Death, Taxidermy, and Home Teaching: an Oblique Profile of Artist Jeff Decker

English Brooks lives in central Utah with his wife, Kelly, and their three children. When he’s not teaching, writing, or scavenging, he enjoys staring into maps, squinting at birds, and inventing poorly attended high-altitude marathons. Lately, he’s become involved with a community-building initiative and participatory performance project called “A Billion Hairs for the Billionaires.” (https://www.billionhairs.org If you’re looking for a reason to shave your head this summer, consider this an invitation!)

People love to churn out that hackneyed phrase, ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ I always thought dancing about architecture sounded like a good idea. This is what all objects are doing with each other. After all, no object truly contacts another one. Architecture ‘columns’ (or whatever it does) about human relationships. And dogs sniff about trees. And pencils pencil about pencil sharpeners. The photon photons about the electron. The birds bird about the BP oil slick, telling us about it in bird metaphors. And weather weathers about global warming. And writing writes about music. To this extent writing about music really is like dancing about architecture—and a good thing too. Everything is like that.

Timothy Morton, from Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World (2013)

Any time spent googling Jeff Decker, artist, will immediately and overwhelmingly acquaint you with his fantastic work restoring and sculpting exquisite, badass vintage motorcycles. He’s often—and very fittingly, I’d say—referred to as a Frederick Remington of bronze motorcycle sculpture. (You may also recall the handsome goatee and rockabilly soundtrack from his “I’m a Mormon” video a few years ago.) Last month, as I got out of my truck and came up the walk of his studio, I’m certain he could already tell I knew nothing about motorcycles before I even reached the porch for a handshake.

This was a kind of blind date. Earlier this year, I was asked to write a response to an artwork for a exhibition catalog. Called Immediate Present, the 4-day exhibition shows the work on 23 Mormon artists and seeks to redefine Mormon art, and is organized in conjunction with inaugural Mormon Art Center Festival, both to be held later this month in New York City. Here’s the deal though, I am not an art critic, this was not to be art criticism, and it was only after saying “yes” that writers were shown the work. It wasn’t until I was sent an image of Decker’s Lo and Behold Mammon (Habes pecuniam and Et in Arcadia Ego) that I knew I was in trouble. What to say about the front end of a taxidermied rhino, regaled with spoils, saddled and ridden by a type of grotesque, chubby homunculus—and was that canopy the carapace of a sea tortoise? By now I was absolutely intrigued (and committed), but where to begin?

Once I’d decided on a set of short fables as the way to approach this, I agreed to take my friend Laura Allred Hurtado up on her suggestion to arrange a visit to Decker’s Hippodrome Studio in Springville, UT. She got me his contact info and he kindly set aside a Saturday afternoon to meet me there. I brought a notebook and camera, on which I’d stupidly set the ISO wrong, but some of the photos still turned out alright. I would describe Hippodrome as just much a classic cabinet of curiosities—a collection or museum (a shrine of the Muses)—as it is also a working shop. And in this post I can only begin to scratch the surface of what turned out to be easily one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had.

It was OK that I didn’t know anything about motorcycles. This left us plenty else to talk about, and before too long I realized we had all of the following in common:

  • A shared love for scrounging things from the dump.
  • And for Cormac McCarthy, Tom Waits, Basil Wolverton, and Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.
  • An unapologetic proclivity for going out into the back yard to piss, day or night.
  • Both married to Kellys.
  • And we’re way into birds, enough to both have our own stories about large, beautiful birds (not Thanksgiving turkeys) stored for a time in our freezers. (Jeff grew up surrounded by, among other things, hundreds of exotic parrots.)

Although we found all this in common, it gave us a chance to discuss how the often arbitrary nature of things like ward boundaries and home teaching assignments can provide opportunities to better understand people, interests, and values that might be extremely different, different from one’s own. Coming from Utah’s rural Sanpete County myself, there was something familiar about arriving on assignment to visit a new acquaintance in his own home space, surrounded by taxidermy. Sometimes your neighbor says something in a testimony meeting and you think to yourself “yes, these are my people!” Other times you find yourself in a Sunday school discussion and have to ask yourself, “Who the hell are these people?” Faith and community are always more complicated than a static togetherness, and this tension is so vital to our creative, social, and civic processes.

