Archive for December 2009

Hamlin State Park-Lake Ontario

December 26, 2009

Today, my daughter Harriet (age eight) and my wife Celia took a drive from our Chritmas vacation destination south of Rochester to visit some parks along Lake Ontario.  Its only a 45 minute drive to the lake, but we then had to find a beach.  The area directly north of Rochester is cattail-covered marshland.  There were some inlets that were solidly frozen with a couple of  ice-fishing shelters with fishermen inside.  But the shoreline was rocky without a trace of sand.  We had to drive east to Hamlin State park to find a sandy beach.  This park is one I remember from twenty-two years ago when I rode my bicycle across the US.  I was six or seven days out of New Haven and I camped right on the edge of the lake.  I remember being able to see city lights across the water that  I thought was Toronto, but I never did confirm this.

Today, we didn’t have the nicest day.  It was in the low 40’s and there was a constant wind-whipped rain.  Harriet wanted to walk on the lake ice, but there were signs warning against this.  We came to see if there were any grasses and to take a sample of sand.  The park was quite well groomed and we didn’t find any Canadian rye.  After walking in the rain for a half hour and getting completey drenched, we decided to get our sample of sand and get out.


Ray deLucia

December 23, 2009

Ray deLucia working in Peabody's Rainforest diorama, June 1991

Ray deLucia was one of those unforgettable characters that one runs into working in a museum.  Sporting a handlebar mustache and goatee and always quick with a laugh, Ray worked at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York from the time he graduated from Yale art school in 1938 to when he retired in 1978.  He was a talented foreground artist who had a hand in the fabrication of a significant number of the AMNH’s extraordinary dioramas.  He had a theatrical flair for creating the three-dimensional trees, rocks, cacti, you name it, Ray could make it.  His 40 year tenure at the AMNH overlapped with James Perry Wilson’s from 1938 to 1957.  They traveled together on museum expeditions all over the United States collecting material for the Mule Deer, Coyote, Jaguar groups, to name a few.  Later, Ray continued to work with Wilson on the Peabody dioramas, coming to New Haven to collect foreground material for the Forest Margin diorama and to help paint the bog diorama on his vacations and weekends.    During my tenure, Ray came to the Peabody from 1990-1996 to clean and conserve Peabody’s 11 dioramas.  This was a great opportunity for me to work with Ray and learn everything I could about our dioramas from one of the AMNH “old-timers”.  Ralph Morrill, Peabody’s preparator, was my primary mentor with the Peabody dioramas, but Ray rounded out my training.

While working together on the Peabody bog diorama, Ray told me the secret of how to preserve the small spruce shrub in the foreground by spraying it with latex to hold the needles in place while it dried. (see yesterday’s entry for details)  Ray would pepper his conversations with funny anecdotes of working at the AMNH.  Here is the one he told me then.

All the preparators at the AMNH were underpaid and hungry to work on outside jobs to make a little extra money.  The administration drew up specific rules for doing outside work, but for the most part, condoned the extra work.  Ray received a call from a theatre company looking for a small evergreen tree as a prop in a play.   Ray had done this kind of work before in the dioramas and took the job.  Typically, these calls come in at the 11th hour and this was no exception.  Ray had to go out, cut the tree, spray it with latex and paint it in a short period of time.  While preparators grumble about the short notice, they generally also double the fee!  Ray worked all day and late the night before the tree was to be dropped off.  Everything was going well and the final job was to drill a hole in the tree trunk and screw it to a plywood base.  As Ray drilled into the trunk, the drill caught on the green wood and the whole tree spun violently in his hand.  The latex is good for drying needles, but won’t withstand a good spin.  All the needles flew off in all directions and he was left holding a bare tree!  It was midnight and the deadline for drop off was the next morning.  Ray spent the rest of the night gluing individual needles onto twigs.  He dropped off a very sorry looking tree the next morning, but as is the case with a lot of preparation work, the client was happy and Ray (who knew better!) got paid!

Juniper Preparation Tests

December 22, 2009

Juniper in office (note the Wilson paintings on the wall)

Juniper in freezer with the birds!

As I noted previously, I collected three small branches of the juniper in Stony Creek over the weekend.  I brought them into work yesterday and I noticed that a number of needles had come off in the bag.   I put each branch in a vise and painted thinned latex rubber on the base of each needle (front and back).  This is to hold the needles on so they won’t fall off as they dry.  To thin latex, I use ammonia and a little water, so it reeks more so than usual.  Whatever you do, don’t sniff the latex!

I am testing how to dry the branches.  Evergreens dry differently and I am hopeful that the short-needled juniper will dry without distortion.  I have dried long-needled white pine and ponderosa pine and the results were not good.  The needles twisted and distorted as they dried, looking nothing like the live tree.  In these cases, I had to freeze-dry the branches and embed the needles in sand to hold them in place while they dried.

I have taken my three branches and placed them in different places to see what might work best for drying them.  I have hung one over my desk and will let it dry in the open.  The other two are in freezers-one in my bench freezer (not self-defrosting) where all my frozen birds are and the other in our museum’s deep freezer which has a running temperature of -30º C.  I plan to remove the frozen branches in mid-January to see how they look.

If all goes smoothly with the drying, all I will have to do is paint them since they will eventually turn brown.  Painting will be tricky though because the upper part of the needles is a deep green and the underside is a paler green with a light strip down each needle.  I doubt I will be able to air brush the color since the needles come off the stems in a radial fashion.  It looks to be a lot of hand painting!  It will give me something to do while I’m in the exhibit.

