ALGONQUIN, Ill. | Vern Brancamp is an artist.
Unlike other artists who interpret nature on a canvas or with a camera, nature is his canvas.
His craft is taxidermy. And it's been a lifelong passion for the 70-year-old from Algonquin.
"I got started when I was kid," he said. "My dad was a hunter and when we'd come back with pheasant he'd pluck all the feathers and throw them in the trash," he said. "It would eat at my insides to see all those beautiful feathers go to waste so I would pick them out of the trash and pin them out on cardboard.
"It was very satisfying to see them after they dried out into these little feather clusters."
After high school, he went to work for Jewel as a meat cutter but kept his hobby up in his basement. It became more than a hobby when a local sporting goods store put some of his work up on display.
"Customers would bring stuff in to the store and want me to work on it," he said. "I was a meat cutter by day and a taxidermist by night."
Soon his passion took off and he decided to pursue taxidermy full time.
"I was getting so much work that my freezers were full and I couldn't keep up or spend any time with my family," Brancamp said.
He opened Vern's Taxidermy in Algonquin 40 years ago. His freezers are still full, but there are more of them now.
The taxidermy process involves many stages. In the case of a deer, he skins it, takes measurements and orders a Styrofoam mannequin in the pose the customer wants. The hide is then sent to a tanner. After it comes back in a couple of months, it is rehydrated and glued on to the mannequin. The rack is attached, eyes are inserted, along with a few other final touches. Generally, he quotes about a year to have a deer mounted.
Along the way, he's done some pets — which are more work since he has to carve the mannequins himself — and other unique animals. He's mounted everything from someone's pet goldfish to a full-grown giraffe.
"I had to rent a building that had a 18-foot ceiling," he said.
It took him over a month just to craft the body.
"That ended up being a really big job, and I don't think I'd like to do it again," he said.
Brancamp said he knows many people who enjoy the process of taxidermy, but most find it hard to make a living doing it.
"I like seeing the finished product and I like to make other people happy in what I do," he said. "That's my reward, it's not only the money thing, it's the reward that people are happy with what I do, and that makes me happy."