Rachel Windish’s coyote-and-fawn story in taxidermy caught my eye as Steve Bollini walked me through the Illinois Taxidermist Association’s annual convention in March in Bloomington.

As visually gripping as the ITA’s annual convention and show was, it will be dwarfed by the every-other-year World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championship. That opens Tuesday and runs through Saturday at the Peoria Civic Center.

Mike Nakielski’s wood duck earned Best of Show at the Illinois Taxidermist Association show.
Credit: Dale Bowman

At the ITA, five pieces in particular caught my eye, including the Best of Show, a wood-duck drake by Mike Nakielski.

Wood ducks are a favorite bird, so I had a personal reason for being drawn to Nakielski’s art. Forgive me if I sound like a patron wandering through a River North gallery and proclaiming, “I don’t know why I like it, I just like it.’’

Bollini, however, had professional and artistic reasons for liking Nakielski’s wood duck.

‘‘This piece will be entered into the worlds,’’ he said.

From his perspective, it was the wood duck’s design, coloration and lifelike nature that made it special.

Bollini, 53, started in taxidermy while in grade school. By 1982, he began Bollini’s Taxidermy Studio in downstate Godfrey. He has world-level awards to his credit, including one for telling the story of carrier pigeons in the World Wars, and a strong belief in the art of taxidermy at the exhibit or museum-quality level — work that can take hundreds of hours to complete.

‘‘Skin and fur, skin and feather, skin and scales — that is our medium, that is our art,’’ he said forcefully. ‘‘They say it is a craft, but it is an art more than a craft. We paint; we sculpt.’’

I realized he could have added that modern taxidermy is much more about the art of storytelling than the art of mere preservation.

Steve Bollini’s bluegill story.
Credit: Dale Bowman

One of the pieces that caught my eye as I first walked around was one of Bollini’s: a reproduction bluegill over a rusted Busch beer can. It was a graphically detailed tale, down to a freeze-dried crayfish crawling into the rusted hole in the can. It earned the Charlie Brown Fish Habitat Award.

That’s a far different thing from the typical taxidermy people of my age remember as big-racked buck heads on wooden plaques.

I agree with Bollini that, done right, modern taxidermy is art.

With that, I’ll go back to Windish, 18, of downstate Brimfield. She’s a year out of high school and already on her path to full-time taxidermy after interning with Bob Hammerich.

As she talked about her sprawling coyote-and-fawn display, the firsts came tumbling out: first coyote mount, first one shot. Everything in the display, other than the fawn — dirt, branches, barn wood, coyote, trap — came from their farm. The fawn required a special permit, which Hammerich obtained.

It was quite impressive for her first competition. She earned the IFOR Best of Show and Kankakee Whitetails Unlimited — Best Mount That Tells a Story awards.

I envy people who have a knack for this stuff.

If you want to get involved, I highly recommend joining ITA, which will be in Decatur for its convention next year. More information and a photo gallery of the convention winners are at illinoistaxidermist.com. For information about the worlds, go to www.taxidermy.net/wtc.

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