Posted December 16, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Uncategorized

Wednesday I spent most of the day installing the birds in the diorama.  I was able to place seven warblers, two quail, one Fowler’s toad, and a hognose snake.  The quail, toad, and snake have all been extirpated from Point Pelee.  Greg Watkins Colwell, Peabody’s herpetology collections manager, suggested that pesticides wiped out the Fowler’s toad which left the hognose snake without a food source and the quail were hunted out of existence either by humans or possibly, cats.  We will create signage for the diorama that will tell this all-too-common story.  This diorama will then have an additional purpose to teach about habitat destruction and human impact on environments.  I am letting the dust settle for the day and Thursday, I will paint out repairs and we will install the glass viewing window.  Rick Prum and Kristof Zyskowski will have to critique the final installation and if there are any changes, I will make them at that time.  Dorie Petrochko wants to come back and paint a bit more on some of her birds.  here are the photos:

Installing a black-throated blue warbler model. I find that the bird carvings work better when they are not directly visible. In this case I have positioned the model behind a Solomon Seal wildflower.

Installing the prairie warbler model. I had to splice the branch on the larger branch using insect pins and epoxy putty.

Black-throated blue warbler model and taxidermied quail.

Fowler's toad by the late Dave Parsons. This model was cast in latex rubber directly from a specimen and painted with oil paint

Nashville warbler model on an aluminum wire with a grass stem glued over it.

Almost finished diorama without the glass.


Rick Prum, Ornithologist, Yale Peabody Museum

Kritof Zyskowski, Ornithology collections manager, Yale Peabody Museum

Jane Pickering, Assistant Director, Yale Peabody Museum

Walter Brenckle and John  construction shop, Yale Peabody Museum

Dorie Petrochko, painted bird carvings (Black-throated Blue Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Connecticut Warbler)

Jill Heathman, painted bird carvings (Nashville Warbler)

The late Dave Parsons, taxidermist, Yale Peabody Museum (Yellow-breasted Chat, Hognose Snake, Fowler’s Toad)

Alexis Brown, painted the juniper needles and stems

Patrick Sweeney, Collections Manager, Botany, Yale Peabody Museum helped identify and locate trees, juniper and grasses.  Patrick also helped finding the dried specimens

Michael Bobbie, help constructing the foreground

My wife and kids for help collecting sand


My New Blog

Posted November 9, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Uncategorized

I have shifted over to a new project for the time being as we construct the case for the diorama.  Peabody is going to have a new exhibit on parasitic insects in June 2011, so I am making giant insect models of bedbugs and head lice.  Check out another kind of museum preparation at:

Point Pelee-Really!

Posted May 29, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Collecting Foreground

I was at Point Pelee from Tuesday May 25th to Friday the 28th.  My family came with me and we arrived  late in the afternoon, too tired to go to the park.  Early Wednesday morning though, we were in the park by 7am.  The big bird migration push was already past so we were the only ones at the point that early.  We rode our bikes down to the tip where I figured the diorama site was located.  As we walked around,  all I could find that was familiar was the stellated false solomon seal and the hoptree.  I began to worry that the hairy pucoon was gone or past bloom.  Where was the juniper?  None of the landscape looked right and I thought because of the smell that we were in a heron rookery.  We discovered it was actually thousands of small fish (smelt) washed up on the shore.  We learned that the fish die naturally after spawning and normally sink to the bottom of the lake.  This year, a storm came through and washed the fish onshore.  It was headline news in Pelee.  My wife and I birded the point.  Most common birds were: kingbirds, cedar waxwings, yellow warbler, indigo buntings, both Baltimore and orchard orioles, brown thrasher, and barn swallows.

We left there and went to an area called West Beach.  The kids ran to the lakeside and looked for interesting things on the beach.  Finn found fossilized shells and corals.  We looked up fossils at Point Pelee and discovered that there are many fossilized invertebrates and coral from the Devonian since the area was an inland ocean.  While they played on the beach, I went poking around in the dunes behind the beach and I was relieved to find the hairy pucoon in good numbers.  They were in full bloom so I got good photos.  I even found one stellated solomon seal in bloom (they were past bloom) so I took more photos.

Hairy Pucoon

Stellated False Solomon Seal

Encountering the real flowers was humbling.  The hairy pucoon flowers were smaller than I have made mine and the depth of the base of the flower was deeper.  The sepals only come up half way on the actual flower (my wax ones went all the way to the petals)  Also, the petals are joined together for half their length and are much more convoluted than I have made mine.  Back to the drawing board!  The “hair” of the hairy pucoon is beautiful and has a very regular pattern.  I can’t imagine how I might get that effect.  The solomon seal leaves are ribbed more than I made them and glow with intrinsic coloration.  I will have to try Gary Hoyle’s recipe of hot melt glue and parrafin to make leaves.

