Until recently, Janet Messineo never considered herself an artist. Never mind that over the past 25 years Ms. Messineo, the Island’s only taxidermist, has recreated life itself thousands of times over, as evidenced by the glistening fish of all sizes adorning the walls of her basement workrooms. Although there are a few odd birds in one room, and a set of deer hooves lying on a shelf in another, there’s no question about what Ms. Messineo’s speciality is.
But in spite of the training, the technique and the detail-oriented eye needed to make the bass, the bluefish and the scup come alive in the eyes of their owners, Ms. Messineo didn’t view her work as all that artistic of an endeavor, largely because she spent most of her days elbow-deep in fish guts. She’d painstakingly snip unnecessary bones out of the heads of 50-pound bass — which can take up to six hours in itself — and scrape pounds of meat from within the body before shaping the skin just so around a foam mold (“futzing and putzing,” as Ms. Messineo described it) and sealing the entire project against the elements. She’d don her safety mask to protect against paint fumes as she studied her fish color charts and airbrushed the finishing touches onto the fish.
“It always felt very technical,” she said.
A self-described “compulsive fisherman,” Ms. Messineo took up taxidermy in the 1980s, after she won second place in the 1984 Bass Derby with a 45-pound striped bass (her fishing mentor, Jackie Coutinho, took first with a 48.75 pounder). She sent her fish to Wally Brown, a Falmouth taxidermist, considered one of the best in New England, and had it mounted so she could remember the day she caught it.
The fish came back, and it was “nice,” Ms. Messineo remembered. But it was a fiberglass reproduction of the real thing; Mr. Brown didn’t do skin mounts for saltwater fish. This fish didn’t glisten. Its colors were muted compared to those offered up by nature. And the bass wasn’t her bass.
So Ms. Messineo decided to take up taxidermy. It was the right point in her life to make a change; she’d been in the restaurant business and, as she described it, “was getting at an age where it was either time to get into the management part or get out.”
She signed up for a course by mail, receiving a series of 39 slim volumes detailing in black-and-white drawings how to go about preserving animals. The first few books focused on birds; Ms. Messineo, who is not a hunter, resorted to asking a neighbor if he could use his slingshot to bring her a practice pigeon (the request went unfulfilled).
But attempting to learn from a book was equally fruitless. “[I] needed hands-on learning,” Ms. Messineo said.
Not long after, she enrolled in a course at the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy, where she was allowed to specialize in fish mounting. Today, students at the Institute must spend six months studying all types of taxidermy, a $30,000 investment. Ms. Messineo borrowed $2,000 from her father to fund her coursework (she got an A-plus in fish painting and skinning, a worthy return).
She returned to the Island, where she has lived on and off since 1966 and full-time since 1971, and was almost immediately handed a 54-pound bass that Johnny Hoy had caught. The only tools she had were the ones she’d bought for school, for working on small fish.
“There were a lot of tears” the first couple of months, she remembered, yet her clients reassured her throughout. “Don’t worry, we trust you,” they told her, and she delivered. Looking back, Ms. Messineo admits to being surprised by how well those initial projects turned out.
She’s created fish mounts for Spike Lee and Jim Belushi, for clients in locales as far away as England and as near as her own backyard — one small pollock in her workroom is labeled “Christopher’s First Fish All By Himself,” a special trophy for Ms. Messineo’s son. But after 25 years on the job, Ms. Messineo is moving into more creative forms of taxidermy.
It’s not for lack of work — indeed, she’s attempting to retire, but it takes so long to finish one fish that although she does not take new orders, her backlog is still considerable. (Besides, as one lecturer told her in her early days, “As long as man has an ego, the taxidermist will have a job.”)
Now, though, Ms. Messineo’s efforts are focused on emphasizing and playing up the artistry of the field.
“My taxidermy has kind of developed into . . . I call it wild art,” she said, indicating a piece in her workroom of a fish “swimming” through twisted branches of driftwood. She had exhibited the wild art previously at the Louisa Gould and Scrimshaw galleries, but opted this year to sell them herself, at the Featherstone Flea Market.
Lying on a table in another room are samples of Ms. Messineo’s “whimsy fish” — fish in colors that don’t exist in nature — bright pinks, shocking purples. A bright green horseshoe crab hangs on the wall; a hyper-real dolphin fish painted in neon hues sits just under it.
“I spent the last 20 years trying to make them realistic,” Ms. Messineo said, “And now I’m going in the other direction.”
“It’s kind of exciting,” she said. “It’s almost like I’m starting all over again.”