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Putting life in the life sciences; how a team of artists used everything from wax to fishing line to bring life to the Schad Gallery of biodiversity.

When I was tapped on the shoulder and given the task of choosing reptiles and amphibians for the new Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, I was filled with a mixture of elation and apprehension. What an opportunity to have this kind of input! The gallery team would decide on concepts, and I would pick the amphibians and reptiles that best fit the story line. The difficulty of the job didn't hit home until I started trying to find iconic specimens worthy of display from among our collections.


Don't get me wrong. Our vaults contain amazing specimens, from tuataras, survivors of an ancient lineage, to very rare secretive, legless amphibians. But many specimens are preserved in alcohol, and for health and safety reasons cannot be placed in the galleries. More importantly, they don't look very life-like. They have often lost their colour and volume and are posed for scientific study rather than in natural postures. So, displaying our alcohol specimens was out. Purchasing models wasn't an option either. Life-like examples of animals are seldom available on the commercial market or from other museums. So, what was I to do?

Then I met the artists in the ROM's own art department, who would literally bring this gallery to life. What a relief. The art team prepared numerous realistic reptile and amphibian models, as well as plants, fungi, and invertebrates for the gallery. Georgia Guenther, a 20-plus-year ROM veteran who has worked on many a ROM gallery, recruited and coordinated the team: Panya Clark Espinal, M-J Kelley, and Melinda Barnadas. While each artist brings unique strengths to the project, the work of reproducing specimens very precisely demands highly developed powers of observation, attention to detail, and impressive painting skills. A depth of curiosity and thought as well as extensive knowledge of materials and three-dimensional fabrication processes are needed to solve problems of how to recreate, down to the finest detail, textures, nuances of shade, and form.

Many of the models the team produced represent worlds most of us will never see. Some of these creatures live deep in the ocean, others in the most remote places on earth. Some may be found outside their lairs for just a few hours a day or maybe for just one evening a year, while others are so secretive that even specialists may never encounter their cherished quarry during a lifetime of searching.

All four of these artists have an incredible knack for recreating life-like models from a specimen, be it a gooey, translucent jellyfish, a dehydrated prickly pear cactus, or a faded, long-ago-collected tree frog, all of which only vaguely resemble their living counterparts.


How did they do it? Here are a few examples.

Georgia once told me that to reproduce nature, "it is only reasonable to take objects from the natural world and transform them to suit our purposes." This is particularly apt when trying to show movement, for instance, a strawberry coral in the process of filter feeding--something the curatorial staff wanted in the gallery. The ROM had a specimen of strawberry coral, but its pale preserved condition did not accurately reflect the vibrant red of the live coral and the polyps no longer existed.

Fabricating the coral's fine filamentous polyps, or gills, from scratch seemed a daunting task, until Georgia noticed that feathery seeds from a large dandelion-like weed called Tragopogon sp., if trimmed, looked very much like the polyps in question.

Another project, the sea mouse, which looks just as the name suggests--a hairy invertebrate that scoots along the ocean floor--was simulated by taking a cast of the soft body tissue and adorning it with carefully selected strands of kid mohair. For the stiffer leg-like appendages, Melinda used bristles from a moose's mane.

Botanical specimens can be some of the trickiest material to display. It isn't as simple as cutting a branch and hanging it in a case. Plants tend to fade under gallery lights, and needles and leaves fall off over time. Foresight is needed to prepare plant specimens that will withstand the test of time. In many instances, M-J worked with real preserved plant material, developing new techniques for reinforcing fragile parts and painting faded leaves or stems to resemble their original colour. In the case of the prickly pear cactus, Melinda meticulously attached individual real spines to ensure authenticity in her model.


Sometimes the artists were asked to recreate specimens known only from historical accounts or for which there were limited photographs. Panya and I worked closely on modelling a toad that has vanished from the Costa Rican rainforests. It is a particularly special model because, for reasons still unknown, the golden toad suddenly disappeared and has not been encountered since 1987. It is considered extinct by the herpetological community. The ROM doesn't have any golden toads in its collection. So, it was only by reading the original description and poring over the limited available photographs that we are able to bring to life one creature that we have let slip away forever. Panya used a close relative to the golden toad as a model, casting the form as well as the texture of the skin in wax, and creating the tiny hands and feet by hand using wire and floral tape.

While the gallery team did opt to display a few animals as preserved specimens, the essential theme of this gallery-that life is diverse-has been made clear by the ingenious fabrications of this group of gifted artists.

Panya Clark Espinal

* Graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1988 with a diploma in Experimental Arts. Along with conceptual and specialized classes she took a wide range of technical courses.

* Work for the ROM over the years has included assembling leaves on the trees in the hardwood forest display, making reproductions for the ROM Reproductions Shop, model making for the Egypt and Nubia galleries, fabricating bats to refurbish the Bat Cave, and sculpting touchable objects for the Peru Unearthed exhibition.

