Former teacher Jen Mackenzie on making her Scottish deer antlers into colourful artworks
Some use canvas, others go for paper.
However, Croy-based former primary school teacher, Jen Mackenzie, 48, has chosen the slightly more unconventional material of deer skulls.
She tells us more about her business, Antler Art, which creates pieces for private clients and businesses.
How did you create the business?
It all started on the kitchen table in our army accommodation. I was dabbling with decoupaging designs on vases, sideboards, chairs etc, just for the enjoyment, then the Christmas of 2010, I decided that maybe I could try applying some Mackenzie silk onto a set of red deer antlers for my husband. It all sprouted from there. We still have that very first set up on the wall. They’re an absolute dog’s dinner, but I’ve resisted the urge to redo them as they’re a great reminder to myself how far I’ve come.
How do you source the antlers?
I use one supplier in Aberdeenshire who in turn sources them from landowners all over the Highlands. As we’ve worked together for a long time now, he knows exactly what kind of antlers work well with my business and which ‘cuts’ (the shape of the skull) I prefer, and sources them accordingly. Obviously, all of his stock is a by-product of the ongoing sustainable deer management in Scotland.
Who has commissioned you so far and what did they ask you to make?
Because I can make the antlers completely bespoke, I’m lucky enough to have had a large variety of clientele, as I can tailor to their individual needs. I have a lots of commissions from members of the armed forces, both serving and retired, as a regimental capbadge on a set of antlers basically looks really cool. As an army wife myself I take great pride in doing these pieces.
I’ve also completed some commissions for boutique hotels such as the fabulous Foyers Lodge on the shores of Loch Ness. One of my large House of Hackney pieces is currently hanging in the Mustard Seed restaurant in Inverness.
Are you always discovering new techniques/materials?
Over the years I’ve figured out tonnes of little hacks to make my job easier and more importantly give a superior finish. Like any good painter and decorator will tell you, it’s all in the preparation and decoupaging onto a deer skull is no different. I’ll spend at least a third of the total time just preparing the skull. This includes levelling the surface and getting the fixings in so the customer can immediately hang it up on the wall, reconstructing any missing bits, or adding some of my antler stain where necessary.
Primarily I’m decoupaging the design onto the surface of a prepared skull. Essentially this means sticking a design on to the skull and then varnishing over the top. However, if that were all I did then I’d never sell a single thing. A finished piece, after many, many hours spent on it is a jumble of decoupage, sculpture, DIY and painting. My aim is to make the design flow seamlessly on and over the skull so that in a weird way, it looks like it literally is part of the bone.
With regards to designs, I’ve recently started using wallpaper as there are some excellent designs out there. My current favourite is called Rosetta. It's a fabulous floral swirly design that works brilliantly over the contours of the skull and is the perfect size for the larger species like red deer and fallow.
Which design are you most happy with?
Military cap badges have be one of my favourites as they always look so impressive. The KOSB (King’s Own Scottish Borderers) in particular looks great, although the red and white dice are probably one of the fiddliest elements of any design I’ve done.
However, my Liberty Mash Up design holds a special place in my heart. This first started off as a simple patchwork of Liberty Tana Lawn hexagons on a jug, and from there I decided to try it on a set of antlers. In time it’s morphed from a relatively easy patchwork into a chaotic, sticky, fiddly and at times infuriating process using a plethora of wee fabric snippets, but in the end it’s always worth it as it’s such a joyful explosion of colour.
Is the Highlands an inspiring place to be and why?
We were posted up to Fort George in Inverness in 2010 and I can honestly say it was the best posting ever. I loved it so much that we made the decision that the boys and I would settle up here. I love the space, the scenery, the weather and everything. I use some of the most iconic features of the Scottish Highlands in my artwork and I have my heather and Scottish whisky designs, so I think it’s safe to say that I’ve been very much inspired by living up here.
Are they everyone's cup of tea?
Most people love them, or at the very least appreciate their uniqueness. Like all art, it’s subjective and so for some people it’s definitely not their cup of tea, in the same way that hard core jazz is not my cup of tea. However, in all the years I was selling at craft fairs, there has only ever been one occasion when someone took exception to them. The usual comments from people are that they’ve never seen anything like it before, and they’re very open to discussing where I source the antlers and how I go about getting a design on them.
Do your kids (Mackenzie has three sons, with two living at home) ever help out or make their own?
Not a chance. I’m way too much of a perfectionist to let them get anywhere near them. Back in the day, when I was a primary school teacher, I had to practically sit on my hands so as not to ‘tweak’ the kids’ artwork.
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