It also didn’t take us long to get into the uncomfortable, sad, and mysterious subject of death. As Pablo Neruda puts it, the “little deaths” of individual lives; the big, monumental deaths and extinctions of entire species, nations, and civilizations; and what problems and questions these pose for collectors and artists like him, and for people of faith generally. Though the image I was originally sent described the piece he was working on as a mounted white rhino, he soon clarified that it was actually a black rhino, which he’d found at an antique shop in pretty bad disrepair. There are several subspecies of black rhinos, most of them either completely extinct, or at some critical stage of endangered survival. Though one desperately wishes to be hopeful, these are among the too many creatures who have been hunted, chased, and displaced to the point of what we call “functional extinction.” The living bond between a life and its life place is broken and it becomes an object.

Although a certain kind of extinction is as old as life itself, the idea of extinction, our modern understanding of it, has only been around for about 200 years. Aristotle wrote ten books on natural history without extinction ever crossing his mind. Medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment Europe had never considered the idea a possibility either. Thomas Jefferson had come across giant fossils of New World lions, mammoths, and sloths, and fully expected Lewis and Clark to bring such things back from their expedition, alive and well on the American frontiers. Until the early 19th century it was widely believed that there was no place for extinction in the economy of creation. Imagine this world! Complete with the same fullness as on the morning of Genesis’ seventh day.

But now we have only these remnant bodies, turned objects. Forms of life now passed into history. What to make of them now, with their attendant beauty, and often shame? Jeff and I discussed our own experience of human lust and covetousness, greed and desire, appetites and passions, both the bad and the good. His work with these sculptures (there are two of them) places obese human children (the “mammon twins”) on the backs of magnificent creatures, borne in a pageant of elaborate plunder and excess. Gold coins and splendid instruments, narwhal tusks and oryx horns, penguin wings and shrunken head replicas.

As art should, these things raise hard questions that we otherwise find more convenient to ignore. How do we, the most privileged generation of life on earth, reckon with our history (as Mormons, as what we call Western civilization, as a species) and with our prospective future? Do we too easily absolve ourselves from the blood, content that if we pay our taxes and tithing all things will somehow be restored, not a hair lost? Is this easy self-absolution a function of our hope for something beyond the material world of objects, or rather of having inherited a view on the world that reduces all objects to commodities? In what ways can our seeking after anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report, or praiseworthy (these finest pearls) condemn us to repeating history, and in what ways might they help redeem us from it? And what limits might there be on such redemption? I don’t have great answers to any of this here. But I would offer that many of these questions are as fundamentally human as they are Mormon.

Of course it was also hard to talk about some of this without also recognizing the absurdity of our current national moment. For the past year or so, we’ve all been compelled to watch what still seems like some hideous parody of this play out on nearly a daily basis. At the same time, our struggle with greed, lust, and reckless covetousness is a very old part of being human. But fortunately, so is kindness and generosity. I had gotten to Hippodrome Studio at noon, not really checking the time the whole while I was there. It wasn’t until we were wrapping up that I realized it was already three, and that Jeff had graciously given me, among other things, the better part of his afternoon. He then sent me across the street to Art City Trolley (his and his wife’s restaurant) where I was treated to the best burger I’d had in a long time. True kindness, indeed.

For details about the Mormon Arts Center Festival to be held June 28th – July 1st in New York City, including the group exhibition Immediate Present in which Decker’s work, Lo and Behold Mammon (Habes pecuniam and Et in Arcadia Ego), 2017, will appear, visit the website http://mormonartscenter.org/.
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Comments

  1. Jason K. says:

    Thank you for this record of a very cool encounter, and for clueing us in to Decker’s art.

  2. Reminds me of the Scholar of Moab (I’m enjoying this recent phase of Utah-based art) – and the piece described here screamed for a picture. Fortunately, the linked site provides a sort of glimpse!

  3. MDearest says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this and thinking about all the art stuff, from the collecting minutiae (you should see my rusted things) to the great questions (meatier than Sunday school questions) to the exploration of death. It has helped my life today.

    How I wish I was free to go to the event in New York. Thank you for the link. I’ll be an avidly interested lurker.

  4. Glad to hear you enjoyed the post, and are interested in the MACF project and events. For a few photos of Decker’s work and studio, you can visit my earlier, slightly different version of this post here: https://fishwithoutfaces.blogspot.com/2017/05/wunderkammern-oblique-profile-of-artist.html