Archive for January 2010

Volunteers III & IV

January 31, 2010

Jenny Briggs, our volunteer coordinator stopped me in the hall a week or so ago and told me that she had a volunteer that is interested in working in my lab and helping with the diorama foreground work.  I told her to schedule him to come by which she did.  Michael Bobbie and Jenny showed up yesterday morning.  Michael is a recent graduate of St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY.  I showed him the lab and some of the work I was trying to get done for the diorama.  I showed him how I was sculpting the leaves of the False Solomon Seal in clay and I roughed one out for him.  I asked if he thought he would like to try one himself and he agreed to do so even though I then had to leave him and run up to the graphics dept and head out for lunch.  I told him I would be back by 1pm or so and that if he had to leave, he should lock up and turn out the lights.  When I got back at 1:15, the door was locked, lights out , and I discovered there were 2 completely finished leaves, beautifully sculpted exactly how I wanted them.  Michael you got a job!

My other volunteer, Kevin, comes sometimes with his daughter, Mariah.  Mariah, we found, likes museum work and worked intensely with her dad one day removing clay form the Torosaurus skull.  Now Kevin is roughing out Solomon Seal leaves.  Mariah loves to help, so I asked her to make a new board with clay so we can use it to sculpt more leaves.  Here she is at work! (Oh, by the way, it was “pajama day” at school that day)

Mariah and Kevin


Volunteers II

January 29, 2010

Today I had a visit from another volunteer, Alexis Brown.  Alexis is a graduate of the Chicago Art Institute and may be one of the most innately talented artists I have ever met.  She teaches printmaking at the Creative Arts Workshop, works with kids at the Eli Whitney Museum on Sundays (her dad, Bill is the director of the Eli Whitney Museum and is another creative genius) and she also runs a landscaping business.

Alexis Brown and juniper branch

Lexi has been working in my lab for several years skinning birds to make study skins for the education department.  She works on birds and keeps her sketch pad at the ready to make drawings of anything that catches her interest.  Each of these sketches could be framed as is-they are that good.  Today, I asked her if she would like to work out how to paint the dried juniper branches.  You may remember from a previous blog that I collected three small juniper branches from an old quarry site in Stony Creek at the end of December.  Those have now dried out and are losing their color.  They will eventually turn completely brown-hence the need for paint.  They had already been brushed with latex to keep the needles in place, so I gave one to Alexis to try painting.  She got out the oil paint and whipped up a very good green, close to the one I made to match the fresh branches, thinned it a bit with mineral spirits, put it in the airbrush, and gave it a good coat of paint.

It is impossible to keep the color just on the needles; the branches get covered with green paint as well.  So Lexi spent the rest of the afternoon painting the branches back to a brown color that gradates from a dark umber  at the base to a lighter golden-yellowish brown at the ends of the branch.  Juniper has a light green stripe on the underside of each needle and Lexi then “striped” many of the needles so the effect was startingly close to the real thing.  We’ll let it dry and hit it with a gloss finish to put the final touch on.  So Lexi, now that you’ve got the method down on one branch, are you ready to take on the whole shrub?


January 28, 2010

I am amassing a stable of very talented volunteers to help make this diorama.  Jenny Briggs, our coordinator of museum volunteers, has kept me going in normal times with at least one or two volunteers who come in on a weekly basis to help me do such things as cutout magazine photos for my photo file, skin birds for study skins, and make molds and casts.  But now is not a normal time.  I have a lot of work to do creating the foreground for the diorama and I will also be in the exhibit for eight weeks from February 27th to April 25th.   I plan to work Tuesdays to Saturdays during this time, so minimally, I’d like to have a trained volunteer working in the exhibit on Sundays.  At best, I’d rather not work alone so I can get away for a moment or two if need be.

