If enthusiasm counts, taxidermist Jim Boerst will be a huge success in Rim country. Boerst is passionate about his craft, and makes stretching skin, preening feathers, and fluffing fur sound not only interesting, but almost fun.
Taxidermists are really artists, Boerst said. His life's work is the art form of moving hide over a frame to recreate the animal's likeness, he said. The real art, however, begins long before the skin hits the frame or manikin. A taxidermist is also a sculptor, whose medium may be wax, clay, fiberglass, foam, metal and more, Boerst said.
"The real hard work is the sculpting of the manikin," he said.
A caribou manikin stands in his shop. Its front legs are on the ground, his hind legs extend gracefully behind him, his head is turned slightly. When this model arrived at the shop, he was much bigger and standing on all fours, looking straight ahead, Boerst said. He broke every joint, and added steel rods for placement and structure.
He then spent hours sculpting much of the excess body away to add muscle and ligament definition. The end result is an illusion of a real animal. The caribou needs only his skin and antlers to appear much as he would have in the wilds of Alaska.
"I like doing the best job possible," Boerst said. Some of Boerst's best are set in a tiny display room at his Payson home. His modest shop is just across the driveway.
Championship ribbons hang off a black bear, an otter, two whitetail deer and a couple of turkeys.
"I was very proud of those pieces," Boerst said. "Competitions allow you to display your wares to other people within your fraternity. If you know your stuff you are rewarded but if you don't you are corrected."
A self-taught professional, Boerst spends long, lonely hours crafting his creatures. Competitions allow him to see his work in a different light and among his peers.
"It gets the juices flowing artistically," he said. "If I think it is the hottest thing since sliced bread, it's meaningless. You are trying to appeal to the greatest audience. It is really satisfying to me to see other people go crazy over them."
At 36, Boerst has been at this for almost 30 years. He stumbled upon a taxidermy book written by JW Elwood in the 1940s or '50s at a yard sale when he was just 9 years old. He started on the fish he caught in the lakes and streams of Wisconsin.
"Mom did not like it much, there was always a lot of dead fish in the freezer," he said. He and his family lived on a river and the young mid-western boy grew up hunting and fishing. Taxidermy seemed to be just one more extension of the life he loves.
Boerst did, however, take time out for a more conventional occupation; he was an environmental chemist for 11 years, working part-time on his taxidermy skills.
"It kind of took over my life, I was working full-time during the day and full-time at night," he said. So he chose passion over riches.
"Taxidermy is not going to make you rich, there are higher paying jobs but it makes me happy doing what I do. Sometimes I think I'm crazy."
For more information, call Boerst at Top of the Hill Taxidermy, 468-6305.