Traditional Arts in Northwest Pennsylvania. Interview with Amber Harmon
-Interview by Kelly Armor, edited by Nat Richmond
Taxidermy is an art form that shows quite an appreciation for the uniqueness of beauty found in the wild. By preserving the integrity of an animal's likeness, one can learn the physicality of the wild...embracing a sense of understanding and compassion for nature's most precious beings. Kelly Armor, Erie Arts and Culture's Folklorist, interviewed this phenomenal artist and reported her findings in this exclusive.
Amber Harmon: Biography
Born in Titusville, Amber Harmon has spent her life hunting and raising animals. After graduating high school she went to work at a local lumber mill. After 20 years of doing just about every job at the mill she was laid off. After the initial shock she thought hard about her next move. She didn’t have a college education, yet she wanted a new career that would challenge her, give her some flexibility, and not put her behind a desk. She decided to open a taxidermy shop. “Growing up on a farm we raised all our own meat. My dad also was a butcher. Not a lot went to waste. If we were butchering rabbits and they had nice winter pelt, we would save those and I would tan them. When I was 14 or 15, I tried to taxidermy a squirrel. I had no clue what I was doing. It was fun, but it looked like a fat man in a little coat! I wasn't stellar, but I liked it. And in 2019 I was like, I have a dream, I have a vision, and I'm gonna go for it.”
Using her farm as collateral she was able to get a loan to take a course at the PA Taxidermy School in Punxsutawney, and her husband and friends helped her build a showroom. She also has the guidance of two highly esteemed taxidermists, Greg Orr, from Titusville, who specializes in fish, and Tim Schloss, from Erie, who specializes in fowl. She is grateful for both the time they spend helping her solve problems and for their unvarnished criticism. Anticipating retirement, Orr is still taking in deer and fish but forwards all his small mammal and bear customers to Amber. Hunters, trappers, and taxidermists are predominantly male, and she recognizes it can sometimes be an uphill battle. Her first season was a bit slow, but that allowed her to take her time, “I was able to turn out really quality stuff from the beginning.” Now into her third season, her business and artistic practice is solid. Although she has only recently embraced that she is an artist, her lifetime of keen observation has prepared her well. She finds herself minutely observing the texture and color patterns in the feet and beaks of her chickens, which then helps her when she mounts water fowl. The dogs she trains help her recognize similarities in animals she’s seen in the wild. “I want my fisher mount to look as inquisitive and fluffy as it did in the woods.” She continued, “My whole life we owned horses, trained horses, and I prefer to raise all my horses from babies.”
She learned that both horses and deer communicate with different ear and eye positions. She explains, “Now, I could absolutely mount up a deer, throw some generic color on it, generic nose texture, throw the ears straight back, and it's a mounted deer that hunters would be okay with, but I think the more depth of color in your paint work…whether the eyes are wide or squinty has to match if the ears are upright or laid back, has to match how the head is tilted. Those kinds of details bring the deer to life. All those little artistic nuances make a happier customer.”