisherman’s prize catch, Landeis said he may integrate a lake trout into an underwater scene were the fish is actively pursuing a small grayling past some lilypads or a piece of drift wood.

This is a particularly challenging aspect of Landeis’ work as a taxidermist, but not because of how time-consuming the scenes are to create. Rather, it’s because of how difficult it is to acquire certain Alaska fish for a recreation.

“A lot of the supply stores are in the Lower 48, so they don’t have grayling, sticklebacks and other prey fish. As a result I end up making my own,” he said.

 

Landeis says he spent hours painting this rockfish mount to make sure the colors blended as perfectly as they do on the living creature.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

So in addition to preserving animal components such as skin, feathers and fur for mammals mounts, Landeis spends a lot of time carving fish and other items out of wood, foam and other materials.

“I prefer wood carving over using the foam bases,” he said.

Foam bases are more typically used for skin mounts, which Landeis said “some people like better because they like to know it’s their fish.”

But since real pieces are used in skin mounts, if the mount gets damaged fins and other fine parts that are extremely difficult, if not impossible, to repair.

Landeis said he prefers carved reproductions over the skin mounts because they’re guaranteed for life.

“They’re not going to shrink over the years, like you see with a lot of tavern mounts where animals have these weird expressions from where their faces have pulled back as the skin tightened over the years, and if they break, they’re totally repairable,” he said.

But the wood cravings come with some drawbacks, too.

“A lot of the tools to do intricate wood carvings you can’t buy, so I end up having to make them myself. Also, wood carving is more traditional, but it takes a lot more time,” he said.

Just how much time is put into a mount often is lost to people who judge taxidermy work based solely on the price tag.

 

Landeis shows the before and after of a wood carving reproduction. Ive got about 100 hours into this trout, he said in regard to the finished product in his left hand.

Photo by Joseph Robertia

“Take for example this rainbow,” he said, holding up a intricately detailed trout replica with broad bands of silver, pink and forest green running down its glistening, speckled side.

“I’ve got about 100 hours into this trout, but since it’ll sell for $400, I’m basically working for $4 dollars an hour, so you can see how hard it is to make a living at this,” he said.

But while it would be nice to make a living from his taxidermy, Landeis said he doesn’t do the work for the paycheck. He does it for the pleasure of the work.

“It’s a good job. I enjoyed what I did before, but I really like what I’m doing now, too. I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” he said.

Joseph Robertia can be reached at joseph.robertia@ peninsulaclarion.com.



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