While still in CT, I made an appointment with Sarah Rupert, a park ranger, to show me around and I met her at the nature center at 10 am.  She printed out a photo of the diorama and said that the area looked like the northwestern beach area.  Another ranger, John, was listening in and offered to take us up there.  John knew more about plants than Sarah (she is a bird person), so it was decided he would give us a tour of the northwest beach.

When we got there we walked out over an old parking lot that the park was letting grow over.  We continued south to an area that was close to what was painted in the diorama, but I told John that there was nowhere I could see that had all the elements, the dunes, the juniper, the canadian wild rye grass, the flowers, the hoptree.  There was a lot of each in various places, but nothing struck me as the site.  John was interested in trying to find the Canadian wild rye, so we looked and found it in the area quite close to the beach/high tide mark.  I looked for it in other places, but the beach region was the only area it was found.  This is too bad since all the grasses I had put in the midground of the diorama were C. wild rye.  The grasses I did find in the mid-region were switchgrass and a common-looking grass with a conspicuous seedhead (I’ll have Patrick Sweeney ID it).  I will be removing the grasses from the foreground and collecting the other grasses in CT to replace them.

Northwest Beach-Point Pelee

My sense from this photo is that this is probably the site, but the photo was taken standing much closer to the beach than Wilson did back in 1964.  In fact, about 40′ behind me there was a high vantage point that very well might have been the point at which Wilson made his studies.  The large deciduous trees that show in the diorama to the right, now covered the entire area.  Plant succession had made it virtually inaccessable.  What was left of the juniper in this area was dead.  There were tangles of low vegetation barring easy access and I wasn’t convinced that a photo taken from that point would reveal anything, so I didn’t choose to explore it.  John showed us several other plants common to the area: Goat’s beard, sweet clover, rock sand wort, wormwood, and prickly pear.  He told me that the hognose snake was long gone as was the Fowler’s toad that it fed on, victims of habitat destruction.  Removing the hognose snake is yet another change I will make.  He said that the 5 lined skink was a much more representative reptile.  Insects were also discussed and these are his suggestions: Red Admiral and American Lady butterflies, the robber fly, and the ant lion whose inverted sandy cones were evident everywhere.  In the original diorama there were a pair of bobwhite.  I noticed on the Point Pelee bird list that bobwhite was listed as “extripated”.  A discussion will ensue when I get back to Peabody about whether we go ahead and put the bobwhite, hognose snake, and fowler’s toad in the diorama and install signage about the human impact on this habitat.  Otherwise, none of these should go in the foreground.

This visit did nothing short of impell me to change the entire foreground.  Well, maybe not the entire foreground, but significant parts of it.  Constructing/installing the foreground to a James Perry Wilson diorama charges me to strive for a high level of accuracy.  So, I need to resculpt and cast new hairy pucoon flowers, experiment with the hot melt glue/parrifin mixture for new leaves, remake the stems of both flowers, and change out the grasses.  I think Wilson would not only approve, he would insist on it!

JPW at the Natl. Academy of Sciences

Posted May 10, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Uncategorized

I was in Washington DC for most of last week.  I had a museum mountmaking conference at the Smithsonian on Weds and Thurs, but I took Friday to visit the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).  The NAS is a Goodhue building (1924) and James Perry Wilson had a prominent role in its construction.  The museum has two artworks from 1922 by Wilson on display.  One is a watercolor rendering of the building and the other is an oil on canvas of the building by moonlight.

I couldn’t help think how Wilson studied how to paint moonlit landscapes all through his life.  This puts his study of moonlight back into the early 1920’s.  I know of two other moonlit seascapes from Monhegan painted in the 1920’s.  Conrad Schweiring writes about how Wilson at age 69 came out West in the summer of 1959 on an expedition to collect reference paintings/photographs for the Badger and the Flying Squirrel dioramas in the Small Mammal Hall at the AMNH.  The Flying Squirrel  is a nocturnal diorama and he and Wilson stayed up one night during the full moon to practice  painting by moonight.  They concluded that all the colors are present in a moonlit landscape, but they are all muted down by the gray, which puts them close together in value.  The Racoon diorama is also a nocturnal diorama and it predates the Flying Squirrel by 6 or 7 years.  I always remember the Racoon diorama because it has tiny specks of broken mirror glued to the background painting to catch light from above to simulate stars.  It is a quite convincing effect-not to mention baffling if you don’t know how it is done.  I thought they had drilled holes in the wall to let light from behind shine through!

There are also several plein air paintings JPW paintied at night.  There are a couple of houses painted in the moonlight with light shing out from the windows-very similar to the NAS painting.  There are at least three seascapes From Monhegan painted in the moonlight.

Done With the Dunes (for now)

Posted April 24, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Uncategorized

Point Pelee Foreground at the time of the exhibit closing.

