The Norman Transcript

July 5, 2013

Q&A: Michael Joy Wilson combines taxidermy, rhinestones

By Hannah Cruz
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — Taxidermy and rhinestones. Not many associate the two things together but Norman artist Michael Joy Wilson has blended the two to create art that is shockingly both beautiful and humorous.

With a Master of Fine Arts in printmaking from the University of Oklahoma, Wilson dabbles in many 2-D and 3-D mediums. Her taxidermy sculptures began as a way to express the dichotomy Wilson found in preserving the beauty of a living animal by killing and stuffing it.

Seven of Wilson’s taxidermied, bejeweled fish are on display at MAINSITE Contemporary Art, 120 E. Main St., through mid-July. Her work is being exhibited as part of the award for earning Norman Arts Council’s 2012-2013 Individual Artist Award.

Q: How did you get into taxidermy?

A: I’ve always found it really interesting and weird. My parents went hunting and stuff and I’d seen taxidermy. They had all these how-to books that I read when I was a kid. I have a collection of taxidermied things people have given me over the years.

I’m really interested in animals. I spend a lot of time outside and taxidermy, it’s kind of like an art form, it’s kind of like sculpture but you have to kill the animal to make the taxidermy which I always thought was scary.

The pieces in the show are old mounts and a lot of them were damaged, in fact I think all of them were damaged. They were discarded pieces I ended up with. For this particular show the pieces have a lot of meaning for me. My partner’s father was a fisherman and actually caught most of them. He passed away and left behind a lot of messed up mounts. I also have a compulsion to fix things so it combined my weird interest with taxidermy and fixing things and things that had meant something to me in the past. They’re like little memorials. They were an actual life.

Q: What did you do to the taxidermied pieces to fix them?

A: I repaired a bunch of them, rebuilt the fins and stuff that was broken on them and cleaned them up. Then they’re covered in glitter and they have rhinestones on them and gold leaf and they’re painted and kind of shinied up. It’s meant to be making them into icons, there’s a reverent part to it and also a funny part, too.

Q: What was your creativity process like? Were they planned beforehand?

A: I’d been thinking about them for a while because there was quite a few of them. People had given me weird art supplies, that’s another thing about me, I tend to collect googley eyes and someone had given me a box of glitter, like a big box of glitter, and my partner had given me these big jars of rhinestones and it kind of worked in the way of quilting. I’ve done a lot of quilting with my mom where you have pieces of fabric that came from a dress from when you were a kid or a patch from your dad’s shirt and fabric from your grandma. So a lot of the materials might not have any meaning to anybody else but they have personal meanings to me. It was just the coming together of a lot of things I’d been thinking about and were really important to me.

For the pieces in the show I really wanted to do work that felt like something from Norman and living in Norman. The fish and the materials and all those things are memories I’ve collected in my life, but most of them from living in Norman and things I really enjoy about it. So it seemed to celebrate this particular area for me which is what I wanted to have in the show. I wanted something that connected me to Norman.

Q: How did you feel when you were selected for the Individual Artist Award?

A: I was really excited about it. It means a lot to be acknowledged by the community that you live in. I think the work that I do is sometimes a little weird for this area of the country. I just noticed from when I was in Boston and living here, different attitudes about what I do. But it means a lot to me because it’s important to me and this is where I live so it’s a big deal.

Q: What inspires you?

A: I’m a really visual person. I would say nature because there’s so much variety and beauty in there and just the color combinations and the shapes and the forms — the intricacy of it all.

I also like fabrics and elaborate wall papers and just visual diversity. It’s fascinating to pick something out of there and just focus on it and learn from it, it all gets incorporated in somewhere.

Q: What kind of audience do you think will appreciate this the most?

A: God, I hope most anybody can. Oh, one of the things about the taxidermy I was really interested in is it seemed like a really masculine thing, like for the man cave or whatever. They’re trophies of their sporting activities and the way that I transformed them, I felt was a more traditionally feminine take on it by putting all these memories into it, making them a special thing and kind of releasing them from that trophy aspect and presenting them in a different way.

There’s a lot of symbolism with fish, as well as derogatory terms about women related to fish, so I liked playing with that and creating something a little more fun and more powerful.

I don’t think everyone is going to go in there and think, “Oh, this is feminist art,” but I hope it’s a positive experience and fun.

Q: What do you want your audience to get out of these pieces?

A: I always am attracted to really awkward passages in things, little odd things that make stuff real. That’s kind of like the taxidermy thing and the humor of it. There’s serious and funny — I wanted both of those things to come through. They’re for enjoyment, I guess. I want people to be happy about them. I want them to feel the fun in them. That line between reverence and irreverence.

Q: Where do you see yourself in the future?

A: Oh, I’d love to make more of these. A lot of my paints and prints also have fish and images that have to deal with women as well.

Q: What kind of advice would you give to another artist?

A: It’s really important to believe in yourself and the things that you’re interested in even if they seem weird. I wanted to be an artist and I wasn’t quite sure how to do that. I grew up out in the country and I thought moving to the city there was a way to be an artist. Whatever your life is you come across things you’re interested in and those things are the things that will make your art great, those things that mean a lot to you as an individual. That’s really, I think, where people connect to the work and know it’s from a real person.

Q: It’s kind of like the saying, “Write what you know.”

A: Yeah, I mean you’re always learning and if you keep doing it and you keep doing whatever it is — sometimes you have to just not listen to people.