'Creepy' chic art gives new life to bugs, more

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Tricia Kerns and Lauren Peterson are honest about the unique art, home decor and jewelry they create: It isn’t for everyone.

A shadow box by Tricia Kerns, co-owner of Skin & Bones Oddities with Lauren Peterson, mixes vintage jewelry, picture frames, even a bow tie with a dead butterfly and small animal skull. She also painted a corner of the shadow box.

At last month’s popular DIY Street Fair in Ferndale and Detroit’s Dally in the Alley, Kerns and Peterson of Skin & Bones Oddities said sometimes kids would walk into their booth and their parents would quickly steer them in the opposite direction.

But Kerns of Wyandotte and Peterson of Ferndale use those moments as a teaching lesson. They view their work –a type of new taxidermy that mixes vintage picture frames and other accents with dead insects, butterflies, skulls and other specimens to create wall hangings, shadow boxes and art – as a way to pay homage to these creatures once they’ve died. It’s about nature and respecting it.

“Death is a part of life so people shouldn’t be afraid of it,” says Peterson. “We try to memorialize it.”

Call it creepy cool or ghoulish glamour, but just in time for Halloween, Kerns’ and Peterson’s work shows that it’s possible to put a pretty spin on what some folks fear most – insects, skulls and more.

Zachariah Ribera is another local artist who creates art out of specimens such as bats, tarantulas and snakes. Since a tarantula spends most of its life in burrows, it’s hard to “admire the beauty of a live tarantula.” His work allows people to do that.

Skin and Bones Oddities, meanwhile, which also has an online Etsy shop, started last year. Kerns and Peterson met through their ex-boyfriends and quickly realized that they both liked to work with unique materials and create art.

For Kerns, the draw to work with insects and taxidermy was almost genetic. Growing up, her mom was a huge vintage shopper and had collections of butterflies. And she has a cousin who is a taxidermist.

“I’ve always been trying to find a different creative outlet,” says Kerns. “So it’s just been an evolution.”

Peterson, meanwhile, is a seasoned vintage shopper (her mom, like Kerns’, is a seamstress and costume maker who also was a huge vintage shopper during her childhood). Whether it’s antique shops or estate sales, Peterson says she has a knack for unique finding treasures.

“I’ve climbed into barns and found stuff,” she says.

And their work is about layering those unique finds with specimens such as dead butterflies, cicadas and beetles. They also use animal skulls, pheasant wings, even cow teeth.

Both stress that all of their materials are ethically sourced. Their butterflies, for example, come from Indonesian and Thai butterfly farms that pump that revenue back into their farms. They buy other items from specimen dealers just like a science teacher would.

“That’s important to us,” said Kerns, wearing a necklace she made with a large cicada on it. "We follow all the laws that taxidermists follow. A lot of our skulls are roadkill.”

Kerns, who works as hair stylist during the day, said she’s even had clients who’ve found bugs during their travels that they’ve brought back for her to use in her art. One was on vacation in Utah and found a massive beetle.

“Her husband was like ‘Why are you picking up that bug?’” she says with laugh. “She said, ‘Trust me.’”

Each specimen is ultimately juxtaposed with a lovely mix of other treasures, picture frames, textiles and other accents to create one of a kind decor.

“We both have a similar, girly, kind of flashy (style),” said Peterson.

The duo buys their insects already dead and they don’t require any kind of protective coating.

“They’re dried out and that’s really it,” says Kerns. “Anytime you get them wet, it’s going to make them look more translucent. When we get a lot of the specimens, we have to rehydrate them so their wings are pliable so we can pose them where we want them.”

Both say their work is really about honoring life. Cicadas, for example, live for seven to 10 years underground. By the time they emerge, “they’re alive for a week max,” says Kern. “They come up, shed their exoskeleton and mate. And then they die.”

Make America creepy again

Ribera, the owner of Zachariah Messiah’s Morbid Curiosities, got his first famed tarantula as a birthday present from his dad, a merchant marine. He was 13.

"From there I started buying live tarantulas," he says.

Ribera says that as a tarantula grows, it molts, which happens about once a year in adulthood.

“I then take the exuviums (shedded exoskeletons) and stuff and preserve them, and place them in creative shadow boxes,” he said. “I have preserved hundreds of different species in the 20 years, for people to admire a low maintenance pet.”

These days, Ribera preserves everything from snakes and lizards to bats. He gets other specimens, such as lizards and snakes once they've died, from friends who are breeders.

“I am just trying to make America creepy again,” he jokes.

Furniture and retail space

Kerns and Peterson, meanwhile, hope to expand more into furniture, creating coffee tables with insets to display their work and maybe even have a retail space. Their prices range from $40 to $450 for a piece with deer antlers.

And while their work may not be for everyone, they certainly have an audience for it. They did well at both the Dally and DIY fairs and are looking to add more shows next year.

The response “has been amazing,” says Peterson. “We’re always humbled by how much we sell and people’s passion for our pieces. People always walk in and say ‘Your booth is the most beautiful one.’ Your stuff is unlike anything I’ve ever seen.’”

“It’s so cool when somebody picks up something you made, something you put your heart into, and they love it,” says Kerns. “That’s the best feeling.”

Twitter: @mfeighan