Dorie Petrochko is a natural science illustrator/painter who I met almost a year ago when she brought me a frozen quail for taxidermy purposes.  It turns out I will use this very quail in the diorama (if, when mounted, it looks respectable!).  Dorie is interested in pursuing the idea of using carved birds as possible inclusions into the Pt Pelee diorama.  I carved three warblers for another one of our dioramas 7 or 8 years ago (two of the carvings are in the bog diorama on the third floor).  I made rubber molds of the carvings at that time and made lightweight polyurethane casts that were then painted, outfitted with tiny legs and glass eyes.  I have never been terribly happy with the results.  The bog foreground is shallow and the birds are close enough to see that they are casts.  So, Dorie and I want to see if we can make a carved bird pass on close inspection since the Pt Pelee foreground is even shallower than the bog’s.

Dorie Petrochko with birds

Dorie is working away right now to paint the cast bird as close to the color of the real plummage as possible.  She is working on a black-throated blue warbler and using a skin and a taxidermy mount as reference for her painting.  She is experimenting with some new vinyl paints that dry very matte, layering them to get the rich colors of the actual bird.  When the painting is finished, we’ll take feathers from the skin (which is too beat up to mount anyway) and glue them on to the painted cast.  We will start with just a few and assess what it looks like and use more if necessary.  I know all you purists are tut-tutting, but if it works, as I learned from James Perry Wilson, we will use it!

Dorie holding an underpainted cast and a taxidermy mount side-by-side

By the way, if you live near New Haven and can get a chance to visit the Environmental Science Center abutting the Peabody Museum, Dorie has several nice paintings and drawings of owls in the first floor hallway in a group exhibit of natural science illustrators.

Surprise in the Juniper

January 26, 2010

I got my air gun cleaned this morning so I could spray latex on the juniper branches.  I thinned latex with ammonia and water to the point where it looked like milk, poured it in the air gun, and started spraying.  Half way through I noticed a fluttering moth or butterfly up at the light in the spray booth.  I stopped spraying and grabbed a plastic container and caught a BUTTERFLY!  We collected these branches in the middle of January.  What’s a butterfly doing coming out of the juniper now?

What is so cool about working in a natural history museum is that I am able to run right over to someone who knows more than anyone would care to know about anything having to do with natural history.  In this case, I ran to Larry Gall, an entomologist with a specialty in butterflies.  Larry took a quick look and said, “Oh, that’s Polygonia c-album and it is one of the few butterflies that hibernate whole, as an adult, not in a cocoon.  I asked Larry what’s a Polygonia c-album and he said, “it’s known commonly as an Eastern Comma.”

Eastern Comma, wings outstretched

E. Comma, wings up (note small comma on lower wing)

Larry thought it was too active-beating itself up on the side of the container, so he walked over to the refrigerator and stuck it in.     After maybe a minute or minute and a half with the butterfly slightly chilled and a lot more serene, Larry lifted it out of the container between his fingers.  He showed me and two students the little silver comma on the inside of the wings.  He showed us all 6 legs (2 are reduced and hidden in the front), he unrolled its 3/4″ proboscis with an insect pin.  Then to demonstrate the clinginess of the feet, he stuck it on each of our noses!   Sure enough, he grabbed right on.

Larry suggested I take it outside and put it on an evergreen tree or something with a shaggy bark so it can climb into a crevice and overwinter until spring.  I took it over to the President’s house-he has lots of evergreens bordering Whitney Ave and let it climb out onto a tree.  I must say, for all the abuse it took, it looked no worse for wear.

Collecting Grasses and Juniper

January 24, 2010

Patrick Sweeney arranged to collect Canadian Rye grass and juniper with Glenn Dreyer at the Connecticut College Arboretum.  Glenn took us out to a field where Canadian Rye grass has been planted.   We found that it was interspersed in clumps throughout the field, but it was not abundant.  We collected about a dozen clumps, filling a garbage bag.  Typically, we would collect the whole plant with roots, but since the ground was frozen, we were only able to get a couple with roots.  Since the grass was not abundant, this will insure that the grass comes back next year.

