I do not know how to shoot a gun, and I don’t have a license to shoot one either. This, of course, makes my experiential hunting blog difficult (and illegal). So, instead I experienced the closest thing I could think of – taxidermy.
J.R. Taxidermy is tucked away on a road with a missing street sign. When looking for the building, I accidentally passed it…twice. Eventually, I found my way into the tiny parking lot and sat in my car, staring at the building. I envisioned the interior: a cold, hard warehouse with animal heads plastered to the wall, eyes following me as I walked through the sour scented room. I imagined the owner to be a domineering, burly man – the kind that’s all business and no fun. My assumptions could not have been any more wrong.
The lighting in the building was warm and soft from the woodstove in the corner of the room. Dozens of animals were posed in various habitats: a deer leaping over brush, a curious black squirrel perched on a gnarled log, a poised and regal bobcat. On the wood paneled walls were shimmering and colorful fish. To the left of the showroom was the counter, and behind it was the J.R. of J.R. taxidermy – Julie Roberts.
After realizing her career as a vet tech was no longer viable, Roberts took a leap of faith and decided to turn her hobby of taxidermy into a career. “My mom thought it was crazy. She always says that never in a million years did she think I’d be this busy. Neither did I,” says Roberts. She has been a part-time taxidermist for 15 years and full time taxidermist for seven. Her passion for taxidermy started when she decided that she would mount the first buck she “took” while hunting. Although she has scrapped most of her earlier work, she still has her first buck mounted in her work room.
Often referred to as “the lady taxidermist,” Roberts is a bit of an anomaly in the taxidermy world. At Northwood Institute of Taxidermy, she was the only female in her class, and she intentionally named her business in a way that did not reveal her gender. “How many hunters are gonna come to a girl?” Roberts asked, knowing that most of her clients were men. But as long as she could get them into the store to see her work, she knew she’d have business.
A glimpse inside Julie Roberts’ store!
Roberts shared a story with me about a time when she was at a fair, selling her work. “I was wearing my J.R. Taxidermy shirt, and my boyfriend was sitting next to me,” she says. Every single person that approached the stand addressed her boyfriend first with the assumption that he was the owner – everyone except one woman. “I asked her why she knew I was the owner, and the woman said, ‘there’s no way a man would do this.’” The woman was referring to the unique way Roberts presents her animals. The animals Roberts creates are not simply displayed on a log or a rock, as many other taxidermists show their work. She goes all out, creating intricate and artful habitats for the animals. “I like to make it look like it belongs,” she says. This is also why she doesn’t like giving animals fierce expressions. “I don’t like doing things mean,” Roberts says. “Normally you don’t see that in the woods.” One can truly see the realism that she strives for in her work, from the dew drops on the bottom of the deer’s noses to their glossy tear ducts. “The eyes on the animal are what makes the animal,” Roberts says.
Not only is Roberts an incredibly talented taxidermist, but the way she runs her business makes her invaluable to her community. According to Roberts, her customers are “almost like an extended family.” Despite the fact that her work is sold at other locations for three times the original price, she doesn’t wish to move locations and hasn’t increased her prices. “I want to make it affordable for people here who still want that first buck mounted.”
Julie Roberts is a brave and skilled business owner with an immense amount of commitment to her craft. Regardless of how you feel about taxidermy, one step into her shop will convince you that, when done right, taxidermy is an art form. “You gotta love what you’re doing when it comes to this otherwise it becomes a job,” she says. For Roberts, taxidermy is anything but a job. It’s her “hobby turned into a passion.”