Building an ecosystem at the Peabody

Scientists and artists come together at the Peabody to create an accurate diorama.
Scientists and artists come together at the Peabody to create an accurate diorama. Photo by Carol Hsin.

Visitors to the Yale Peabody Museum can now observe artists give life to molded birds, juniper branches, rye grass and reptiles.

Under the guidance of scientists, artists at the Peabody are building an ecosystem diorama — a model that merges a landscape by 20th-century painter James Perry Wilson in the background with three-dimensional objects in the foreground. In the exhibit, “Diorama Takes Shape,” the artists are working to create a virtual experience of the warbler migration at Point Pelee in Canada, while celebrating Wilson’s obsessively naturalistic aesthetic, said Michael Anderson, the museum’s exhibit preparator.

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“Other diorama painters were good at a few things — perhaps they could paint birds very well or trees very well,” Anderson said. “But Wilson was good at everything, and in a very precise and technical way backed by math and science.”

Anderson and Dorie Petrochko, an artist who has been volunteering at the Peabody’s bird collection for more than eight years, work in an enclosed area of the museum, where visitors who stop by can watch and talk to them. The rest of the exhibit features photographs and a video about Wilson in addition to paintings by the artist.

Anderson’s job is working on creating the foreground materials with the help of the Peabody’s natural science experts, such as botany expert Patrick Sweeney. Sweeney was the one who told Anderson that the leaves of the false Solomon seal plant, for instance, should flare out at the base of the stem. Following Sweeney’s advice, Anderson discarded a lime-green clay mold of about a dozen leaves and began making a scientifically accurate batch under the gaze of visitors at the exhibit.

In addition to Anderson, Petrochko is working on gluing feathers to “soften” clay warbler moldings she made after studying bird pelts at the museum. Because the clay birds are less realistic than stuffed animal skins, they will be placed farther away from viewers than their stuffed counterparts, Petrochko added.

Wilson, who lived from 1889 to 1976, became one of the world’s greatest diorama painters of all time, though he did not have any formal artistic training, diorama painter Sean Murtha said.

But Wilson gave viewers in the 1940s the experience of virtual reality before such a thing existed, Murtha added. With math skills sharpened by his training as an architect, Wilson advanced the field of diorama painting when he formulated a grid system that would allow a photograph to be transported onto any curved surface, Murtha said.

“People think they can stick a flat image onto a curved wall,” Murtha said, “But Wilson knew you couldn’t do that — you had to distort it.”

When painting a photograph on a curved surface, Anderson said, the perspective has to shift with the curves so that there is no vanishing point,but an endless vista in all directions. While other artists tried to solve the problem by free drawing, approximating the effect by eye, Wilson eliminated most of the guesswork by using math, Anderson said.

“It’s the perfect solution for giving a panoramic view,” he said.

Even though Wilson was a great artist, he is relatively unknown partly because museums have been switching from dioramas to digital images since the mid-1990s and partly because it is more difficult to transport dioramas than ordinary paintings, said Jared Nixon, a 41-year-old musician and New Haven resident who first admired one of Wilson’s paintings when he visited the Peabody as a kid.

The eight-by-nine feet Point Pelee diorama painting was about an inch away from getting stuck in the Peabody doors, Anderson said.

The painting arrived at Yale in November 2009, but Anderson said he began the transfer process in 2006 after the director of exhibits at the Canadian Museum of Nature told Anderson that the piece might be thrown out to free up space while the museum was undergoing renovations. The director was mistaken and the painting would not have been thrown after all, but Anderson said he was distressed enough to go through a three-year transfer process in order to preserve Wilson’s diorama painting.

The exhibit will be on display until April. Visitors can watch the artists at work at all hours the exhibition is open — from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday.

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