The art of imitating life

Monday, April 14, 2003

Mike Kahle says his is the business of creating illusions, a job that is equal parts art and natural history, taking only the idea of something and making it appear animated and alive.

It's the world of Kahle Studios, where Kahle and his two employees make natural history animals from things like epoxy, silicone and fiberglass, primarily for museums and other historical organizations.

And the animals -- like ghost crabs, water snails or three-toed box turtles -- have to be real enough to survive the skeptical eyes of the museum goer and have enough detail to satisfy the most exacting of natural historians.

"There's something unique about what we do," Kahle said recently from his Jackson studio. "It's neat to end up with something that's beautiful there. It's a good job."

Kahle's work has been used all over the world. Consider his resume: Museum of Nature and Man in Munich, Germany; National Park Service, Tucson, Ariz.; St. Louis Zoo; Everglades National Park; Smithsonian Tour in Washington, D.C.; the Bermuda Museum of Natural History and the California Museum of Science and Industry.

The list goes on.

Originally from the Columbia, Mo., area, Kahle attended the University of Missouri. One of his first jobs was as a research assistant at the Missouri Department of Conservation Research Center, where he prepared and preserved skins for scientific documentation.

Then he went to work as an assistant taxidermist. He moved to Cape Girardeau and started Cape Girardeau Taxidermy Studio. He worked various other jobs and was introduced to building museum animals while working at Chase Studio in Cedar Creek.

Under the radar screen

There he learned how to model and cast fish and other animals. When he moved back to this area, he opened Kahle Studios in 1991 and has operated mostly under the radar screen.

"Most people don't know we're here," he said. "Most of our work is not local, so they wouldn't."

But his work includes every area of building and managing a model making and taxidermy business, including sales production, bidding and installation. While he started off in taxidermy, most of his work now is building exhibit animals for museums.

When he gets an order for a piece, often it will come accompanied with a specimen, either frozen or alive so that he can study its every detail. With the frozen specimens, he makes a mold of the animal by putting silicone over it. Then he makes a cast. With the live specimens, he has to make the mold from scratch.

There are also degrees of sanding, painting and other painstaking work. He estimates he has made thousands of different animals, including owls, insects, turtles, crabs, reptiles and bats.

When there is not a specimen, he has to create the animal from natural history books and other research. He often takes animals that are similar and makes adjustments.

"You have to get it just right," Kahle said. "They'll sure notice if you don't."

'He's very good'

Apparently, his work speaks for itself.

"He's very good at what he does," said Kay Nichols Dixon, an owner of Dixon Studios, in Tucson, Ariz. She said he's one of the best at getting the animals to look alive.

"In this day and age of anti-taxidermy, museums don't want to have dead animals in their facility, so they ask for models," she said. "Mike Kahle's work ethic is beyond reproach, and the quality is always top of the line. That's why we've always used him."

She said the work has to look great or people notice.

"If it looks really good, people don't even think that someone had to make it," she said. "That's what we strive for. Mike's good at that."

Kahle said business is good.

"We had our first slow period last fall," he said. "But things are picking up. As long as museums keep changing exhibits -- which they do to keep things fresh -- then I'll be in business."

335-6611, extension 137

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