LONGVIEW, Wash. – Although he creates in many forms, artist Jason Borders partially works in one heady medium: skulls.
Borders, who moved from Portland to Rose Valley, Washington, nine months ago, uses a drill to carve on animal skulls of all sizes. The intricate, geometric patterns he etches and drills into the bleached bone make the carvings look like white embroidered lace.
He said he’s worked on the skulls of smaller animals, such as raccoons and coyotes, as well as other animal parts like jawbones and antlers, but his favorites are those of large animals like horses, black bears and longhorns.
“I really like working on, as far as bones are concerned, big buffalo and steer,” Borders said. “You have the most room to work, and you can carve really deep into them. They’re really thick, so you have a lot to work with.”
Once, Borders, 31, said he obtained the skull of an Ankole-Watusi cow, the horns of which are 10 inches in diameter at the base and as long as Borders’ arm span. The skull itself is the size of a human torso.
Borders said he obtained the Watusi skull, as well as the longhorn skulls, from a ranch in Texas, but most of his more ordinary bones are given away by local farmers and hunters who have no use for them.
“My favorite way to do it is just going out to people’s farms,” he said. “If people have animals that they butcher, or even if they don’t, they tend to have a place on the property somewhere that the bodies go. I’m always excited to find someone that’s like, ‘Oh yeah, go back there and grab whatever you want.’ ”
And he doesn’t always use animals that were killed: Borders said he gets his horse skulls after the equines die naturally.
“The main farm I get my horse skulls from, they love their horses,” he said. “Once a year, I go out there and pick up a few skulls, and they’re just happy to see something done with them.”
Borders said he’s carved into human skulls as well. One he obtained from a U.K. estate sale, and he bought a second on eBay, which he joked “doesn’t work anymore.”
“People are often surprised that you can do that sort of thing, but it’s lawful if you follow the right parameters,” Borders said of working with human skulls.
Borders, who originally hails from Lexington, Kentucky, said he has always been drawn to animal symbolism.
“I’m inspired by myth and anthropology, anything old,” he said.
As far as carving bones, Borders said that practice began after his mother-in-law and father-in-law gave him a Dremel drill for Christmas.
“I’ve always collected bones,” he said. “I’m always looking for a different medium to work with in the same way, and I had all these bones, so I put two and two together.”
One piece he recently completed consists of a series of patterned chalkboard relief carvings. Although the carvings seem to have unusual shapes at first glance, when put together, the pieces create a wolf or coyote-like animal.
After attending the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, Borders and his wife, Elizabeth, moved to Portland when she got a job at Portland State University and he continued to pursue his art career. He wanted a rural lifestyle, hence their move to Rose Valley eight years later.
“Being an artist, I felt like I needed to be in a big city to get some exposure,” he said. “But I missed more rural areas and smaller towns. I’m not much of a big-city guy.”
The Borders certainly live the small-town life, although Jennifer Borders runs a soda company in Portland. Their seven-acre property is home to a large shed where Jason Borders works on his art, along with a dog, a cat and about 15 chickens and roosters. The couple is thinking of adding goats as well.
Borders’ work shed is littered with untouched skulls, antlers and other animal bones on its walls. When it rains, the shed suddenly becomes home to his squawking group of chickens as well.
“It’s something that we’ve wanted for a long time,” said Borders about moving to Rose Valley. “I can run my own machines and have bones around and it’s not bothering people.”
Another potential perk of moving to Cowlitz County: more opportunities to paint murals, another one of his artistic passions.
“In Portland, there’s a lot of legislation and red tape around trying to paint murals,” Borders said. “I’m excited to hopefully find some people in Longview and Kelso, shop owners or whoever, that might want some murals.”
According to Borders, carving a large piece like a horse skull takes about 10 days. But he doesn’t work a 9-to-5 schedule.
“I tell people that I work like a trucker,” he said. “I’m sitting in the same place for hours and hours and hours on end. I work on something until it’s done, so I’ll work several hours in several shifts for several days, finish something and take a day off.”
Borders’ art is consistently featured in Portland and New Orleans galleries, and some of the larger pieces featured on his website sell for thousands of dollars. Some of his art sells through his galleries or websites. Occasionally, he’ll get a specific request and work on commission.
According to Borders, he’s sold some of his pieces as far away as Ireland and the U.K., and his art has been shown in Berlin.
Borders said he’s satisfied with getting to follow his passion for a full-time career. Borders added that he would “absolutely” host a show in Longview.
“I feel really lucky that this is the only job I have, and it’s been that way for about five years now. Sure, the starving artist thing, there’s some truth to it sometimes. But mostly, I do alright.”