Julia de Ville is freeze-drying a baby giraffe. At two metres tall, it’s one of the largest and most delicate transformations she’s attempted yet. When she’s finished, the giraffe will rise on its spindly legs, its graceful neck arched in curious wonder, ready to welcome visitors into a fantastical animal house. Julia has big plans for this baby. But all in good time.
To chart the amazing career of the talented taxidermist, jeweller and sculptor we need to backtrack to 2001, when a then 18-year-old Julia crossed the ditch from Wellington to study shoe design in Melbourne. The course fell apart within the first year so she switched to a short jewellery course at NMIT and was hooked.
“I was always naturally creative”, she says. “From the first day, I knew.”
At the same time, there was another creative itch she needed to scratch. From an early age, Julia had an “intimate relationship with death,” and was brought up to believe that it should not be feared. Childhood memories fired her interest; in particular her grandmother’s fox fur stoles, with the fox’s head intact and its jaws grasping the tail, as if it could spring back to life and snap at any moment. On a visit to church with her father, she was encouraged to touch the dead skin of the elderly woman laid out in a coffin, to feel the difference between the living and the dead. It was a “bizarre experience”, she admits, but not a morbid one. She was struck by the idea that in death, there is still beauty and memory.
Her formative years sparked a fascination with taxidermy, which is enjoying a resurgence in art and popular culture. But when Julia first started out, it was very much an old-school, male dominated profession, more associated with game hunting and “heroic trophy culture” than any serious expression of art. She wanted to explore the softer, more female side of preserving a creature and giving it a reimagined afterlife.
Luckily she found a mentor in Rudy, a retired museum taxidermist, a “beautiful man” who guided her through the whole process. And what a taxing, time-consuming process it is. Her first subject was a found starling. It took her a day to peel back the skin and feathers and remove the body, keeping the skull intact, then mould a new body from expandable foam which could be carved and sculpted. The fragile frame was then fitted and stitched up around the mould, with wire threaded through the legs and wings and glass eyes popped into place. A few more hours pose-drying overnight. Et voila.
A parrot followed, then a fox head. Julia remembers being out in the shed of her share house in pyjamas, trying to saw off the head when her housemate walked in on her. Hopefully the nightmares have faded..
Fast forward to now and Julia’s still-life menagerie of mice, birds, cats and much larger animals have graced exhibitions across Australia, the US and Europe, commanding thousands of dollars. All her subjects died natural deaths and are ethically sourced; from museums, farmers and friends. Her Collingwood studio is stuffed (literally) with works in progress. A stillborn calf is encased in bubble wrap in the storeroom; the subject of a particularly provocative work titled ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, referencing a song by Nick Cave. Julia hung the calf by its hind legs from the ceiling; its throat slit and dripping pearls into an antique milk bottle filled with garnets. A staunch animal rights believer and vegan, she wanted to highlight the sad plight of ‘bobby calves’, which are taken from their mother after two days and slaughtered for dog food.
Other thought-provoking works include Degustation, a 2013 installation at the National Gallery of Victoria. A ‘dining room’ framed by gothic black curtains and flocked velvet wallpaper was set with silver platters offering up newborn kittens and puppies alongside lambs and piglets, challenging the notion of choosing to eat farmyard animals over those considered pets. Julia presented them in their whole animal form, adding whimsical details like wings to puppies and bejewelling a calf’s hide. The centrepiece was a pure white lamb, its mouth open in mute appeal as if asking why anyone would want to kill and eat it.
In Phantasmagoria, at the Adelaide Biennial 2014, Julia imagined a child’s dream bedroom featuring items from her own childhood. An incredible octopus chandelier illuminated a rocking alpaca adorned in sterling silver, while a mobile of taxidermied birds and animal hearts studded in rubies and diamonds kept watch over a Victorian baby’s crib. Cats and bunnies in funeral dress carted tiny hearses as a plumed horse head gazed solemnly from the wall.
The haunting themes of Julia’s installations are intrinsically woven into her jewellery line of ‘Memento Mori’ – objects that serve as a reminder or warning of death. Her fascination with Victorian mourning jewellery of the 15th to 18th centuries is celebrated in unique contemporary rings featuring diamonds, parti sapphires and other precious and semi-precious stones in slightly off-kilter settings. Jet, human hair and taxidermy also feature in her pieces; reminding us of our mortality and encouraging the wearer to accept fate, embrace the present, and ‘forget the unknowable tomorrow‘.
Julia scours auction houses and flea markets in Paris and New York, buying estate jewellery or remodelling rings from clients, to preserve their “sentimental values, and the long-lasting stories that get carried with them”. Two full-time jewellers assist her in her studio, a converted warehouse fitted with benches strewn with designs, jewellers’ tools and wax models. But such relentless creative output can take a toll. Julia worked solidly for 18 months on her installations and by the end of 2014, she was exhausted. Diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, she found she couldn’t even walk up stairs. It was a “good lesson” in her own mortality, forcing her to take many months off to recover her health through meditation and yoga. Nowadays she practises both several times a week, takes actual holidays not just buying trips, and prefers the company of small groups of close friends and her treasured Chinese hair-crested dogs Chilli and Scout.
Not that her work has taken a back seat. Julia was a finalist in the Woollahra Small Sculpture Prize for Caesar 2015, a stillborn kitten perched in an antique silver and ivory chariot. For the Victorian Craft Award she created Pegasus, a Clydesdale horse head decked in silver, gold, rubies and ostrich feathers.
And then there’s the giraffe. Julia spent five years pestering the QV Museum in Launceston for the animal, which had languished in its freezer for three decades. The freezer finally broke down and the museum gave in. Over the next year, Julia will carefully preserve the beast by freeze-drying the whole carcass. It’s too fragile for taxidermy but the result will be a slightly emaciated look that the artist prefers anyway.
The giraffe will feature in an as-yet unnamed 2017 installation Julia says will be her “biggest show times four”; a whole house of rooms stuffed with magical beasts. Clearly the artist has much more to say about life and death; she’s just looking after her own life a little more carefully now.
Julia’s work is regularly exhibited in Australia and overseas, including permanent installations at the NGV and Hobart’s MONA. She’s currently building an online shop and her jewellery is available at egetal.com.au.