The Black Taxidermy Hall of Famer You Need to Know
After finding Carl Cotton (1918-1971), the Field’s first and only Black taxidermist, we searched for more stories like Carl’s. Last year, we talked about John Edmonstone, a formerly-enslaved taxidermist who taught Charles Darwin. We also introduced the inspiring story of Art Ledger, a living taxidermy legend. Last, but certainly not least, meet Sinclair Clark (1902-1999)—a master tanner whose work is on display in natural history museums across the world.
Learning from taxidermy’s masters
Before a taxidermy mount is created, animal skins must be tanned—a process of preserving and softening the hides. Great taxidermy can’t exist without great tanners—and Clark was the best. His methods became the gold standard at institutions like the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) because they produced extremely supple skins that allowed taxidermists to create lifelike dioramas.
Born in Barbados, Sinclair Clark immigrated to New York City in the 1920s. He trained under several tanners and master taxidermists like James L. Clark (no relation), who introduced Sinclair to Carl Akeley, the Field Museum’s former Chief Taxidermist and the “father of modern taxidermy.”
In fact, Akeley tried to persuade Clark to join what would be Akeley’s last African expedition in 1926, but Sinclair’s mother refused. Alongside taxidermist Louis Paul Jonas, Clark tanned the majority of the mammal hides in the African and Asian Halls of Mammals at AMNH, including rhinos, hippos, and elephants—some of the most difficult skins of his career.
A master at work
Before a skin could be mounted, Clark would rehydrate, pickle, shave, tan, and soften it. His tanning formula was exact. The way he handled every knife, tool, and machine was masterful. Many who worked alongside him noted his precision. The standard he set for his own work was always sky high.
Though he had a long relationship with AMNH, Clark worked with museums and taxidermy studios from coast to coast. Some of his work, like the racehorse Phar Lap, would go on display internationally.
Still shaping the craft
Within the taxidermy field, Clark is a beloved figure. As one of the most talented, hardworking men in the industry, Clark also mentored many young taxidermists and took great pleasure in sharing his knowledge. However, despite his essential contributions to the “Golden Age” of taxidermy, Clark’s name was virtually unknown outside of the taxidermy world.
In the summer of 2021, I heard from Janelli—whose email address includes the affectionate homage “Sinclair’s JJ.” Janelli, a former president of the National Taxidermy Hall of Fame, had called to share exciting news. The Hall of Fame had just inducted their first Black honoree: Sinclair Clark.
A special thanks to Diane Patrick, Divya Anantharaman, George Dante, John Janelli, Tom Gnoske, Mark Alvey, and everyone else who shared their wonderful memories and knowledge of Sinclair with us.