Rest In Pieces

Interview by Nicki Stein
Issue 28 • June 2015 • Richmond

Bringing dead and discarded animals back for another chance at beauty – that’s what inspires these urban taxidermy artists.

Nestled in the heart of Richmond’s bustling Fan district, two stately plate glass windows frame the black-trimmed storefront at 1 South Stafford Avenue. From behind the panes, a shy chamois peers out. His thick hoofs are arranged on a bed of sticks and moss supporting a shaggy cylindrical body of tousled red-brown fur. His yellow head is turned delicately over his shoulder as if self-consciously shielding his eyes from peeping passersby. A regal albino deer accompanies him, surveying the sidewalk from her side of the window. Her clean white fur covers a lean muscular torso, topped with large bat-like ears set behind two round red eyes, one back leg lifted in a tense stance as if readying herself to dash off into the forest. These twin sentinels safeguard the entrance to the city’s first and only shop specializing in taxidermy pieces, wet specimens, and antique oddities: Rest In Pieces.

Co-owners Justin Torone and Alaina Gearhart founded Rest In Pieces about a year ago. From its first incarnation as an Etsy shop, the business quickly morphed into a thriving online store supported by Richmond’s close-knit community of weirdoes, punks, and art lovers, organically nurturing their own off-kilter retail niche. Confident in their initial successes, Justin and Alaina decided to make the leap from digital to physical: on May 23, they hosted the grand opening of their new brick-and-mortar storefront.

Even during the store’s buildout, interest was in steady supply. “We’ll be in here setting up and people come by and they’re peeking in the windows,” says Justin, miming the awe-struck stare of a befuddled window-gazer, “and I’ll go out and give them a business card and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, I follow you guys online! I can’t wait for this to open!’” Justin, ebullient and gregarious, is just the kind of approachable guy you’d hope might emerge from a dimly lit storefront filled with embalmed fetal armadillos and snarling stuffed opossums.

Alaina, slight and well-spoken, prefers to work behind the scenes. Her serious demeanor is undercut by her genuine laugh, revealing a macabre-yet-goofy sense of humor. She handcrafts delicate bone jewelry from the animals that Justin preserves and curates RIP’s thriving social media accounts. In them, Alaina’s immaculate, almost scientific, photographs highlight subjects from ram skulls to preserved fetal pigs. She employs a soft color palette of grayish blues, gentle blacks, and cool pinks, bringing the unique details of her subjects to the fore rather than sensationalizing the practice by which they came to be.

“Justin does more of the gory stuff, he has the permits,” she says, referencing Justin’s role as RIP’s resident taxidermist, as well as the licenses issued from the state of Virginia that allow Rest In Pieces to legally sell taxidermy mounts and furs. Alaina’s touch can be seen in the interior decorating. “I try to incorporate not just death. There’s plants, too. I want everything to be tasteful.” The bright green leaves of smooth aloe and spiky spider plants peek insistently from behind oblong jars filled with floating animal parts stacked in snaking lines along the walls of the shop: hearts, lungs, eyeballs, paws, and brains hang submerged in a secret mixture of formaldehyde and other preserving chemicals. The tiled floor is similarly crowded with smaller mounts. A languid iguana, a smart silver fox, and a nervy squirrel congregate in a ghostly jungle, scrutinizing one another through glass eyes.

The wide array of specimens on display is especially impressive considering that Justin, a self-taught taxidermist, has only been mounting and preserving animals since last August. The couple’s interest in pursuing taxidermy professionally grew out of their own collecting, then rapidly developed into a passion for preserving creatures that might otherwise have been left in the woods to decompose. “One day we were driving to go out to dinner,” Justin recounts, “and we saw this groundhog that had been hit on the road. So we just scooped it up, put it in a bag, threw it in the trunk, and came home. We bought a bunch of knives and we just—“

“Lopped it apart,” Alaina finishes.

Photo by Alaina Gearhart

Justin honed his now much more professional technique mostly through trial and error, he says. “Just doing it a bunch of times, getting animals and just doing it over and over and over and over again, and now I can skin an animal,” he snaps his fingers, “like that.” While Justin is not squeamish about skinning a dead animal and meticulously extracting its heart from the depths of its chest cavity, he and Alaina are discriminating about the acquisition of their specimens. All of the pieces in their shop are ethically sourced, be it donations from local pet stores or Nuisance Wildlife Services, road kill found on the highway, or specimens acquired through trade with other taxidermists, “We don’t kill any animals or harm anything for profit,” says Justin, “We just get stuff that’s already dead.”

That drive to preserve the natural beauty of strange creatures who might otherwise have met an unremembered end fuels an excitement for their trade that Justin and Alaina revel in. “People look at the things that we do and they don’t realize that this stuff would have otherwise been left to rot in a dumpster,” Alaina explains. “So what we do is we step in and we’re like, ‘Hey, can we take those off your hands?’ and make something beautiful out of it.” With the support of the wonderfully odd community of taxidermy-arts enthusiasts, they should be making such beauty for many years to come.

If you can’t make it to the Rest In Pieces shop, they will bringing the show on the road to the Virginia Beach Tattoo Festival on August 14-16. More details at restinpiecesrva.com.

Photography by Nicki Stein

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