Juniperus communis

December 21, 2009

This Saturday morning my son, Finn (10), my daughter, Harriet (8), and I went out to try to find some samples of  juniper.  I had to bribe them with a stop first for hot chocolate at the Stony Creek Market.  Patrick Sweeney, Peabody’s collections manager in botany, sent out a query about where to find juniper locally and was told there was some at the old quarry site near Stony Creek.  After our stop for hot chocolate we drove down to where the trail head started.  It was overcast and cold and the ice on the trail crunched underfoot.  Finn pulled a feathery tipped phragmites and was entertaining himself by trying to tickle our ears with it.  The old quarry site is close (thank God!) and we were there in no time.  Patrick made it sound like there would be many juniper bushes among the rocks, but everywhere I looked there was only red cedar.  We walked the total length of the quarry, but found only red cedar.  We walked on and found another old quarry site that had filled with frozen water.  Finn started throwing cobble-size stones to break the ice (he was only able to break through once) and Harriet began complaining that she wanted to go.  I told her to go in the woods, but that wasn’t what she meant, she was cold, so I turned around and took a different path back-nothing but cedar.  We got back to the first quarry site and I saw a low evergreen bush that looked different.  Sure enough, it was juniper!  I broke off three small branches so I could bring it to the Peabody to test how it will dry.  We ran back to the car with our bounty to get warm and so Finn couldn’t tickle our ears!

Grass-On the Radar

December 17, 2009


Canadian Wild Rye grass Elymus canadensis


Today we hunted for the elusive Canadian Wild Rye grass (Elymus canadensis) at the Clinton town beach.  Before we left, Patrick Sweeney, Peabody’s collections manager in botany, checked in the herbarium for dried specimens from CT.  He found a specimen collected by Lauren Brown in 1968 at the Clinton Town beach.  She wrote notes about where it was found and that it was somewhat abundant in one spot.  Patrick had high hopes that we could find it.  So, Patrick, my wife Celia, and I set out.  The temperature was in the mid-20’s and there was a gale wind blowing off the Sound when we got out of the car.  We started near the Hammock River and walked along the edge.  It was almost completely covered with invasive phragmites.  Patrick said that the grass is usually found in dry upland habitats (there are records of it on West Rock ridge).  It wouldn’t be found in wet or tidal areas, but just back from the tidal zone, the sandy edges surprisingly, fit the habitat description-at least the dry part.  We surveyed along the park edge and sure enough, right at the base of a red cedar we found it!  There were three stems with the spiky tipped flower part.  We were happy to find it, but it wasn’t an abundance.  So we kept walking.  My eyes were watering from the cold so it was difficult to survey with confidence.  45 minutes later, we called it quits.  We had found two more little stands, maybe seven stems total-not enough to collect.  We certainly didn’t want to wipe out the remaining evidence of this grass from the site as this would defeat the purpose of the diorama, eh?

My family and I go to Rochester for the holiday break and Lake Ontario is within an hour’s drive.  My wife and I will take a trip up there and see if we can find it along the shore.  It should be a very close match to the habitat we are trying to reproduce in the diorama.

Publication: A Diorama Takes Shape: Bringing the Genius of James Perry Wilson To Life

December 9, 2009

Illustration of the Yale Divinity School in a letter to Thanos Johnson 10 November 1944.

From 1944 to 1945, Wilson wrote, what was almost daily letters to Thanos Johnson, a young private in the US army, describing, in detail, his progress working at the Peabody Museum.  The letters are wide ranging, discussing , not only diorama work, but also architecture, music, and photography.  They were saved by Thanos and given to me in the late 1990’s.  They are the best description I have ever found of what Wilson did to create his extraordinary background paintings and they tell specifically the story of what is arguably the best diorama by Wilson, the Shoreline diorama.

I have been working with our publications editor, Rosemary Volpe and Sally Pallatto, our graphics wizard to create a publication to be sold with the upcoming exhibit.  The booklet will have a section on the Point Pelee diorama with information about the bird migration that streams through every year in the spring and the fall (written by my wife, Celia Lewis).  There will be a brief section describing the other Peabody dioramas and there will be an article, written by me about the creation of the first Wilson diorama at the Peabody, The Shoreline group.  The text relies heavily on Wilson’s letters to Thanos Johnson.

I am also publishing my biography about Wilson on the Peabody website.  The first chapter about his early years is up and on view at

Taxidermy Started

December 4, 2009

I have started skinning birds for possible use in the diorama.  I went through my freezer and found 10 warblers from 1994 to 2002.  Even though my freezer is an old frost-free type (much preferable to the new self-defrosting ones), these birds will all have some form of freezer burn.  The skin dries out, usually on the head or neck areas and makes skinning much more difficult.  I started with a yellow warbler with a bad case of freezer burn.  I tried  to rehydrate it with a hypodermic needle, but still by the end, I had several “bullet holes” in the skin where it had ripped during skinning.  I was asked to minimize the bloody work while I work in the exhibit hall, so I will do this in my lab and l wire the birds together while I work in public.  My plan is to skin all 10 birds, mount them all, and choose the best ones for the diorama.   By the way, I am not a collector, ie. a hunter.  All birds I get are either picked up as roadkills, cat kills or window kills.  I have a permit through the museum and from the state to salvage dead birds.