In her Carmel Valley studio, Brooke Weston rolls up the sleeves of her black and green flannel shirt, exposing colorful tattoos down her arms and across her knuckles. Straight blond hair falls loosely over her shoulders.
Weston points out intricate details of a miniature living room scene she built, including a crimson, crushed-velvet couch and multiple abstract paintings. The room would be perfect inside of a dollhouse, but instead, Weston built it inside a taxidermied boar head.
Weston is the great-granddaughter of famed photographer Edward Weston, but didn’t follow his path of black-and-white film photography. Instead, she became a mixed-media sculptor with taxidermied animals as her medium, building miniature rooms inside things like a mountain goat and a 6-foot-tall bear.
“There’s a morbid edge to it for some people,” Weston says. “It just seems totally normal to me. I’ve always loved taxidermy and dioramas.”
Weston, 35, lives in Carmel and works part-time at Whole Foods, but found her calling in taxidermy sculpture while taking classes at Monterey Peninsula College.
“When I was younger, I drew and painted a lot,” she says. “I always wanted to bring my ideas and drawings to a three-dimensional place.”
Weston came to build a diorama inside of an animal by experimentation: “I had a taxidermied goat and wondered if it was hollow,” she says. “I thought it would be cool to build a scene inside of it.”
Her goal with the dioramas, she says, is to show off the personality of the animal she features.
“I really try to work with what the animal has and not overload it,” she says. “I want it to be like a theme park ride where you can just get in there and have fun. I like to play with different ideas by making different stories about the what the animal was like. I never put human elements inside. It’s always paintings of other animals.”
While growing up in Carmel Valley, Weston used to collect bones and skulls, developing a familiarity with preserved animal parts. Now, she usually searches for her art supplies at estate sales or on Craigslist.
“I used to just buy whatever was cheap, but now I’m very specific about what I want,” she says. “I’m looking for full-body animals, which are extremely hard to find for under $3,000.” Her top choice is fawns, because they’ve died naturally, followed by bears, but she says those are harder to find. “I’ve also worked with fish and squirrels,” she adds.
Weston starts with a drill or a Sawzall to cut the animal open, then uses plaster and other classic sculpture materials like clay to build windows or a floor.
A full piece can take a few months to complete, Weston says, and they sell for upwards of $5,000.
Weston says she likes the idea of helping the animal live in another life, and many of the reactions to her art are positive – like one woman who thought it was cool the artist “made hunting trophies feminine by putting a dollhouse in it” – but not all reactions are good, especially online.
“There’s a woman on Instagram that prowls taxidermy artists and call them sick or fucked up in long-winded comments,” Weston says. “I look at the negative comments as silly and naive. We’re walking around with leather shoes after all.”
The pieces are exhibited in galleries and art shows in larger cities like Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles. Weston’s pieces are popular at the Bearded Lady’s Mystic Museum in Burbank, where a 4-foot-long deer in sitting position contains a cottage packed with foliage built into its body.
“It’s one of those wow pieces,” says Erick Wessel, co-owner of the Bearded Lady Mystic Museum. “People stop and talk to us about her pieces a lot.”
Wessel compares Weston’s work to a surprisingly different hobby: “It’s like the guys who have the passion for model railroading,” he says. “Being able to spend time looking at the very delicate detail makes it interesting to look at.”
Weston’s pieces fit in at Bearded Lady, where art and collectibles range from horror posters and human bones to taxidermied bats and shrunken heads.
“It’s unique. It’s not only a great piece to sell, but a great display piece for the store,” Wessel says. “We sell her pieces pretty quickly. It’s a perfect match.”
While Bearded Lady sells oddities, Weston is so accustomed to her own work that it’s become normalized to her.
“People trip out about the art and I think, ‘Really? It’s not that cool. I’m just a weirdo,’” Weston says. “I live in such a myopic world, sometimes I forget that it’s even strange.”