56-year-old Austin taxidermy business is a time capsule on South Lamar
AUSTIN – A Hooter’s sticker, saws, assorted child-sized shoes, some knives, action figures, super glue, a princess cup… Along with an array of in progress animal pelts and height marks of all their children on the door, the workroom of Martinez Brothers Taxidermy clearly belongs to a family. Step inside, and the lack of technology and fingerprint of all things handmade is a blast from the past.
The family’s patriarch, Alejandro Martinez Senior, has been doing taxidermy work for 56 years. Being that the man himself has been around for 71 years, that makes him just 15 when he started. After doing a two-year hitch in the Marine Corps, he came back to taxidermy and never left.
Stints in the armed forces are a common theme for many men of his age, but taxidermy? Though it may not be one’s first assumption about a taxidermist, Martinez said that typically those who do this work were first hunters and anglers.
“I’m a Native Indian so our heritage goes back thousands of years. A lot of the things we do just come naturally. I loved to hunt and fish as a kid so I was very interested in taxidermy,” said Martinez. “This is the kind of job that doesn’t feel like work because I enjoy it. I’m lucky to get paid for it.”
He certainly does get paid for it, having done work for Lyndon B. Johnson, the Kennedys, McNamara and assorted other politicians. He additionally makes mounts for museums such as the Smithsonian. Though he has made quite literally large contributions, namely one rare Antiquus bison, Martinez said he often is in the dark as to where his works end up, finding out when others recognize it.
To be displayed in a museum is just one reminder that taxidermy is seen as an art form. In fact, the word “stuff” that many people use to describe taxidermy is a derogatory term in the industry given that it likens the technique to stuffing teddy bears or dolls. The proper term is “mount” according to Martinez, and in reality the mounts’ insides are mannequins sculpted with potter’s clay.
Though Martinez learned the ins and outs of terminology at a young age, it takes quite some time to develop the degree of skill he has. He learned much of his technique during the time in which he apprenticed with one of the top taxidermists of the time, W.D. Pascal. He apprenticed until he was 21, learning the craft from the building right down the street from his current shop, which he bought from Pascal after 18 years of working together.
Even though Pascal taught Martinez the same way he learned, and Martinez has done the same, change in the industry is inevitable. It seems even though art changes over the years, that taxidermy would not, considering the fact that these animals look the same over many generations. Unavoidably, even such an old vocation cannot be shielded from the effects of time.
“It’s just like the pony express, it’s kind of a dying art, a dying field,” Martinez said. “At one time in Texas, I could tell you who the taxidermists were. Not anymore. There are hundreds in the state of Texas.”
Furthermore, those potter’s clay mannequins inside Martinez’ mounts are few and far between these days in other taxidermists’ work, Martinez estimating that maybe only one in a hundred actually sculpt their mannequins anymore. Nowadays there are taxidermy supply companies and one could even learn on YouTube or from a DVD.
“Things are done in a hurry now. To find a shop like us is hard,” said Martinez. “In the olden days if you used somebody else’s mannequin that was his work, his sculpt, his job. You were stealing his skills. Today, many mounts all basically look the same.”
This doesn’t mean that Martinez has stopped passing on his method of sculpting. He has taken many apprentices over the years, stating that anyone who learns from him can get a job anywhere. Unfortunately, his apprentices often find the job so difficult that they quit. Martinez touches back on the art aspect, noting that not everybody can paint or draw or sculpt.
One such person who can is his son. Alejandro Martinez II is 33 years old and is the day-to-day operator, manager and owner of Martinez Brothers Taxidermy. Though there are three other siblings that frequent the shop and do their own work from time to time, he followed the closest in his father’s footsteps. He too was 15 years old when he decided to become a taxidermist. And just like his father, he believes in the old method of sculpting a mannequin yourself.
“I think the taxidermist loses their style and technique in that mount when they use polyurethane prefab mannequins versus building one themselves by hand and making the mold,” said Martinez II.
“You don’t have to have as much talent these days,” he added, saying that the industry used to be so secretive that no one could go back into the workshops to see how the taxidermist made his mounts. Though he has such strong beliefs, Martinez II has a more fluid view on the change.
“I can say that I’ve seen the change. I’m part of the change. I’ve had to adapt and change some of the traditional techniques that we used to do on a day to day basis that I was taught, that my father was taught, that a master taxidermist taught him,” said Martinez. “I think with life and any kind of business there’s always change and you have to learn to change with the way of life.”
Taxidermy is a large part of the Martinez family’s way of life, and there is a lot of pride in what they do. The family does not view what they do with morbidity, but as a way to make these animals look as alive as possible and preserve their liveliness forever. Martinez Senior said “the challenge of being able to take something Mother Earth did, something that comes from nature, and to be able to replicate it and make it look as alive as possible… that’s my pride.”
The pride he has was undoubtedly handed down to his son. Martinez II described their occupation as something with charm and beauty, that he can go into the next room and admire a deer mount that he has memories of from when he was six years old, sweeping up after his father. He said that the traditional way he was taught compared to something mass produced is the main reason why their mounts are so special. “They are all different, truly unique and one of a kind.”
The Martinez father/son duo evolves in their own way as the industry itself does. Martinez Senior admitted that it took him longer and longer to craft mounts because the better he got, the more particular he became. Martinez II said “your heart, your soul, your sweat, your blood goes into manufacturing these mounts traditionally.”
The family’s heart and soul is scattered throughout their shop. Though there is clutter, not a thing is out of place, neglected or unused. Change is inescapable, but the Martinez family holds onto the one thing that will never become irrelevant—family ties.