A pretty tomboy – in jeans, baggy T-shirt and floral-print baseball cap when we meet – Charlie Tuesday Gates is all bubbly vivacity and infectious laughter. Get her talking about animals, and her eyes twinkle in childlike wonder as she enthuses about their beauty. It’s almost easy to forget that you’re surrounded by death.
‘I got this for my birthday last year,’ she chirps, pulling a battered leather suitcase from a shed. ‘It’s the first thing I ever did. You might want to stand back,’ she says, flipping open the lid. ‘This one smells a bit.’ There’s an odour like a rugby team’s sweaty sock collection, and a dessicated fox’s remains jut from a pile of salt. With tail and nose still intact, legs thrust aloft, it could simply be playing dead. Except for the ribcage protruding from peeled-back skin. Next to it lies a kitsch purple, green and blue plastic coolbox. Inside, the antlers of a skinless deer’s head nudge a ram’s skull, which sits atop a pile of its own fur. A few pieces of flat, leather-like material turn out to be ‘the faces of some other deer’.
‘It was a complete accident, really,’ Gates explains. I bought a couple of bits of dead things, made them into pieces and said I was into taxidermy. Then all of a sudden, I got given the fox, and I thought: Oh, I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is.’ And how. Her studio is filled with previous exhibits, some created as parts of taxidermy shows and do-it-yourself workshops. A mummified pigeon perches atop a vintage pinball machine. A crocodile head smiles out from a glass jar. A mouldering seagull splays itself on a sideboard. And on a window ledge lies ‘Jordan’s Pussy’: a skinned cat that’s been salted until it’s shrivelled into a sparkly, crystalline figure, each vein scored into it like tiny stratum. Its eyeless skull stares out like the face in Edvard Munch’s ‘Scream’. From its mouth, a preserved tongue pokes insouciantly to one side.
‘It makes you appreciate animals in a different way,’ Gates suggests. ‘It’s really intimate. You understand life at a whole new level.’ She demonstrates on a magpie that a friend gave her. A quick nick with a scalpel and she’s pulling back skin as thin as a latex glove. Her voice drops in reverence as she points out ‘its beautiful colours’; ‘It’s like peeling an orange,’ she explains. At points, she even talks to it. ‘Come on, you,’ she urges, trying to peel the skin away from a leg, until eventually she’s popping the organless body into a shoe box filled with salt. ‘There’s something quite beautiful about him in there, just in his own little coffin.’ Beautiful? ‘Yeah, take the fox in the box. I had a little cry when I got him. It was really moving. Some people can see this as disrespectful, but I really appreciate their lives. In a weird way, I just want to make them live forever.’ Alexi Duggins
Find out more at charlietuesdaygates.blogspot.com.