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Combining an affinity for toys and taxidermy, a Norman artist creates one-of-a-kind playmates for the grim at heart



Darien Goldman's Snuff Stuffies
7 p.m. Friday
Juju Gallery
1612 Gatewood

Animal bones in clear plastic bags were piled in a large cardboard box, like evidence collected from a catastrophic crime scene. Darien Goldman called it her "pathology" collection, and she dug through the bones, finding a white, fist-sized skull of a dog.

"This is the best argument against inbreeding," Goldman said as she pointed out small holes dotting its top and sides, where generations of selective breeding produced a skull too thin and brittle to cover the dog's entire brain. Its teeth were bunched together in bizarre patterns near the back of its jaw.

Although the malformed skull had lead to the dog being put down early in life, it might live on one day as one of Goldman's Snuff Stuffies. Her creations fuse stuffed animals to real animal bones to create surreal and surprisingly endearing dolls which are a grim, Gothic take on Jim Henson's universe. A nearby shelf held dozens of such dolls overlooking Goldman's bedroom, which also serves as the laboratory where her creations come to life.

On a desk sat a post-op turtle doll, now with a real turtle skull, ornamented alligator eyes and deer bones lining its back, giving the creature a vague resemblance to a prehistoric reptile. A smaller, rodent-looking doll bore a disproportionately large skull and long avian claws, appearing to be a fuzzy, otherworldly scavenger.

In short, the creations are truly unique, and Goldman will show off some of her latest Stuffies at the Juju Gallery in the Plaza District during Friday's art walk.

Goldman is an avid animal lover, as evidenced by the pack of cats lounging around her home. She takes in stray birds, is disgusted by acts of animal cruelty, and views her art as a way to give a deceased animal renewed purpose.

"There's nothing inhumane about what I'm doing. I'm just recycling," she said. "I wouldn't ever use an animal that was killed specifically to be made for a doll. These are animals that died because they were hit by cars or were sick. They died for no reason, so now they have a reason."

Goldman also understands that not everyone shares her particular ideals.

"I've had my work at the Plaza before, and it's always interesting, because there is a lot of foot traffic," she said, "but there is also a lot of vegetarians. There will be mothers pulling their kids away from my table, saying, 'Don't touch that!'" 

Goldman has been working with bones for more than a decade. She reads them like a forensics expert, discerning how and why the animals died from the cracks, holes and breaks. She cleans the bones herself, after submerging the cadavers in buckets of water for extended periods, but soon will shift to dermestid beetles.

"(They) will clean the flesh off for you," Goldman said. "You flush it off the best you can, dry it out like jerky, and then let the beetles go to town."

She maintains a massive collection of bones so that when inspiration hits, she has plenty of tools to work with, and can produce the dolls quickly, but prefers to let them grow organically.

"It has to originate in my head and come together on its own, like I'm adopting it from the ethereal realm," Goldman said. "They are already put together; I just have to find the elements to bring them to life."

She has made a 4-foot lion with a pit-bull skull for a medical examiner in Los Angeles and a full-size unicorn out of rebar and a cow skeleton. Her favorite was a penguin with a beaver skull, top hat and monocle, which reminded her of a Russian diplomat.

"Personality is important," Goldman said. "Some have eyes, some don't. Some have fingers, some don't, but all of them have a distinct personality. If you put them on a table, people will say the same kind of things about them, because of the personality they exude."

The pieces sell for anywhere between $40-$210, depending on the size, the time invested and how difficult the skull is to obtain.

"I can get coyotes and raccoons all day long, but there are skulls I might see once and never again," Goldman said. "My holy grail would be a hyena skull, but they are very rare and endangered, so extremely hard to get. I wouldn't want to get one illegally. That sort of trouble does not interest me."

The rarities that make it into her "pathology" collection may never make it out into the open market. There is a good chance, however, that when one of the many cats stalking around her bedroom passes on, they will reappear as a timeless work of art. "?Charles Martin


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