Today was my last day “on exhibit”.  It was quite eventful because I had a visit from Harry McChesney who painted dioramas at the NY State Museum in Albany.  Harry is the only diorama painter other than Sean Murtha who has ever tried out JP Wilson’s gridding ideas.  He gave me a copy of his grid drawings for the Mastodon diorama many years ago.  They are unlike anything I’ve seen of Wilson’s, but they clearly grid the background the same way.  I have been interested in these drawings because in many cases, Wilson would produce his grids on paper.  He was absolutely conversant in architectural methods using plans and elevations on an architect’s drawing table to find the measurements and bring them to the museum.

Harry told me that he started this diorama in 1973 and wanted to grid it because the background was an irregular curve.  He produced the drawings and was ready to start, but the administration thought he was taking too long, so they hired Jan Vriessen from Canada to paint the background.  Vriessen projected slides onto the background and painted what was projected.  Harry assisted Vriessen.  How many things are wrong with this picture!  I’ll ask my friend Nat Chard to submit something to the blog about why projecting slides is a bad idea.  Harry said if Wilson were there he would have walked off the job.

Close up from today April 24, 2010

On Monday, the diorama (with it’s new foreground) will be wrapped in plastic and a wall built around it right in the exhibit gallery.  It will “sleep” behind the wall while the next exhibit is running.  After that exhibit closes in three months, the construction shop will have time to build the presentation case for the diorama.  It will include a 54″X54″ window on a slant and a light box on top.  Then it will be installed permanently in the CT. Bird Hall.  During the next 3-4 months while the diorama is walled up, I will work on the taxidermy mounts and the plants to get them ready for installation-in the prep lab down in the basement of the Peabody.  It was great to be “on display” and I met a lot of interesting people and some awesome kids, but I am ready to not have to be “ON” all the time and work quietly by myself or with my volunteers in my shop.  Look for the diorama in the Bird Hall this fall.

Leafmaking from a Master

Posted April 23, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Preparing the Foreground

Gary Hoyle is one of those artist/museum preparators that everyone in my job likes to have in their rollodex (I still use one!)  Gary worked for 28 years at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, ME and he worked together with another museum talent, Fred Scherer.  Fred worked at the American Museum of Natural History for 30 years before moving to Maine to live a more sedate life.  Fred learned all aspects of diorama-making at the AMNH, including background painting with James Perry Wilson.  While in Maine, Fred worked at the Maine State Museum, producing exhibits.  Gary couldn’t have had a better mentor than Fred to work alongside at the Me State Museum.

Wax plants by Gary Hoyle

Gary responded to an earlier plea of mine to find a way to make translucent leaves for the diorama.  With his approval, I am copying our conversation:

Good Morning, Michael.

From what I’ve just read on your blog, it looks like you’ve had some very challenging weeks.  But it looks like you’ve met the challenge well and probably learned a lot in the process.  One thing I’d suggest, if you haven’t done so, is to install lighting, if not permanently, at least a temporary system that mimics the final result.  Otherwise you are working against too many variables.  Fred Scherer, who I worked with for many years and who also worked with Wilson, always specified the need to work under the permanent lighting.  He told me that he and Wilson always began their paintings after the permanent lighting was in place [ I’m sure some “tweaking” had to be done at the final installation].  He also stressed that the illusion of a diorama could easily be dispelled by not establishing the horizon at eye level.  He and Wilson use to measure willing museum visitors in order to determine an average eye level horizon line.

As far as artificial plants are concerned, I haven’t gone back onto the final phase of the fossil construction.  That will be later this spring.  However, the test runs have ironed out some bugs.  I’ve found that by scoring hot press watercolor paper at weights of 140lbs or greater, I can mimic venation and create an acceptable thickness to the leaf.  Sealing the paper with a spray fixative causes some swelling and very fine sandpaper is needed to remove proud fibers and reduce gloss if necessary.  Two piece plaster molds can then be made, after which a casting material can be used to create the leaves.  Previously I used the traditional wax method with colored beeswax and cotton, but I’ve started playing with a 50% mix of hot melt glue and paraffin wax.  The hot melt reduces the brittleness of the wax while the paraffin’s “greasy” quality helps prevent mold lock during de-molding.  I also found that mixing oil paints with poppyseed oil rather than other traditional media worked well to incorporate pigment into the glue/wax mix.

To attach your flowers to stems, you really need a magnifier stand with a built in light to keep your hands free and prevent headaches from the visor type magnifiers.  You also need to work with a pin vise.  Over the years I’ve worked on many complex plant “problems” with beeswax, cotton and various size steel wires and my trusty pin vise.  It’s always a challenge but sometimes the results are spot on [see attachment].  I’ve always used flock for my “fuzzy” plants, most often beige or white.  I’ve never tried static charge, though I’ve thought about it at times.  Please let me know how it works for you.  Remember that a layer of glass will separate the visitor from the foreground, so some details aren’t necessary even at rather close distances.

