This past month, I had the honor of seeing my series Natural History featured in National Geographic. Four images spread over three pages were interspersed with captions wriiten in first person but actually crafted by a Nat Geo writer based on several interviews. The segment is called Photo Journal and it is run in the magazine several times a year. The work chosen is always art photography that has a scientific or naturalist bent. During the lengthy pre-production process with Nat Geo, I was asked to submit many things, one of which was a support essay of sorts; in effect, a slightly more personal footnote to my artist statement. While writing it, I remembered things which haven't surfaced in my mind for decades and I was struck with a comforting sense of serendipity:
There are many tastes, smells and visual vignettes that I recall from my solitary summers spent in the Natural History museum: the Moonpies and Mountain Dew that I often ate as a mid-day snack, procured from a distinctly southern 1930’s lunch counter on the ground floor; the slightly fetid smell of the animals’ cages- mostly a mix of cedar and musk; wearing a Corn snake around my waist, coiled deliberately through my belt loops in meticulously planned casualness to impress visiting children; proudly and proficiently operating the temperamental levers of the manual service elevator that would often became stuck between floors; the hissing cockroaches from Madigascar who would emit a puff of air when you pressed on their armored backs… and of course the dioramas which I sometimes watched the staff construct or alter, but mostly just gawked at while lurking in the spot lit halls. Oddly enough though, one of the things that stands out the most about my long, shadowy summer days in the museum is National Geographic.
Either because they liked me or because no one really had the time to care, I had full run of the place including keys and punch codes. Behind the education rooms where my mother gave live animal demonstrations to groups of visitors was one of the museum’s informal archives rooms. At the front of the cluttered, windowless room was a tall bookcase filled with every issue of National Geographic since the 1890’s. At the time, I wanted to be an archaeologist (no doubt influenced heavily by Raiders of the Lost Ark) and so for years I had associated all things “old” with mystery and treasure. I was immediately drawn to the magazines’ obvious age and antiquity: the crackled, yellowing covers, thick fibrous paper and fascinating photos. I don’t recall reading the articles at all and don’t even know that I was interested in who or what the subjects were, I really just craved the photographs. I hungrily analyzed the clothing and the environment in the images and was possessed by the notion of staring into the eyes of long dead people. I still do this. As an adult I began collecting Victorian photographs and still feel the same uneasy fascination with holding the subject’s gaze. It is the same sort of disquiet I experience when looking at dioramas.
When I rediscovered dioramas through the Natural History series, I felt a sense of satisfaction and completion, like perhaps a few of the loose ends from my youth had been neatly tied up and even finally made themselves useful. An argument could be made that this series is a celebration or remembrance of a time of quiet discovery for an introverted child. Alternatively, it could also be a way of mourning a very difficult time in my life when my family was falling apart and I learned to seek solace alone, valuing things that other children had no time for.
The rest of my childhood is not nearly as clear as those summers at the museum, I remember very little from the next several years. People, school and home life are vague at best but I do remember that the sense of solitude never really left me.
During the past month, I have received really wonderful feedback from all over the world: letters from museums, photographers and other diorama fans. This letter from diorama artist Gary Hoyle really made my day:
Dear Traer Scott,
I was delighted to see your work in the recent issue of National Geographic Magazine. It's really wonderful to see a new take on the wildlife diorama motif. My mentor in museum exhibit art, Fred Scherer, began work at the American Museum of Natural History in 1934. His first duty was to assist in making plants for the Mountain Gorilla Group; later he became a background painter at the AMNH. After Fred retired and moved to Maine, I was fortunate to work with him one day a week for ten years at the Maine State Museum. Today, March 1, is Fred's birthday. He is 97 and still painting.
Your work brings relevance to an exhibit mode that many designers see as archaic, and it makes those of us who do this work feel that we are not "dinosaurs." Thank you.
Not only did Gary work with a legend, but he has produced beautiful work in his own right. Below is a sculpture of a box turtle that Gary did for the Maine State Museum. This piece is completely freehand, he did not use any molds or casts.
Gary and an elite group of artists have lovingly and painstakingly brought spectacular flora and fauna to life in museums all over the world for generations of wide eyed viewers. Even with television, Imax and the internet at our fingertips, these beautiful habitats frozen in time behind glass still delight. Anyone who doubts this need only spend an hour at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC. I have been there countless times and witnessed school groups, scout troups and an endless array of summer campers flood into the exhibition hall. Without fail, the dark, cavernous room is instantly filled with screams of excitement. Children point, jump and shove- their eyes as big as saucers- literally about to burst with excitement at every single diorama they encounter. This is an exceptionally beautiful and functional form of art that is often under-appreciated.