Story, photos and slideshow by WILLIAM PHIFER III
Take a behind-the-scenes look at the process of taxidermy.
In the center of Coalville, Utah, lies a small 700-square-foot building filled with hides, horns, antlers and taxidermy forms.
High Uintahs Taxidermy, owned by Dean Schulte, 49, is located at 31 S. Main St. Specializing in big game taxidermy, Dean strives to recreate a lifelike appearance of the animals that people bring to him.
“I hope that when [people] look into the eye of my work … they can see a spark of character and soul,” Dean said. “That is the most important thing that we really try to work for here, with myself, and with the guys that work for me. I never stopped reinforcing that.”
Dean believes focusing on the detail of an animal’s eyes is what makes them look alive. “We are known for our eye work here. Our eye detail is the foundation,” Dean said. This process entails setting the glass eye into clay and tucking the hide into the clay. This prevents the hide from pulling away from the eye socket when it fully cures.
By doing this, Dean hopes that his work will serve as a commemoration to his clientele and their hunts, especially those of family-related outings. “They are looking at a snapshot of a lifelong memory,” Dean said.
While some of his clients focus on the trophy quality of the animals, Dean said his emphasis on the eyes “is going to make that memory that much more lifelike for them. … It’s the difference of having a sharp image of something and a dry poor piece of photography.”
Dean, a self-taught taxidermist, founded the business in 1993 so he could make a living and support his family, while doing work that he enjoyed. “Most importantly,” Dean said, “I am happy at what I do.”
However, Dean said, “There’s a struggle between the artist and the businessman. I’m an artist first.” He never intended to create a business that would grow and become a huge operation and he has purposefully prevented it. While he has employed as many as eight people at one time, Dean presently employs four people.
Including himself, Dean prefers his current five-man operation. “This is the limit for me, otherwise I’m going to become a manager. I will not be involved on the floor as a taxidermist if I was to add more personnel,” he said.
By running this type of operation Dean is still able to be involved in the work that he is passionate about.
Dean’s passion for taxidermy began in Montana when he was 10 years old and he paid a $1.99 monthly subscription for pamphlets made by the Northwestern School of Taxidermy. However, he only dabbled in it until he was 16. He strayed from it as adult life began to take precedence.
Dean moved to Utah when he was 18 to work in the oil fields with the intention of only working for six to eight months. However, he said the money was good.
On one calm, cold November morning Dean said he and his team of three guys were having trouble with an individual oil drill they were working on. It was the third day they had been working on this particular piece of machinery. Each night the well would build up pressure caused by a mixture of natural gas, oil and water, and his team would follow safety procedures to bleed-off the pressure.
However, the company he worked for at the time did not have an oil and gas separator, which would burn off the natural gas and dump the excess oil and water slurry into a tank.
Dean recalled the events of that morning:
Getting ready for the day, as the well was bleeding down, well what happened is within 5 minutes, all the sudden that well just opened up and it unleashed a huge tremendous amount of [gas]. I don’t know how many cubic feet of gas it dumped into the valley. By the time we could get over to the well and shut the valve, it had already saturated this valley. It was literally like fog, like a fog of natural gas. We were shutting down all the equipment we had started up, basically all your ignition sources, trying to shut them down. Well on the edge of the location there was a trailer, probably like a 6 by 10, that we had lockers in there and we changed our clothes and we had a heater in there. Well that trailer was the last thing we got to and that heater, the piolet lite, it ignited the location. I was probably 10 feet from the door.”
Dean said it felt “like standing by a jet intake on an airplane, just a roar. And obviously all the oxygen is being consumed in the air. Everything just went red.”
Dean suffered third-degree burns on 40 percent of his body and spent six weeks in the hospital. After that he was in and out of the hospital for about five years, while he had multiple operations done on his hands and face. (The other members of his team also suffered burns. One person sustained third-degree burns over 55 percent of his body. Another suffered third-degree burns over 25 percent of his body. The fourth man was in the trailer at the time of the flare and didn’t get burned until he tried to help the other men.)
“It was a swift kick in my ass. I went back to school,” Dean said. “I wasn’t going to let it beat me.”
