HUMBOLDT PARK — Mickey Alice Kwapis grew her first business investment — $5 on a dead rat — into a Humboldt Park storefront.
The taxidermy instructor held inaugural classes at The Niche Lab, 3328 W. North Ave., over the weekend, teaching students to slice and stuff rabbits and rats.
Kwapis, 24, travels the world teaching her craft, but she moved from a home base in Cleveland to Chicago in January in anticipation of finally opening a brick-and-mortar shop.
"It's been a whirlwind for the past 4½ months," she said.
Mickey Alice Kwapis teaches a taxidermy class in May 2014 at Sideshow Gallery. [DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner]
The store will host classes blending art and science, like insect pinning, painting, metalsmithing and creating special effects for Halloween costumes, like home-made scars.
And, of course, taxidermy.
"Anyone who knows how to do or make a thing can come teach a class," Kwapis said.
The store launched a Kickstarter hoping to raised $20,000 to cut down on overhead by collecting the store's first-year's rent and some supplies for classes.
Kwapis said people often mistake her career as morbid, but her curiosity is fueled by a compassion for animals.
"It's either put in a landfill, or we learn from it," Kwapis said of her specimens. Her living pets — rat Riff Raff and dog Osiris — went viral last week because of their friendship documented on Instagram.
Kyla Gardner says it started with a bottle of wine and a dead rat:
Mickey Alice Kwapis with pets Riff Ratt and Dutch shepherd Osiris. [DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner]
One person who doesn't judge Kwapis' work with the dead is business partner Amy Martiny, an anatomist at the Anatomical Gift Association, where bodies are prepared for dissection in medical schools.
Kwapis makes sure the carcasses she works with are humanely and legally sourced, like a group of skunk babies that were trapped and had to be euthanized under Wisconsin law.
A $400, two-part taxidermy class will use the skunk carcasses in late June at The Niche Lab, but transporting the animals from Wisconsin to Chicago wasn't without its hazards.
"I was so afraid we were going to be pulled over," Kwapis said. "The car smelled like skunk, but I knew that if a police officer pulled us over it would just smell like a bunch of weed, and I'd be like, 'No officer, there are dead skunks in our trunk.'"
Taxidermy teacher Mickey Alice Kwapis outside The Niche Lab, 3328 W. North Ave. [DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner]
Kwapis hopes the schedule fills up with more enthusiastic teachers, and encourages anyone with a teachable skill to apply.
"I'm hoping that we'll get more applicants," she said. "I didn't build this for myself, and Amy isn't doing this for herself, we're doing this to build a community and involve anyone and everyone."
The Niche Lab store, which isn't yet open, is also in need of objects from artisans.
The Niche Lab, 3328 W. North Ave. (the storefront with white paper covering the windows) [DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner]
"We're looking more for 'laboratory' versus 'steampunk,'" Kwapis said. "We really want to foster an interest in actual science versus trying to creep your friends out. It's fine to creep your friends out, but you can always learn something in the process."
She envisions a storefront full of glassware, maps, jewelry, vintage medical models, and geology specimens like rocks and crystals ("None of them have magical powers. Sorry.")
Kwapis, who lives in Humboldt Park, is settling into the Chicago taxidermy scene. You can find her doing taxidermy as a volunteer at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and she's been approved to start volunteering for the Field Museum as well.
As she further explores her passion, she hopes The Niche Lab will serve as a place someone with a skill — whatever it may be — can make a $5 investment and see where it takes them.
"It's been a struggle at some points, but I want to equip people to ... learn as much as they can, and build something for themselves," Kwapis said. "It's not lucrative at first, but I could not imagine being happier right now."
The future storefront for The Niche Lab, 3328 W. North Ave. [DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner]
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