Wild Life: Tina Wilcox’s Fantastical Taxidermied Animals

Just past the zebra wearing the signature British palace-guard hat, beneath the shelves holding a black panther sporting flapper bugle beads and a wolf in a spiky vest specially commissioned by a costumer for Kiss, Tina Wilcox settles down at one end of her red velvet sofa. I take to the other. Between us on the couch, a taxidermied cheetah she calls Adwin sprawls, wearing a many-pointed golden crown. As the sunbeams from the window behind us in her Northeast art studio shift—picking out one of Adwin’s bright whiskers one moment and then a black pool of a spot in his fur another moment—my mind becomes dizzier and dizzier. Meanwhile, Wilcox, crowned by her own upswept blonde spikes, blue eyes bright, talks about the most interesting things you have heard in your life. Stories of encounters with celebrities like Portia de Rossi, Martha Stewart, Ryan Reynolds, and Hugh Jackman; mansions full of rescued cockatiels; bras full of cash.

“You’re a professional,” I say eventually, pausing my pen on the notebook in my lap. “So let me tell you the story I hear, and you tell me if I have it right: One of the most important and successful women in the history of Minnesota advertising has a new calling, and you’ll never believe how many apex predators are now wearing crowns?”

Wilcox nods, clarifying that the corner of the world where she made her name and fortune was not advertising, strictly; it is the corner of advertising and marketing called retail design. Retail design is everything that happens inside a retail location: what paths shoppers walk and everything they see as they go, in terms of products but also in terms of what the retail workers wear, what logos are on the walls in what colors, what the house brands are called and what the packaging looks like. It’s the anthropology of the consumer and who they’re shopping for. A store that seems like a haphazard bargain bazaar or a store that feels effortlessly chic? Retail design. The price, packaging, and display of cat toy crinkle balls? Also retail design. When Target rolled out the in-house pet line called Boots and Barkley, Tina Wilcox helped name and create every bit of it.

She’s so good at retail design, she was star of a reality show pilot called Retail Therapy. She’s so good at the research and consumer insight part of retail design, ABC News called her the Jane Goodall of American retailing.

Wilcox made her name largely with her agency work for Target. Remember when the stores were sort of dull looking, not bright and chic? That was before her magic. “Before we started, 67 percent of people in the United States recognized the Target bullseye and knew what Target was,” says Wilcox. “Ten years later, we had 96 percent brand awareness.”

Beyond Target, Wilcox is also famous for her work at many other companies, including but in no way limited to Best Buy, Starbucks, and Walmart, first through agencies she worked for and later through agencies she founded—the first called Fame Retail, the second named Black Retail. She shuttered Black at the height of the pandemic and turned her attention to her other passion, animal welfare.

Wilcox has also worked with the Animal Humane Society, serving the Minnesota organization for 15 years, including a stint on the board and another on the capital committee. When the team began talking strategy for a $47 million capital campaign, she concluded it was relying too heavily on a relatively small pool of big-dollar donors.

So why not think outside the box? Why not find a new, creative, evergreen funding source to elevate the importance of animals and call attention to their needs? Why not use her significant vintage taxidermy collection, costume the animals, handcraft their crowns and props, and pair them with Wilcox’s own bits of myth and fiction about these celebrated creatures? Why not hire a legendary duo—one of Minnesota’s most prominent fine artists, photographer Shelly Mosman, and Mosman’s longtime collaborator, the fresco artist and scenic painter Carter Averbeck—to bring Wilcox’s vision to life? Why not package it all into a glorious $175 oversize coffee-table book called The Conscious Kingdom, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Animal Humane Society? And why not invite me to sit next to a cheetah named Adwin as I try to find the story behind the story?

That story all began in Milwaukee, where Wilcox, now 66, was born the child of a prank-playing attorney and a movie star—well, maybe a movie starlet. Wilcox’s mother, Betty Francine, had bit parts in movies, including Humphrey Bogart’s Deadline U.S.A., before she returned to Milwaukee to marry her sweetheart, raise five children, run the local fashion model association, and appear on local television as the shopping correspondent.

“She must have been beautiful?” I ask.

“Oh, till the day she died, a beauty,” recalls Wilcox. “Wouldn’t leave the house without full hair, makeup, nails. She was always after me—I was more rock and roll.”

