Hannah Berta’s “Taxidermy” Is Fierce, Friendly, and Fake

The paper artist’s playful take on animal mounts celebrates her passion for Maine animals.

Hannah Berta and her collection of "friendly taxidermy" papier-mâché pieces
By Monique Brouillette
Photos by Dave Waddell
From our April 2023 Animals issue

Hannah Berta has a way of making paper come to life. Her first love was cut-paper sculpture, which she still makes. Drawing inspiration from plants she sees on walks near her Rockport home, the 31-year-old cuts intricate designs from paper, layers them three dimensionally, and mounts them on canvas using pins, like biological specimens. But then, in 2016, a neighbor and fellow artist, photographer Cig Harvey, asked Berta to make a papier-mâché zebra mask for a Christmas present.   

Harvey liked it so much, she asked Berta to sculpt her a pair of Chinese guardian lions, mythical protectors of buildings. Whereas her cut-paper sculptures require intense focus and precision, papier-mâché seemed disorderly and malleable — and Berta was all in. 

In particular, Berta found she enjoyed making animal heads. She learned to fold cardboard boxes into head-like shapes, cover them in newspaper pieces soaked in flour, water, and Elmer’s glue, and then paint the animal’s features with acrylics. Over the next few years, she did an array of whimsical busts of some of Maine’s most prized and/or endangered species — from peregrine falcons to little brown bats to black racer snakes. Once, she made a life-size moose head that barely fit through her oversize studio doors. Making these busts, Berta says, is a way of celebrating her passion for Maine animals. 

She calls her work “friendly taxidermy,” both because no animals are harmed and because the sculptures are full of personality. Berta carefully paints the busts to express emotions that shift depending on the viewing angle. Some smirk, others wink — and each embodies its own unique character. “It’s more fun that way,” Berta says. “I wanted to take animals that normally wouldn’t be in the spotlight and put them on a pedestal.” 

Tell Us More
Hannah Berta

Hannah Berta working with papier-mâché

What inspires your faux taxidermy? 

I love artwork by Melanie Bourlon, an artist in Paris, France, who makes papier-mâché animals wearing clothing. I was also heavily inspired by visiting the Museum of Hunting and Nature, in Paris — they have a bunch of real and fake taxidermy. They also had a bunch of real weapons used to kill these animals, but fake weapons too. It was a kind of dark humor that I appreciated. 

How do you decide what to make?

Oftentimes, I set out to make a particular animal. Maybe I’ll see a lot of hawks around that day, and I will read stories about them and look up photos. Other times, I will just start with the materials and see where they take me. Sometimes, I set out to make a hawk and it turns into a cat because that’s just what I was feeling.

Do you do a lot of commissions?

About a quarter of my work is custom pieces. I enjoy hearing the connections and stories that people have about the animals they want me to make for them. I made a pig for Melissa Kelly, the chef at Rockland’s farm-to-table restaurant, Primo, where I also work part-time. I made a seagull for a friend’s daughter who was obsessed with them. I’ve made dogs that represent people’s pets. I infuse each sculpture with life and character. 

And where does any given bust’s personality come from?

I like to bring them around my house to tease out the characters in different lights and settings and to get cozy with my friendly taxidermy. At times, I feel like a crazy cat lady, but it’s fun to see the animals come to life and change over the days as I do.

May 2024, Down East Magazine

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