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Stuffed animals find new lives in the careful hands of Heyworth resident

Published: Monday, Oct. 28, 2013 10:06 a.m. CDT

CLINTON (MCT) — The little antique stuffed canary had clearly hit some heavy weather down the long flight of years because its head had come off.

No need for anyone to ruffle their feathers in panic, however, as Melissa Luka-Gunn, the hot glue gun-wielding goddess who creates her own surreal worlds under glass, will soon have him reassembled and looking perky. Perhaps he'll end up sporting a bright ribbon tie and appear to be striding purposely through a landscape of dried flowers to peer inquisitively at a colorful and real, but just as deceased, butterfly, also preserved to perfection.

All things dead and beautiful, Luka-Gunn seems to find a crafty purpose for them all.

You can gaze upon her works in booth five of the Clinton Antiques Mall, where she sells her creations.

They live under glass domes, both antique and modern-made to look Victorian, and command prices that reflect the intense effort it takes to assemble them: how about $235 for a white weasellike critter trotting its way forever through the inside of a glass lantern? And there's a vintage bobcat — this is the only critter too big to be under glass — who comes across as decidedly femme fatale while wearing a pearl necklace and a milliner's jaunty artificial flowers in her hair; she goes for $465.

Perhaps the most striking is an antique stuffed German squirrel under a fine arched glass dome whose blazing white chest patch and long, dark ear tufts clearly distinguish him from his more mundane American counterparts. He is wearing a bow tie and is checking the time on a watch that dangles from the standing upright animal's right paw. All around are dried flowers, dried butterflies and even dried mushrooms, a Luka-Gunn specialty she's so good at she sells them on eBay to taxidermists looking to add some verisimilitude to their own dioramas.

Like all great artists who seek to make their mark, Luka-Gunn has to contend with a public that does not always understand. Their shocked eyeballs roam among her deceased menagerie — the full roster includes tiny mummified turtles and several hen's chicks — and jump to the conclusion they were forced to give up their lives in the pursuit of artistic profit.

"Actually, they all died of natural causes," explains Luka-Gunn, 44. "You have a bunch of animals like chicks, you always end up losing some."

She buys hers from a helpful taxidermist in Florida and receives room temperature turtles at $20 a pop from a dealer in Alabama. The vintage taxidermy she meanwhile finds in estate sales and such, and while it's difficult to know precisely how a circa 1915 German squirrel came to expire in the Fatherland 100 years ago, the fact is it's dead now. And Luka-Gunn isn't about to drive herself nuts with a misplaced guilt complex.

But however reassured onlookers may be about the circumstances that led to the demise of the subjects of her work, it still presents such striking images it's often better to prepare viewers in advance.

"I always tell my friends about them," said Luka-Gunn's daughter Abby, 18. "Before they come over to my house."

Luka-Gunn whips up her creations at the kitchen table of her Heyworth home and fits in the art around running her own trucking firm. No stranger to live critters, she used to be the director of the Macon County Animal Control and Care Center in Decatur and said she has learned to appreciate the diversity of creation but also likes to have a little fun with it.

"Sometimes, I just sit back and laugh so hard at what I've done," she said, gazing at a raccoon smoking a pipe. "I think that's why I like doing it so much, it makes me laugh and, well, who wouldn't want to laugh?"

(c)2013 the Herald & Review (Decatur, Ill.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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