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Nevada City artist fuses taxidermy, ceramics into fantastical beasts

Know & Go

What: Hollie Dilley’s “Reincarnation” show

Where: The Chambers Project, 103 Argall Way, Nevada City

When: Noon to 6 p.m. Monday-Friday through May 27; closing reception 5-9 p.m. Saturday, May 25.

For more info: Go online at http://holliedilley.com/

Hollie Dilley’s work has been called unsettling. Creepy cool. And definitely unique.

Venture into Dilley’s fantastical world, where fairy tale creatures come to vivid life, at The Chambers Project in Nevada City. Her solo show, “Reincarnation,” runs now through Memorial Day.

On the walls, Dilley’s pop-surrealist sculptures offer a dreamy interpretation of traditional hunting trophies, including an acquisitive squirrel clutching a bounty of acorns and a golden-horned jackalope. Among the larger pieces, there is a literal (ceramic) “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.” A peacock perches on a wood and iron swing, its breast pierced by a giant arrow (“Don’t Shoot the Messenger”).

A surprised-looking fox leaps in the air as he peers at a mirror image rising from a pool of water (“Reflection”). Snowflakes emerge from the ribcage of a goat whose bedazzled and velvet-shod hooves rest against the window of the gallery (“Meridian”).

Dilley’s work, with its dazzling but unlikely melding of ceramics and taxidermy, is getting some major media attention from NorCal arts mags Juztapoz and SubMerge.

“I do kind of think I’m in a unique position, where no one else is doing (this),” she said.

This is a relatively new direction for the 39-year-old artist, however.

Dilley, a New York native, dabbled in a lot of different media while getting an Associate of Arts degree before focusing on metal sculpture during a bronze casting class.

“I took that class five, six, seven times,” she said. “I absolutely fell in love with it.”

But she found she couldn’t work in metal fast enough to suit her nature. So she turned to ceramics, finding slip casting to be a similar process, in clay.

The decision to try out taxidermy was an attempt to find a practical solution to the need to streamline her creative process even more, after she became pregnant and realized she was not going to be able to devote 14 hours a day to her art.

“I was trying to hard to make all this work,” Dilley said. “I did a lot of sculpting … I built out a lot of pieces during my pregnancy. But you need hours to get into a piece. You can’t just set it aside (for a while).”

After the birth of her son, Dash, Dilley took a two-year hiatus.

“I was in denial that my work was going to change (when I became a mother),” she said. “But it changed 180 degrees and I didn’t even know it was happening. It definitely 100% changed — and I’m happy with it.”

A taxidermy class caught her eye, with its possibility of creating a piece in just a day. She actually took two classes, back to back, and was driving home with mounts of a rabbit and a pheasant when she had an epiphany.

“I thought, what if the rabbit was riding the pheasant?” she recalled before adding, “A lot of inspiration, for me, comes when I’m alone, or when I’m driving.”

She desperately needed sleep, but that didn’t stop her from staying up until the wee hours of the morning, ripping the rabbit off its base to recreate her vision.

“That was the beginning,” she said. “I thought, I can do something fun with this … It set me on a path.”

A work of transfiguration

Early on, Dilley found it more difficult to acquire specimens she could turn into art. But now that locals are aware of her work, she gets multiple calls every week.

Right now, she is transforming a stillborn baby alpaca donated by a local vet, who asked only that she let him know the possible cause of death.

“It works out great for me,” she said. “I get this beautiful mount that I can turn into a piece of art.”

Dilley takes time to honor the animal, burning some Palo Santo (a fragrant wood).

“It’s a good smell, and it masks the smell of what I’m working on,” she noted.

After skinning, she salts the animal to dry it out, then sends it to be tanned. When she gets it back, cured and cleaned, she mounts it.

The imperfections that can result became a jumping-off point for Dilley’s unique vision, becoming an “inspiration to fill that void,” she says.

The alpaca she is currently working on is a good example of that process, she says. Its neck was too thin to actually support a form, so the wide split that resulted is being filled with “ruby” rhinestones. That idea, in turn, came from “Don’t Shoot the Messenger,” one of the last pieces she created for her show, after she decided to highlight the spot where the arrow pierces the peacock with those red gems.

“Each piece I do leads into the next, it’s always evolving,” Dilley said. “Try something new and (see if) it sticks.”

Once the alpaca is finished, it will be mounted onto an ornate frame decorated with roses — a sly homage to one of Dilley’s own alpacas, which ate a garden of roses she spent hours planting. As with most of her pieces, Dilley said, she will add some light element.

Dilley doesn’t consider herself religious in any way. But she believes there is an ineffable something else beyond the corporeal.

“I can’t picture nothing,” she said. “I think my spirit will move on to something else.”

Dilley puts that belief into beautiful practice with her taxidermied pieces.

“Each animal does feel like it’s presenting another life, even though it’s roadkill, something I scraped off the pavement,” she said.

Hence the theme “Reincarnation.”

“I believe this is their second life,” Dilley said. “Their second chance.”

Contact reporter Liz Kellar at 530-477-4236 or by email at lkellar@theunion.com.


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