The beauty married an amusing attorney: “He was, like, stand-up funny,” Wilcox says. “Any party he’d go to, by the middle, he’d have a crowd around him because he was so irreverent, so funny. So many practical jokes.” She tells of how her mom would be serving strawberry shortcake, and her dad would be adding the whipped cream with the spray bottle, then continue up her arm. “One time when I was little, I asked for a glass of water in bed,” recalls Wilcox. “So my uncle brought me a glass of water with a goldfish in it. He lived with us and was totally in cahoots with my dad. That was normal for us.”

Normal, too? Latin mass, with Wilcox in a scratchy church dress; Dominican nuns for teachers, with Wilcox receiving whacks with rulers; and lots and lots of pets, including a great number of dogs, cats, hamsters, snakes, birds, and one orphaned raccoon. The movie star taught the raccoon to screw off the lid to the coffee percolator so morning coffee could be more dramatic and amusing.

Then one day, a life-changing moment: Bicycling home through an alley, 12-year-old Tina Wilcox drew up short, heart in her throat. There, in a trash pile, someone had thrown out a taxidermied raccoon! She leaned her bike against a dumpster, climbed up the heap, rescued the raccoon, and biked home. “How could anyone throw him out? He had a life. He had value. He had a soul.” She put him in her bedroom, and fate began its inexorable march toward a day when she would balance a lynx, woodchuck, raccoon, and muskrat upon a child’s penny-farthing bicycle and clothe them in bright circus garb.

Wilcox journeyed through various midwestern colleges before she made it to the Twin Cities, including spending some time at the University of Iowa—because she loved the writer Kurt Vonnegut and thought the Iowa Writers’ Workshop would be fun. She landed in Minneapolis because it was one of the country’s leading cities for advertising. “I always gravitated toward the art department; my dad thought I should be a lawyer. He wanted me off his payroll—he had so many kids. So, I thought, What kind of artist gets paid? A graphic designer.” She landed an internship with Kerker, an advertising firm, and drove up to the Twin Cities with a friend who also had scored an internship.

“We drove up here in this little gold-and-green beater—I can’t remember what it was,” she says. “I do remember it got to be 101 degrees and the middle of the steering wheel literally melted away. We got this little Motel 6–type apartment, and I walked to work.”

The internship led to a real job, at Pickwick International, the record-manufacturing and music company then headquartered in St. Louis Park. At first, young Wilcox designed album covers, particularly for disco compilations. At one point, Pickwick flew her to Los Angeles to work with the most famous disco choreographer of all time, Deney Terrio, the man who created the moves for Saturday Night Fever. She was going to design an LP and book set for him, the kind with foldout diagrams of footprints so at-home dancers could learn the moves. “We were going to shoot him in all these positions; he had two dancers from his TV show.” It was complicated, though, she recalls. “He was running to the bathroom every 15 minutes to snort cocaine. I’m just a Catholic girl from Milwaukee. It was so crazy.” Then, once she returned home, she says, “Pickwick gets raided by the FBI because we were making counterfeit copies of Saturday Night Fever and the Bee Gees’ greatest hits, and that was the end of that.”

Yet it also was the beginning of so much more. Wilcox started working as a creative director in a design agency. Then Target entered her life, looking to be less quiet and more design-forward, and Tina Wilcox was in the middle of it all. She never worked for Target, though; she worked for the agency she founded, Fame Retail, and Target rivals came calling as news of her flair for innovative retail design spread.

Soon things were going so well Tina Wilcox bought an 11,000-square-foot Lowry Hill mansion for a million dollars in 1985 and filled the four-season porch with rescued birds, including a cockatiel named Bob. “He could say a few words and bark like a dog,” she says. “We always had so many dogs. Bob would sit on my shoulder and walk up and down the couch when we were watching TV. People abandon their birds; it’s the most heartbreaking thing. We had about 15 birds, and eventually I placed them all in good homes.”

Beyond the porch, she had so very many other empty rooms to consider in her mansion full of birds and dogs and one little daughter, so Tina Wilcox started collecting. And collecting. And collecting. She began amassing furniture, textiles, vintage dog collars from royal kennels, an 1878 check from an asylum for “the chronically insane,” everything. “I’m a flea market whore,” she says, often.

