LANDER — Eyes require the most attention. Flesh tones go in the corners, and a complex mixture of darker colors lines the edges. The brow must be pushed up and properly molded.

Then there’s the finishing touch to improve clarity: a spritz of Windex and wipe with a Q-tip.

Eyes are what show life in an otherwise lifeless animal. They’re the difference between mediocre and excellent taxidermy. And for Kim Lutz, a Lander taxidermist who’s been working with animal heads and bodies for decades, they’re one of thousands of details that matter.

“The whole face needs to come together for the look,” she said recently. “You can’t have part of it looking one way and another not doing anything. The ears have to be tilted a certain way or put a certain way for the eyes to come out. It’s about the lips, ears, eyes, even tear ducts. I have to decide what I want to achieve and it all has to come together.”

Taxidermy for some is a job – a way to make money full time or on the side. For Lutz, it’s an art. Each creature she works with tells a story.

She understands the animals she’s working with because she’s spent decades studying and watching them in the field. It’s not a matter of simply stuffing an animal for a brag wall. It’s a celebration of the creature, and a way to merge paintings that might otherwise grace a canvas with the natural world.

“I started painting on bones, on scapulas and skulls,” she said. “When people would bring in their European mounts, I started painting pictures of the animals on the skulls. It gives them another piece of their animal. Then they’re bringing home art and not just taxidermy.”

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Not many young women imagine themselves as taxidermists.

But Lutz, a graceful, 5-foot, 6-inch brunette with hazel eyes and blue-rimmed reading glasses, didn’t either.

Growing up in Wheatland, she wanted to be a veterinarian. She earned her degree in animal science with a pre-veterinarian focus from the University of Wyoming and planned to continue on, but her high school sweetheart-turned husband got accepted into a master’s program in California they couldn’t turn down. When he returned to Wheatland to work as a biologist for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, she figured she would sign on at the local veterinarian clinic.

“I called her up and said, ‘Hey, come work for me,’” said Jerry Bowen, her former high school biology teacher. “I was a taxidermist and had a lot of work. She was a very quick learner, and has a beautiful personality and is very artistic.”

The temporary job stuck. For about four years, Lutz worked with Bowen at The Wildlife Studio learning everything she could about recreating the appearance of life.

She won state awards including Best in Show for shoulder and life size mounts, then regional ones. She and Bowen took their pieces around the country, where she eventually won first place at a national taxidermy competition with a bighorn sheep pedestal mount.

Then her husband was transferred again, first to Casper, then to Lander. Lutz left The Wildlife Studio to start her own business in 1995 with Kim’s Art Wild Taxidermy and Art Studio. She took what she learned from Bowen – the attention to detail on everything from the inside of the nose to the ear muscle definition – and combined it with the creativity she had been honing first in college and later in her work.

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Lutz’s studio is tucked into one half of a massive pole barn on a flat piece of land outside Lander. Windows let in the sun, and bright, white ceiling lights allow her to see even the smallest hairs and cowlicks. On a Sunday in mid-September, she had about 20 pronghorn shoulder mounts and antlers hanging on a wall with tags saying where they should go. Another half a dozen deer, elk and pronghorn rest on pedestals in various stages of transformation.

Pins and needles stick out of the faces of some, holding the hide to the mannequin that fill the inside of each mount. Standard foam mounts must be molded with clay to match the exact animal she is working on.

One elk that looks like it’s undergoing acupuncture had a particularly thin muzzle with a large ridge on its brow like a Roman nose. She couldn’t use the standard head — it wouldn’t have looked right. So she took measurements and photos of the animal’s head and used clay to sculpt its features.

“I’m recreating exactly what that particular animal looked like alive,” she said.

A wheeled cart sits in a corner with the tools of her trade: bottles of paint, Windex, putty and brushes.

And tucked away on walls is evidence of her artistic side. It’s why her business says “Art studio” in addition to taxidermy.

A cow skull is split in half, one side painted with the face of black wolf, the other side with an aspen tree. Feathers tied to a leather rope hang off of the side. A bull skull is draped with feathers with a Plains Indian shield painted in the middle.

“I always had an interest in art, I took some classes in college, and always loved it,” she said.

Her relatively unique touch has proved popular with clients. She creates more than a hundred pieces each year – working in her shop with her mother-in-law, Sandy, and other family members when they have time. She ships them across the world, from local Lander residents to hunters from Hong Kong and Switzerland.

Michigan hunter Rick Kidd hired her to taxidermy his first pronghorn two years ago. He was so pleased he went back to her last year and plans to commission her again this year.

“I have maybe 25 or 30 mounts total and the quality of her work is probably just as good, or sometimes better, than anything I have,” he said.

One antelope mount sits on a pedestal with an old, weathered fence post, barbed wire and tumbleweed. On the back of the shoulder mount is an arrowhead made of leather.

“She does some really artsy stuff that most people don’t do,” he said. “I tell Kim to do what she thinks will look the best, and she does a really good job with that.”

Follow managing editor Christine Peterson on Twitter @PetersonOutside

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Christine Peterson is a managing editor of the Star-Tribune and reports on environmental issues and outdoor recreation.

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