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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Taxidermist Chad Pattee and wife Sandy Pattee work on mounts in their Leesburg Road studio. Chad Pattee says he works on about 100 white-tailed deer a year.

Creating animal art

Taxidermist works to set mounts with natural look

Here is art, for 99 percent of human beings: Picasso, Monet, Michelangelo, the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel, where two policemen stand guard at all times to shush the improperly reverential.

Chad Pattee won’t quibble with any of that.

He will, however, add something else: That 10-point buck whose regal head adorns the wall in your brother-in-law’s den.

That is, he will tell you, “sculpture,” and he’s as serious as the day is long. Because if the definition of art includes the mastery of craft, then what Pattee churns out for his clients at Pattee Acre Taxidermy on Leesburg Road are as much works of art as anything currently taking up wall space in a museum.

“Taxidermy, back in the day, you just hung an animal on the wall,” he says. “Not that taxidermists then didn’t take their work seriously or didn’t produce great work, because they did. But it’s kind of evolved into art.

“Customers want more of a natural look now. They want the animal to portray what they remember of that animal in its last moments. They’re looking for expression, looking for habitat.”

And that takes, yes, craft. And time. And more than one tank of gas a lot of times.

That’s because, in order to get that natural look, Pattee – and his wife and partner, Sandy, a photographer – travel all over the country to study various animals in their natural habitat. Sandy takes the photos; Chad takes notes.

“To get the animal right, you have to study the animal,” says Pattee, a firefighter and longtime bowhunter who, in addition to taxidermy, is an official Boone & Crockett measurer.

“It’s all about the detail work – for instance, with deer, every deer is different. You’ve got to learn the expression. That’s the hardest part about taxidermy, just the studying of the animal, the species.”

His experience as a bowhunter has helped that process, but the variety of animals with which Pattee works makes it a challenge nonetheless.

Although white-tailed deer comprise his cash crop – “We do 100 a year,” he says – he’s also worked with exotic animals, African game, European skull mounts, fish replicas, birds, elk, caribou, bighorn sheep, various game cats and bear.

“Probably the most unusual is the primates, your monkeys and things like,” Pattee says. “That’s mainly because they’re very human-like. Their expressions are a lot different than a deer.”

And the toughest jobs?

“The most challenging for me are my cats, again because of the expressions and things like that,” he says. “You can really mess up a cat by not getting the detail correct. You can take a cat and make it look horrible by not tweaking the eyes right.”

Judging by Pattee’s volume, that doesn’t happen often. By rough estimate, he handles between 250 and 300 jobs a year, and already this year business is up because the number of deer he’s getting is up. The Pattees also do gratis work for an organization that organizes hunts for kids with disabilities and terminally ill kids.

“We’re increasing our numbers probably 20, 30 percent every year as far as the business goes,” Pattee says. “The only way we advertise is by word of mouth. We have a lot of commercial repeat customers who, as they get older, expand their hunting experiences from white-tail to bear and things like that. So we’re actually expanding our business.”

Not bad for a guy who says he started “dibbling and dabbling” at taxidermy in 2001.

“I had some help from guys, but mainly I’m just self-taught,” he says.