Designer Kaya Tinsman Rips Apart Raccoon Carcasses to Make Etsy Earrings
Although the finished product is sometimes criticized as "twee," the process of making animal bone jewelry is gory, gruesome, and often involves handling roadkill. We sent a photographer to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, to capture every maggot, intestine...
All photos by Cody Orrell
"Morbidly beautiful" is a favorite phrase of mine. The moment you've cried enough and your tears turn to laughter, the self-love that grows from a breakup, a silver ring created from a fox's claw--the intersection of pain and pleasure is a fascinating, if not also upsetting, to occupy. The most recent example I've had of said emotional experience is a day spent in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, following local jewelry artist Kaya Tinsman's creative process that starts with collecting roadkill and ends with an accessory, like triangle earrings made out of possum fangs (her current favorite).
It may seem paradoxical, but the inspiration for Tinsman's jewelry stems from her love of animals.
And from her comfort with death. "I think it brings us closer to the animals around us--wearing their bones is a way of honoring them and sharing their existence," Tinsman says. "And [of] reminding us also of our mortality and that we're animals just like them, and we're going to die one day too."
After we collect some bones of a small deer spotted in a nearby field, the day begins in earnest with Tinsman, the photographer, and I driving through Bucks County and getting lucky by spotting a freshly killed raccoon.
We pull over to collect our treasure. "I use the bones of already deceased animals that I find in the woods or along the road," explains Tinsman. Tinsman learned how to clean bones from bone collector Jana Miller's blog, Bonelust, and much of what she knows about jewelry making from her mother, metalsmith Sherry Tinsman. "[My mother] took a jewelry class when I was about five or six at the local community college, and she learned how to do her own stuff. Now actually she and my dad make their living off of her company, so she's been a big role model in making me realize that it's a possibility for me to make a living off of my art. I've been working for her for about five years, six years now. She's always helps me out if I have a question; she definitely facilitated all of this for me."
With dead raccoon in hand, we head to Tinsman's "rot box"--a mesh cage in which bugs and natural elements partially clean bones.
"If the animal is fresh I usually skin it and remove the organs and as much meat as I can (which I leave in the woods for other animals to eat)," Tinsman says. It's a gory sight that can take up to two weeks.
Joined by Tinsman's dogs, Rothko and Cedar, we watch as Tinsman removes the raccoon's guts wearing purple latex gloves and drops the carcass into the rot box to join other animals (and resulting maggots) in various stages of decay, one day to adorn a woman's neck.
Yet before they'll be wiggling again as femur earrings, the bones must be "macerated." "If it's just bone and some ligaments or dried skin and flesh," Tinsman says, "it's ready to place directly into maceration."
"Maceration is the process of soaking the animal carcass in warm water in a closed container for an extended period of time," Tinsman says. "Bacteria then break down the remaining tissue. This can take another two-four weeks, and the water should be changed part way through to replenish bacteria. If the bones are particularly greasy, detergent can be added to help degrease. (Grease ['corpse wax,' or saturated fats from the body] can cause discoloration and an unfavorable odor over time.) When bones are taken out of maceration they need to be rinsed off. A black or red film and buildup can occur and is totally normal."
The bones are then laid out to dry in the sun.
"The bones may be stained brown or black, but this will disappear with peroxide," Tinsman says. "Once dry, the bones are left in a container with three percent peroxide for a day or two until [they achieve] the desired whiteness. Peroxide needs to be kept out of the sun or else it will become weakened. The bones are taken out of the peroxide, rinsed off, and then laid in the sun again to dry."
"Now the bones are all clean, sterile, and ready to use!" Tinsman says enthusiastically.
Maneuvering around a display of bones drying in the sun, flanked by the dogs, Tinsman leads us into the studio space she shares with her mother. Precisely organized, here we see examples of the finished product: various sterling silver fox bone rings, gold-leafed fawn rib necklaces, and piles of unused bone waiting to be filtered through Tinsman's imagination. All in all, it was a morbidly beautiful day.
Although the process is fascinating, I wonder how buyers would feel about seeing the death and decay that comes with their jewelry. "I think that it's very important," says Tinsman. "I mean especially if you think about people eating meat a lot of the time--what you're eating doesn't represent what it started out as. All of the gore is removed; you see the cow and then you see the burger, but you don't realize that what you're eating is actually a butchered animal. I think that it's important...I think that it adds to the respect that you have for the creature.
"Even though it's hard to look at, it's important, because it allows you to realize and recognize that this was an animal."