INDEPENDENCE, Wis. — Brandon Sura was stuck. Not with a 4-wheel drive truck, a quad or anything with wheels, for that matter.
He was stuck at a point in his life where he knew he wanted to do something else — he was painting cars at a small-town body shop — but couldn’t figure out how he was going to shake free. He had responsibilities, he had commitments. He desperately wanted to use his God-given artistic talent in some creative form, but had no answer.
He had tried before and struck out, but he couldn’t give up.
“When you get older and start having kids, get a house, and you can’t quit your job because that is how you are paying for all this stuff, so you kind of get stuck. When you get stuck, you go, ‘there is nothing else for me. This is just what I am going to do for the rest of my life,’” Sura said.
“Then one day I was painting a car and was just, ‘there has to be something better.’ I was married and we had two children at the time.”
We will circle back to Sura’s career twists and turns in a minute, but here’s a spoiler alert: Six years later, Sura is a well-respected taxidermist — and owner of Double B Taxidermy — who is nearly capped out when it comes to how many animals he can take into his shop this year. He admits he’s a perfectionist when it comes to mounting a white-tailed deer, a black bear, a pronghorn, or any other animal someone brings to him — including big game from Africa.
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That’s both a blessing and a curse.
“The way I do them, I am not doing eight deer at one time. I am doing one. I hand paint this one, just by itself. This deer is getting my full attention right now,” Sura said, continuing to work while talking.
“I see a lot of guys, they will line them up like this (motioning to consecutive deer on a wall). They will do that paint, that paint, that paint. This deer, right now, is getting my full attention. As I am working just on this deer, the last thing I see is the first thing I fix.
“For me, that is a big part of the quality. I can be just as fast doing it this way as in an assembly line. I am putting more details in because they are done singly.”
When I think of a taxidermist, it is someone who has a passion for wildlife, for the outdoors, for somehow recreating a natural look to a harvested animal. In visiting Sura’s shop — which is in a garage attached to his house — I found all of the above, plus someone with a true artistic gift, incredibly steady hands and extreme patience.
Patience with me, and his work. I don’t know how many times I asked, “Why do you do that? What’s that for? How long does that take?”
Each question was answered with an insightful and detailed response. This guy, it seems, has found his calling. And yes, I’d have him do my next mount in a heartbeat — if he would be able to squeeze it in.
“The thing with taxidermy, is you get ‘x’ big, right? You can only do so much. That is where you get capped out. You can only take so many before you have to start giving up certain animals to get it all done,” said Sura, who mounts around 85 white-tailed deer, about six bear and other animals per year, including a few big-game animals from Africa.
“He (Kyle Lakey of Twisted Tines Taxidermy in Galesville) and I believe you should get your animal back in a year. Period. You shouldn’t be two years out. If you are that far out, it is not fair to take their animal. You let them decide if they want to freeze it for a year, then come to you. I get that all the time. You get piled up and you can’t ever catch up.
“I don’t do any small game anymore. I used to get 15 bobcats, and I don’t do them anymore. They are fun, but they take more time. I can do six whitetails to one bobcat. I can do five whitetails to one bear. So if you look at it as far as time and what you can do in a year, that comes into play.”
Nine years ago when Sura was working full-time as a painter and body man at Kabus Auto Body & Recovery in Independence, he started doing taxidermy part-time. He did 12 whitetails his first year, then worked his way up to 20-25 deer a year, all while working full-time at the body shop.
That’s when he started thinking about a different career path, knowing he previously had made a number of about-turns in his life. Could he swing it financially if he went full-time as a taxidermist? Would he get enough business? Could he pay the bills?
Before Sura, who lives with his wife, Amy, and four daughters – Sydney (11), Elise (9), Lucy (7) and Agnes (18 months) — on a 40-acre piece of land between Arcadia and Independence, could pursue another career, it was Amy’s turn. Amy, who had a degree from Western Technical College in physical therapy assistant, always wanted to be a nurse, so she dove headfirst into college, earning a degree in nursing from Viterbo University in four years.