Doctors told him he would probably never work with his hands again, but Dean set out to prove them wrong. He went back to school to be a machinist and in between surgeries, earned a degree in robotics and automated systems. After that he also spent three years studying electrical engineering. Then at the age of 25, a friend reintroduced him to taxidermy.
“I just kind of realized, second time around, maybe this was my forte, this is what I really want to do. This is what I’m supposed to be doing [and] I just very aggressively pursued it,” Dean said.
In 1993, he started doing taxidermy work out of his garage. Later he moved to a 30-foot by 30-foot building but quickly realized he need more space. He moved his shop into its current location.
Over the years, Dean has raised nine children, all of whom have worked in the shop with him at some point in time.
His oldest son, Stephen Dean Schulte, 27, is the only one who still works at the shop. He began working for his dad nine years ago, when he was in high school. Father and son both hope he will, one day, take over the family-owned business.
Stephen considers himself lucky to have been able to work for his dad and gain experience in the business.
“There’s guys that go to school for this and they pay like $10, $15,000,” Stephen said. “The best way to do this is, I guess like a tattoo artist, is to apprentice under somebody. I’ve been able to apprentice under him [and] I like doing this. That’s my ultimate goal is to run the business.”
Stephen feels confident about his ability to run the shop with his the help of his wife, who does a lot of the office work. “I pretty much run all the North American sector. I do all the managing [of] the North American stuff, which we do about 200 North American pieces a year.”
While North American animals such as deer, elk, moose, mountain goat, Dall sheep, bear and many others are his area of responsibility, Stephen also works on animals not native to the United States. He said he has done taxidermy on a lot of African animals including antelope species such as springbuck, bushbuck, impala, nyala, and kudu. Stephen is excited to be planning his first trip to Africa in May 2016, and he can’t wait to see all the animals running around.
“Kudu are my favorite. I think they’re pretty,” Stephen said. “They look awesome and I’m excited to go get mine, because I’m going to do something cool with it.” About the size of an elk, greater kudu are an antelope species with large curled horns and hides that are a mixture of grey, brown, black and white.
“I’ve mounted a ton of them, but every time I do one I get my reference pictures out and obviously the internet has everything you need,” Stephen said. “You can pull up a million different pictures.”
Like the kudu, there are a lot of animals that Stephen hasn’t had the opportunity to see in real life. He said pictures are the key to good anatomically correct taxidermy.
“That’s the important thing,” Stephen said. “Reference pictures, reference pictures and more reference pictures. My dad will tell you the same thing.”
Stephen added, “A lot of taxidermists don’t [use reference pictures]. What happens is they do so many [animals], but then they start to stylize them to the way they think looks good.” In the long run they end up changing the anatomy of the animal.
This use of reference pictures is something that Dean teaches to all his employees, not just his son.
Kelli Dixon, who is also a hair dresser, does most of the finish work on animals at High Uintahs Taxidermy.
“They’ve taught me a lot here. I mean, I’ve never ran an airbrush before,” Dixon said, “and they taught me to sew.” Dean also taught Dixon the importance of using reference pictures. “Dean has some catalogs down there,” Dixon said. “[He has] books with pictures and stuff and then Google, amazing Google!”
Dixon, who still works out of her home as a stylist, said her new job has given her a different perspective on the art of taxidermy. “I had no idea what taxidermy took. I had no clue that it was all this art,” she said.
She really likes working as a taxidermist, perhaps more than being a stylist, and enjoys the outcome of her job. “You get the animal and you get to fix it up and make them all pretty,” Dixon said.
Dixon plans on being at High Uintahs Taxidermy for a long time because she finds her work very fulfilling. “I like when you tell people what you do, and they look at you like you’re an artist,” she said.
Having found a love for taxidermy, Dixon now appreciates taxidermy a lot more. She said, “Now I look at everything and see. I look at live animals and [I] notice every detail … It’s funny the detail that you start noticing after doing this kind of work.”
It is exactly that kind attention to detail that Dean and his son, Stephen, share. Their craftsmanship is what attracts people to High Uintahs Taxidermy. They want Dean and his team to create a piece of artwork out of the hide, horns and antlers — preserving their experience and bringing the memories back to life.