The Legacy of Black Taxidermists Continues
In the exhibition A Natural Talent: The Taxidermy of Carl Cotton, we told the story of a Black taxidermist who had an illustrious career at the Field Museum from 1947 to 1971. In February, we shared the story of John Edmonstone, who mentored Charles Darwin.
Now we’d like to introduce you to Art Ledger, a successful commercial taxidermist over the past 50 years, who lives in Cleveland, Ohio! We had the chance to speak with Art and hear firsthand about his path to taxidermy and ideas to preserve the artistry of his craft.
Art grew up in the 1950s on the East Side of Cleveland as the oldest of 10 children and was always interested in art. After graduating from high school, he enrolled in embalming school and interned with the largest African American funeral home in Cleveland. But he soon quit—and then passed on a chance to attend art school—to join the Marines instead.
Art’s entire tour of duty put him at the center of combat zones during the Vietnam War. Fortunately, he made it back to Cleveland after serving his country. His interest in taxidermy continued to grow after he used skills he learned at the funeral home to preserve a pet rabbit that died. He found that the attention to detail it required was a creative, relaxing, and therapeutic outlet.
A newspaper article about Art and his pastime caught the attention of commercial taxidermist John J. Kozar. He saw Art’s potential and persistently reached out to him, offering to help. But Art was skeptical, and it took a while before he finally decided to stop by John’s shop. Art was mesmerized by the lifelike beauty in the deer heads on the walls. They reminded him of wildlife trophies he admired as a boy in a neighborhood hardware store.
When John asked, “Do you want to learn how to do this?” and offered him the rare chance to apprentice for two years at the elbow of a master taxidermist for free, Art pulled up a crate and took a seat.
He calls it a great “Black and White story of an old Ukrainian man and a hyper young veteran coming back from the war.” Over several decades, John not only taught Art a trade, he also mentored him like a father. Art attributes becoming the first Black commercial taxidermist in Ohio to what he learned about business from John.
Art loves wildlife and has cared for exotic animals like white-tailed deer, bears, and lions. He even adopted Kiko, a chimpanzee that lost its hearing after an explosion on the set of the Tarzan television series. He says observing their mannerisms helped him make his taxidermy more realistic.
Over the years, Art honed his craft through continuing education, nationwide competitions, writing articles, teaching, serving on the board of the West Virginia Taxidermy Association, and being a founding member of the Ohio Taxidermy Association. In 1995, he opened the first registered taxidermy school in Ohio. Art pioneered freeze drying techniques in the industry, and he was inducted into the Ohio Taxidermists Hall of Fame in 2014.
Screen reader users can skip the following slideshow buttons by using heading navigation. All slides have been displayed above.
Grateful for his destiny to meet John and inherit his business, Art now has a new goal as he considers his retirement. His mission is to turn the 80-year-old building into the International Village Wildlife Museum. He wants to be remembered for creating a place where people can see taxidermy of all the wildlife that is native to the state of Ohio.
Art also wants to pass the torch to the next generation. He dreams of leaving a legacy as impactful as the one John Kozar left for him. “There are young people that could be interested in taxidermy,” he says. “They just don’t know about it. Exposure’s what it takes.” Exposure is what his dream will take, too.
Learn more about Art’s museum and how to support it!