That reputation spread, and her treasure-hunting fervor became far more than a personal endeavor. In the era that Marshall Field’s owned the historic downtown Minneapolis Dayton’s, with its large eighth-floor auditorium, the company seasonally filled it and also its Chicago flagship store with a Paris Flea Market—featuring thousands and thousands of things that had been purchased at European flea markets and brought here for sale to the public. Tina Wilcox was tapped as the main creative lead for those flea markets. These treasure hunts abroad weren’t always as glamorous as they might sound and sometimes proved to be dangerous. “There was Vanves—really bad part of town; you don’t carry a purse because it would get stolen,” she recalls. “I’m carrying $50,000 of euros in my bra. We’d just buy entire booths of stuff because we had to buy so fast.” Along the way, if she saw something like, say, a vintage French crown used in church ceremonies or a 19th-century acrobat costume—something she couldn’t resist and knew she had to have—she’d pay for it herself, tuck it into the shipping container destined for Minnesota, and pick it up on the other side. And so her reputation and her personal collection continued to grow.

And that is the story of just some of the various seeds that grew and wound into the “Jack and the Beanstalk”–strong, multi-trunk vine that is The Conscious Kingdom, the most astonishing coffee-table book I have ever seen in my life. Every page is like an old master oil by Ingres—rich, moody, and highly intricate—except when they’re more like early lithograph carnival posters showing, say, pirates. Photos feature an acrobat, a royal in velvet, pope-like figures wearing glittering miters, a veiled princess in richest embroidery. Look closer; the royals are minks and lynx, the pope is a badger, the princess is a flamingo.

Everyone who has seen my copy of the book loves it to bits—it’s mad, it’s wild, it’s beautiful. The fantastical flash fiction stories accompanying the pictures are idiosyncratic little myths in which each animal gets a name that becomes the title to the piece. Queen Valentina, the mink, for instance, who was cruel and randomly executed her subjects, was also gluten-intolerant. And as for the trove of taxidermy works at the heart of this creative undertaking, many are deaccessioned museum animals or other antiques; some are roadkill that, after death, the state has given approval for taxidermy—all are what’s known in the trade as “humanely procured taxidermy.”

“So many royals,” I note as I page through her copy of the book.

“It’s my past-life stuff,” explains Wilcox. “I really believe that I either lived or worked in some kind of royal castle. I’ve always been really attracted to things that are super ornate and old—gold leaf, crowns and monarchies, Catholic stuff, Byzantine stuff, you know what I mean? All that old-gold ornate.”

“You’re comfortable with that being in a magazine?” I ask.

“Oh, sure. More people should talk about it,” she says. “A lot more people believe in past lives and eternal souls than you’d think. They find me and tell me.”

To me, here’s where things got weird.

Wilcox told me at least half a dozen times that the biggest aim of the book was to convince people who saw the images, particularly children, that animals were valuable and deserved empathy, for animals have their own stories. Once children absorb that, they will also believe that we shouldn’t destroy them or our shared planet.

I, however, feel strongly that children already have received this message—from Aesop’s Fables (sixth century BCE) to the part of the Bible where God speaks through Balaam’s donkey to tell him not to beat his animal, to Bugs Bunny and Nemo, to…everything? Are we not aware that animals have emotion and story?

In the 17th century, the philosopher René Descartes claimed that all creatures except humans should be thought of as automata—that is, animals were nothing but bags of automatic reactions, while humans had souls. Wilcox feels that most humans are still trapped in this Descartian binary, which she hopes her art will help undo. “I have seen dogs cry real tears,” explains Wilcox, who has always had dogs and currently has three.

Art is not always best interpreted by the artist. Or the critic! If Wilcox’s remarkable book helps the Animal Humane Society with its fundraising for a new shelter, if it gets some children to reevaluate their Descartian worldview and replace it with a more empathetic view, we will all be better off.

“I’m doing this for animals,” repeats Wilcox, as I look over my notes, making sure I have the order of animals in costumes on the child-sized penny-farthing bike correct, lynx on the bottom, then, in size order, woodchuck, raccoon, muskrat, mouse. Seeing my pen and diagram of lynx and muskrat, Wilcox helpfully puts a marketing slogan on it for me. “I’m warped,” she says, laughing. “Warped.”

“Maybe eccentric,” I offer. “In the noble tradition of Minnesota eccentrics—Prince, Wanda Gág, Jesse Ventura, Bob Dylan.”

I suddenly find myself arguing warped versus eccentric, like we’re coworkers at an advertising company, brainstorming around a table. Warped is snappier, younger, more memorable, says Wilcox. Eccentric is more accurate, I argue. Salvador Dalí wore a deep-sea diving costume to an art opening to demonstrate surrealism: Eccentric is good.

Wilcox shrugs; she doesn’t care much what I have to say: She knows more about branding and marketing than I could ever dream of. And more about how to keep a crown steady on a cheetah’s head. 

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