Glenn Dreyer and Patrick Sweeney looking at Canadian Rye grass

From there, we drove over to the “official” arboretum which is surrounded by a wrought iron fence and looks like it has been around for a long time.  We walked through the frost-covered paths to a stand of juniper.  Surprisingly, there was a low ground-cover juniper and a more upright version of the same species (Juniperus communis).  They looked like totally different plants.

Patrick Sweeney standing next to the upright juniper.

The upright version looks to be what was painted in the diorama background so we decided to collect this.  There was only one problem, I had forgotten to take a saw!  Patrick jumped right into the middle of the bush, taking his hand clippers, with every intention of using it to “clip” several branches that were almost 2″ thick.  Fifteen minutes later, he had taken out four fairly large branches and a few smaller ones.  Either those clippers are really sharp or Patrick has some massive flexors!

Point Pelee Reptiles

January 20, 2010

This 17" hognose snake cast was produced by Dave Parsons, Peabody Museum preparator from 1952-1985. The detail and painting is exquisite and I hope to include it in the diorama.

Greg Watkins-Colwell, Peabody Museum’s herpetology guy, stopped by last week and talked with me about what species of reptiles might be included in the diorama.  He wrote the following e-mail listing finished models I already have in my cabinet.

Ontario has the following herps that could be used in the exhibit:

Hognose snake
Northern watersnake (same morph as ours… they also have redbelly watersnake which is a different species).

Spotted turtle (Point Pelee is known for that in fact)
Wood turtle
Snapping turtle.

They do NOT have box turtles!

Diorama Design II

January 10, 2010

I originally thought the Point Pelee diorama was unique since there seemed to be no evidence of Wilson’s grid,  the preparatory charcoal lines that usually extend down below the level of the painting.  The grid is typically how Wilson would transfer his reference paintings or photos so the illusion of standing in the landscape would be as close to the actual experience as possible.  In my museum work, I have had the chance to get inside, behind the glass, of  many of Wilson’s dioramas.  If  I can get to the background without disturbing the fragile foreground, I try to  measure these grid marks to determine their size.   In this diorama, these lines are not easily found, but they are there.  What is seen clearly are right angle marks in charcoal with a letter and number used to identify it.   On this diorama you can see marks with labels: A2, A3, B1, B2, B3.  I think these mysterious marks correspond to Wilson’ panoramic slides.  I have seen his panoramic slide series labeled just this way.  Sean Murtha agrees and thinks he used the marks while he was painting to register is slides.  Wilson painted, referred to his slides, painted some more.  It may be that he used the registration marks to help him find exactly where he was quickly  when he looked at the slides.

Earlier, when I had missed the grid marks, I mulled over the possibility that Wilson had not used a grid.  Ray deLucia, a foreground artist at the AMNH in an interview said that he knew Wilson didn’t use a grid with some of his backgrounds, so I was thinking this might be one of those dioramas.  But the marks are there, they just don’t extend down below the painting very far.  I have studied photographs of Wilson’s next diorama work at the Boston Museum of Science-the same registration marks appear on both his scale models and the full-size dioramas.  Additionally, the grid is always present in the unpainted charcoal under-drawing.  So the registration marks and the grid coexist side-by-side.

I also kicked around the idea that Wilson may have experimented with projecting slides onto the background and contacted Nat Chard, head of the architecture department at the University of Manitoba.  Nat is maybe as obsessed about dioramas as I am and understands the mechanics and math behind James Perry Wilson’s grid method better than anyone I know.  I have pestered Nat with questions about projection perspective for many years and he has patiently explained with diagrams how it works.  So when I floated the idea that Wilson may have projected his slides to the background, he basically told me he thinks it is absurd.  The difficulty this would create with focusing each slide, the distortion that would be seen at the edges where each slide contacts the other and consequent  problem with “stitching” each slide together, and finally the inability to get an accurate angle of view,  all of these Wilson solved with his grid.  Another nail in the coffin for this idea.  It is a mystery why Ray deLucia thought Wilson would sometimes skip the grid.  I know all of his dioramas and it seems quite clear to me that they were all gridded from 1940 on.