The freezer in Salem, Oregon-based artist Christopher Marley’s studio space is full, but not with what you expect. While most freezers have ice cream, frozen vegetables and pizza to take out for a quick dinner or snack, Marley’s is packed with frozen octopi, turtles, snakes and birds.
But there’s a reason for that.
Marley will eventually take those organisms and through a series of chemical processes and drying techniques, preserve them in their natural state and turn them into beautiful pieces of wall art.
“I work with elements of the natural world and turn them into a type of artwork that I hope is inviting and is kind of an entree for people who aren’t necessarily, immediately attracted to the types of organisms and artifacts that I work with,” he says.
Marley’s studio is a combination of office and warehouse. All around are shelves filled with pieces of Marley’s wall art wrapped up and ready to ship out. Pictures of colorful bugs and exotic creatures are hung up everywhere. In the back is a giant room with even more shelves and three vacuum tubes, each filled with dead animals in the process of drying out, ready to be preserved.
On an adjacent table, Marley is cleaning a snake.
“Every snake, however long it was before they died, before their last shed was, toward the end of the preservation process … they have one more shed in them,” he says. “And unfortunately, that shed is not like a normal snake shed which is like taking off a sock. It’s one scale at a time.”
Marley knows a thing or two about animals. He’s been a naturalist his whole life.
“I was a reptile fanatic growing up. I’ve always spent a lot of time outside, just loved exploring and looking for creatures,” he says.
His love of nature followed him while he traveled the world as a fashion model.
“I lived and worked all over the world for about 15 or 18 years. I had a lot of wonderful experiences in jungles, forests and different biomes all over the planet. It just became such a passion to collect insects,” he says.
Marley traveled to exotic places like South Africa, Borneo, China and Peru and during his downtime, explored and collected species of insects that he’d never seen before. It was that feeling of discovery that made him go back.
“If I’m in a jungle, if I’m in a forest, if I’m in some new ecosystem where I haven’t been before, I want to see what’s crawling around out there,” he says.
While out in Bangkok, he came across terribly preserved beetles and was instantly hooked.
“It blew my mind … I’d never been able to have that experience where I didn’t have the fear of reprisal. And it was a magical, transformative experience for me,” he says.
Marley saw the benefits of interacting with the natural world and wanted to share them with others.
“Not only does humanity have a right to interact in a healthy way, in a symbiotic way with the natural world, but we have a responsibility to do so,” he says.
The specimens Marley receives are all reclaimed, meaning they all have died of natural causes, usually in captivity.
“Everything dies eventually. And when those things died, I would try to come in, take those organisms that had expired, and turn them into something beautiful,” he says.
Marley works with different breeders, organizations and zoos around the world to bring reclaimed animals to his studio. But it wasn’t always easy.
“Every state and even other municipalities have their own regulations and laws. So trying to keep on top of all of that throughout the country is very, very different but we do it,” he says.
Despite the challenges, Marley works hard to bring the animals in safely and legally. Once they’re in his care, Marley makes sure to give them the proper treatment and respect.
“If we can make people appreciate these organisms, they almost have a second life,” he says.
Marley will store the organisms in his freezer, sometimes for years, until he finds inspiration and the organisms inform the art.
“I want people to see these organisms in a way that where the focus is really on the design elements of the animal as opposed to its life history,” he says. “I like people to be able to focus on what makes it beautiful or how it can be beautiful when it’s not necessarily naturally that way.”
Marley’s art pieces became hits in the commercial world, with big companies buying them to decorate their stores and buildings. But he soon realized that commercial work wasn’t how he wanted to display his art. He started creating pieces that he hoped would be best found in art galleries and exhibits.
After successful runs in Miami and Houston, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry picked up his exhibit in 2019.
Titled “Exquisite Creatures,” the exhibit showcases the best of Marley’s work over two decades.
“The ‘Exquisite Creatures’ exhibit is a dialogue of art, nature and science,” he says. “It’s a little bit of that magical space between those three different elements of the human experience and what happens when we have an involvement in the natural world and it’s combined with creativity and there’s learning and their science involved.”
One could easily get lost exploring the different creatures on display. The two-story exhibit displays many wondrous creatures that the public would not otherwise see up close. Look one direction, and you’ll find a collection of butterflies arranged to showcase their colors. Look in the other and there’s a collection of crabs and other sea creatures.
Travis Eddy, a teacher for The Ivy School, a charter school in Portland, took his students to the exhibit and was thrilled at how much they were enjoying it.
“This is the highest level of engagement I’ve had of any field trip that I’ve done like this, to museum exhibits, that I’ve ever done,” he says. “This has really been awesome for me as a teacher to see how excited they are about interacting with the exhibit and really thinking about it.”
Marley hopes that the public will come out of the exhibit feeling invigorated and willing to connect with nature.
“For people to come in and to be able to have these connecting experiences where they’re connecting with each other, they’re connecting with the natural world, they’re connecting with their own creativity, it’s priceless.”
“Exquisite Creatures” will be on display at OMSI until Feb. 17, 2020.