With kind regards,


Hi Michael,

I could not respond to you yesterday because of finish carpentry issues.  Before I answer your questions, let me suggest an experiment that I haven’t tried as yet.  Take some white crepe paper and cut out paper petals [be sure that the grain of the paper is aligned with the long axis of the petals].  Then on a warm piece of metal heated by a hot-plate [the metal should be just above the melting temperature of the glue/wax mix] place a few “crumbs” of your colored glue/wax mix.  Place your paper petals over the melted glue/wax to absorb the mixture, then use a warmed spatula to press the paper slightly.  Lift the base of the petals with forceps.  When cooled slightly use a rounded metal tool, like a large stylus [I’ve used various size ball bearings affixed to steel handles]. to shape the petal in the palm of you hand.  I’ve used this technique several times with colored beeswax.  The beauty of it is that you can create three-dimensional petals, and if the wax is not too opaque, the crepe ribs look like venation.  I’ve done this quite effectively with violets [sorry that I have no photos of those].  The unknown in all this is the behavior of the glue/wax mix.  Give it a try and please let me know your results.

In regard to the use wire, I always begin assembling a flower from the inside out.  Here’s where good old sun-bleached beeswax shines.  First I select a wire that is strong enough to support the weight of wax, etc..  It should also be small in diameter [try this and you’ll get a feel for the size wire that you need].  I then straighten the wire by stretching it in a vice.  Next, I cut the wire into appropriate flower-stem lengths plus a couple inches.  I pull the wires through a fold of 100 grit sandpaper to roughen their surface then insert a wire into a pin vice and crimp the tip of the wire into a tiny hook.  I twirl the pin vice and spin a thin layer of cotton evenly down the “flower stem.”  I then tighten the cotton by taking a small piece of sand paper and folding it so that the abrasive side is facing out.  As I twirl the cotton again I lightly compress it in the paper fold.  The result is a smooth cylinder of cotton with a wire core and a little bud of cotton at its tip.  Using a wax tool I heat a few crumbs of colored wax over an alcohol lamp [slow but effective] or a propane burner [fast but can char wax quickly], I then run the liquid wax with one stroke down the cotton cylinder.  When the wax cools I twirl the cotton wax cylinder through a fold of sand paper, this time with the grit side in the fold.  This removes the little bumps.  Then I run one or more finish coats of wax down the cylinder and check for thickness with calipers.

The little ball of wax at the tip of the cylinder becomes the heart of the flower.  I usually start at this point and then do the above stem work later.  I attach, or create from wax, the central elements of the flower then attach the petals with a heated wire.  If the flower is in a cluster of stems, I carefully grind the end of the raw wire so that one side is flat.  I then can attach two flower stems to a more robust wire with solder [ here wet cotton is necessary at the wax cylinder base to prevent melting].  Of course, as you know, flock, spines, etc. are applied later.

I do not know of a source of 1/8 inch flock and I’m not familiar with the plant that you’re working on, but your idea of fiberglass may yet work.  With fine forceps you may be able to insert the fibers into a wax stem.  If the stem is warmed in water and the glass fibers heated, you may be able to place them just where you want.  Obviously this is labor intensive work……………..

With kindest regards,



Posted April 15, 2010 by Michael Anderson
Categories: Preparing the Foreground, Taxidermy

Dorie Petrochko and the yellow warbler

Dorie Petrochko is raising the bar with painting the bird carving casts.  Yesterday she added just a bit more color to the wings so that a slight bit of yellow shows on each folded primary feather.  It looked like she was using a “00” brush.  Later, she felt finished enough with the painting to start glueing a few feathers on.  I told her that this model is so well painted that only a very few feathers would be needed to enhance what is already there.  We have been debating whether the duller birds come across better in the models.  I am wondering if the bird’s plumage is lighter and with less contrasts, it inherently looks softer.  This hypothesis will be tested because Dorie plans to paint a male Canada warbler next which is anything but dull or without contrasts!!

a skin and the painted model

By the way, Dorie is starting a natural science/scientific art school with two other scientific illustrators this fall.  This is very exciting to see this starting in New Haven.  Here is what she wrote me about it:

The CT School of Natural Science Illustration at Yale-Peabody West Campus will be launched this September. The classes will be held at the new Community Education Center at West Campus.  The schedule will be listed on the Peabody Museum website under West Campus Programs/ Education.  It will also be listed in the Peabody Explorer for next fall.  In September we will be offering classes in Fundamentals of Natural Science Illustration, Botanical Illustration in Watercolor, Drawing Butterflies in Colored Pencil, Drawing from Museum Specimens, Field Sketching and Natural Science Illustration in Pen and Ink.