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Christopher Marley's Dead Things


You can forget what you thought you knew about taxidermy. Oregon artist Christopher Marley transforms poisonous snakes, tropical fish and exotic insects into works of art. Now 400 of his creatures are on display in a major exhibition outside Miami. Aaron Scott of Oregon Public Broadcasting takes us into Marley's studio.

AARON SCOTT, BYLINE: Christopher Marley is packing up the last few creatures for his big exhibition...

CHRISTOPHER MARLEY: I think we're good.

SCOTT: ...When he realizes that he forgot to frame a foot-long isopod that's still in the freezer.

MARLEY: It's like a giant pill bug or potato bug or roly-poly, depending on where you're from.

SCOTT: Calling it a giant pill bug is a gross understatement. It looks right out of "Starship Troopers" or some other movie starring monster bugs that eat people.

MARLEY: Exactly. Yeah, they do. And they are able to do some damage. There have been fish caught that were, you know, living. And they've found giant isopods in their throats or in their guts, eating them from the inside out. So they're the stuff of nightmares. That's for sure.

SCOTT: In Marley's hands, they are also the stuff of beauty. He preserves all sorts of beasts, and poses them in frames against white backgrounds. Chromatic beetles cluster like mandalas. Snakes coil like intricate pendant necklaces. Macaws spread their rainbow wings. And octopuses twist and curl so voluptuous, they seem to be alive.

KENNETH FILCHAK: I don't see anybody doing those sorts of things.

SCOTT: Kenneth Filchak is a biology professor at Notre Dame. And he uses Marley's work to inspire students.

FILCHAK: He might just be sort of the Michelangelo of this sort of presentation and preservation.

SCOTT: Marley grew up wanting to be an artist. But gifted with a square jaw and biceps like boa constrictors, he became a model. As he hopscotched the globe for photo shoots, he collected insects and arranged them into iridescent kaleidoscopes. When Marley's fiance convinced him to show them to several stores in LA, the orders came flying in. So he quit modeling and started backtracking through the countries he'd visited, sourcing sustainable insect collectors. But his interest goes much deeper than that.

MARLEY: Throughout my whole life, we'd always had dead birds in our freezers all the time.

SCOTT: Marley's dad just so happens to be a breeder of rare color mutations of Australian parrots.

MARLEY: My dad just could not bear to throw these beautiful birds away. That's when I realized, you know, if my dad does this with birds, I'll bet you (laughter) that most people that deal with any type of organism that they're in love with - that they probably do the same thing.

SCOTT: So Marley built a network of breeders, zoos, aquariums and importers that sent him their dead. He's very clear that he only uses reclaimed specimens that have died from natural causes or been caught as fishing bycatch. He doesn't buy from hunters.

MARLEY: This is a green mamba.

SCOTT: The specimens end up crowded in freezers in his warehouse in Salem, Ore., in various stages of decay.

MARLEY: This is all pythons and venomous reptiles and baby alligators, apparently.

SCOTT: To preserve them, Marley has pioneered a way to freeze-dry animals that scientists generally keep in liquid, which is how they seem so alive in the frames. He sells the creations in high-end stores and has shown them in natural history and art museums alike. His work has also appeared on the covers of biology textbooks and in Marley's own best-selling art books.

MARK PARKER: "Pheromone" and Chris's next book, "Biophilia," are both tremendous references for design.

SCOTT: Mark Parker is the CEO of Nike and a collector of Marley's art.

PARKER: Chris's subject matter and imagery have inspired Nike's design work on color and texture, on high-performance track spikes for Olympic athletes and even new interpretations of classic styles like the Nike Air Max.

SCOTT: That's right. U.S. athletes at the 2016 Summer Olympics wore shoes inspired by Marley's image of a Sagra buqueti beetle. By isolating these organisms from their natural environments, Marley hopes you'll see them anew.

MARLEY: I think that kind of the greatest power of the work itself is helping people to open their eyes to the varieties that exist in the natural world. Kind of once you get this sense of, oh, my gosh, there's so much more I didn't know about - I've never been able to experience in this fashion - it just feeds this desire to see more and more and more.

SCOTT: As for Christopher Marley's next project, he's heading deep into a Malaysian jungle to hunt for a never-before-preserved species of corpse flower. For NPR News, I'm Aaron Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aaron Scott
Aaron Scott (he/him) is co-host of NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The show is a curiosity-fueled voyage through new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the personal stories behind the science.