“OK, I said, I will support you. I was still working at Ted’s (Kabus Body Shop), so my stuff just has to kind of wait. So I did this, and that, I was doing both. It kind of kept us going,” Sura said.
When Amy graduated and promptly landed a job as an emergency room nurse at the Mayo Clinic Heathcare System — Oakridge in Osseo — it was Brandon’s turn for a change. Well, not right away.
“I had to give it a couple of years because we were so broke,” said Sura, a 2000 Independence High School graduate. “I kept continuing on with Ted’s, but at the time, he offered me the opportunity to buy it, so I was going to buy it.
“I had to decide. Here (as a taxidermist) I am not really making that great a money but I have no overhead. Here (body shop), I am going to make a crapload of money, but I have a crapload of overhead.”
Eventually, after considerable contemplation, he phased out of Kabus Auto Body, first going down to part-time, then to nothing as he ramped up his taxidermist business. It was far from a hit, at least in the beginning.
“It took five years for people to give me a chance. You have to take your lumps and be patient. When I went full-time, it was scary. The first year was probably the worst, as I did 20-25 deer. I was doubting my decision, but I kept trucking,” Sura said. “With that said, when someone brings me an animal, I am going to do the best I can absolutely do.”
Sura’s artistic talent, especially his ability to paint, have helped him tremendously in his career as a taxidermist, he said. He studies pictures of an animal, then uses his photographic memory to recreate its natural look with steady-as-steel strokes of his paint brush. He still paints, and nearly went that route as a career.
“I have always been an artist, even in high school. In school they wanted me to go to all the fancy art schools and all that stuff, and I visited U of M (Minnesota). It wasn’t my kind of people. I didn’t feel comfortable there, so I didn’t want to do that. Then I kind of just washed it aside and didn’t do much with it,” Sura said.
“Then I started painting again and thought maybe I should just throw it out there and see what happens, try to go somewhere and try to sell stuff. And so I remember I did six of seven paintings, so I took them up north to Hayward to this shop. It was like the biggest eye-opener. I brought all that stuff and the guy thought it was great, then he looked at me and says: ‘This stuff will never sell, sorry. It is really good, but it will never sell. You need to paint differently.’”
That was the end of that career, but Sura dealt with it. Just like he dealt with attending UW-Stout for six months with the goal of being a tech education teacher. Or when he earned a two-year degree in auto mechanics from Western Technical College, then landed at Kabus Auto Body.
Now, he’s content — most days, as he’s recently tapped into his desire to be a fishing guide — to use his art talents to recreate animals that he knows his clients forever value. It’s hard work, too, as it’s not just a well-placed stroke of a paint brush, a hand-crafted scene made out of Styrofoam, or a well-sewn hide to a mold.
There’s the caping of the hide to remove it from the animal, there is the fleshing of the hide — which once took him three hours per animal and now takes 30 minutes — and there is preparing of the hide to be shipped to a tanning factory in Shiocton, Wis. A factory where it can take months to get the tanned hide back.
And each customer who walks through his shop door has a story to tell, he says, and that story is important to them, so it’s important to him. He’s a people person by nature, Sura says, and likes to hear their stories.
That’s why each deer, regardless of whether it’s a six-pointer with a small rack or a 12-point, mass-heavy, high-scoring monster, gets the same treatment.
“Look at this one, it’s not that big,” Sura said, pointing to a smaller-antlered deer. “This is her first deer and she shot it the first year they were married, and he helped her get it. So that thing means the world to her, so that thing means the world to me.”
That’s the perfectionist in him coming out once again.
“That was another positive, going back to what I see in a job. What I see in a job is having free time, not getting too big where you are spending all your time at it and not spending time with your family,” Sura said. “I have a quest to make the perfect deer. There isn’t one, but in my mind there is. I have come close with some animals, but never that perfect hide, or that perfect mount.”
That won’t stop him from trying. Nothing ever has.
Jeff Brown, a former longtime sports editor for the Tribune, is a freelance outdoors writer. Send him story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org