* Has her own practice as an artist--her installation and conceptual sculptural projects are in a broad range of media, driven by ideas.

* Had solo shows at the National Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the embassy in Tokyo, and more. Her work is held in private and public collections, including the permanent collection of the National Gallery.

* Is represented by Christopher Cutts Gallery, Toronto. Visit for further information.



Panya Clark Espinal pushes aside a large and very realistic piece of coral, to which she has been painstakingly adding dots of yellow wax to represent individual polyps, so she can get down to today's subject: how she built a jellyfish from scratch.


The window sill behind her is piled with the various stages in the process. Like Barnadas's squid and octopus, the jellyfish is translucent. But Clark Espinal, concerned about the environment, wanted to avoid casting a solid object in resin if she could. "I wondered how I could represent the idea in a different way," she says. She came up with the notion that vacuum-formed plastic sheets might work to convey volume as well as the desired translucency. "I wasn't 100 percent sure this process would work," she admits. "It was very experimental." But with a background and art practice in experimental art, testing new media is nothing new for her.

She started by modelling the shape in an oil-based clay called Kleen Klay, simulating the texture of the jellyfish's underside and the arm-like tentacles and modelling the four circles that represent the jellyfish's innards. Since plastic sheets must be heated for vacuum-forming, she couldn't use the clay models, which would have melted, so she made plaster replicas of her models. At first, she tried using frosted plastic for the vacuum forming. It turned out to be too opaque; so she switched to clear plastic and "frosted" it herself by spraying on a matte medium.

Clark Espinal routinely works by looking at photos, but too often, she points out, photos taken from the internet have been manipulated. "We've learned to scrupulously question photo references," she says. "It has been fabulous working closely with the curators," she adds. "Their depth of knowledge in their areas of specialization is remarkable. Amy Lathrop, the herpetologist I worked with, was able to glance at my models and know that a gland should be a little further back or a bump should stick out a bit more."

To recreate the jellyfish's tendrils that sway in the current, she cut very thin strips of plastic and curled them as you would gift ribbon. But creating iridescence around the jellyfish's perimeter was another experiment. The idea came from the reflective materials used to paint crosswalks--paint mixed with tiny glass beads that reflect light. She applied the same kind of mixture around the edge of the jellyfish and to its tentacles.

Once she had assembled the three layers, the jellyfish was complete. "It was a lot of fun to make," she says. And if all goes according to plan, it will glow softly in the gallery as it does under a desk light in the studio.

Melinda Barnadas

* Split Bachelor of Fine Arts in figurative painting and experimental art & technology from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Coursework in traditional craft at Universidad de Las Americas in Puebla, Mexico. Traditional blacksmithing training from the John C. Campbell Folk School, Brasstown, NC

* Has 10 years experience as a scientific illustrator and worked in residence at the Field Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. She also produced models for the ROM's Reproductions Shop

* Diverse technical background from Renaissance to contemporary figurative painting techniques, commerical photo realistic mural work, bronze casting, and electronics/kinetics/robotics for art applications

* Has produced works and events in a broad range of media in galleries and public spaces throughout North America. Her most recent project was in collaboration with Tae Hwang at the Bata Shoe Museum for Nuit Blanche 2008

* Founder of the international art collective Magpie, which produces synergistic public art works



The Squid and the octopus

What do you get when you combine fishing line, glass animal eyes, and pharmaceutical silicone? This could be a joke, but for Melinda Barnadas--who is creating models of the spoonarm octopus, the lesser shining bobtail and the northern short fin squid for the Schad Gallery--these materials provide solutions to artistic challenges.


These species tend to lose their colour almost immediately when stored in alcohol. "As the skin starts to yellow," Barnadas explains, "you no longer get a sense of their translucence or the brilliant colours of their natural pigmentation." She needed a way to reproduce the look without using the actual deflated, contorted, and shrivelled alcohol specimens. The undeniably cute, jiggly--and beautifully transparent--creatures lined up on her work surface make it clear that she has succeeded.

Pharmaceutical silicone is a medium used by many contemporary artists, and Barnadas found that it provided the required translucency for her marine invertebrates. She took a mould directly from each of the misshapen real specimens to get an approximation of the correct size and proportions. Dental algenate--the stuff dentists use to make a mould of your mouth--makes a perfect temporary mould. It's gentle and moulds easily around the fragile specimens.

After taking wax casts from the moulds, Barnadas pored over reference photographs and had the curator explain in detail what needed to be sculpted to make each model perfectly life-like. Once she had the form perfected in wax she made a second mould of silicone and plaster for casting the final products. For the northern short-fin squid, its body length was fabricated from a flat sheet of silicone. Barnadas used clear mono filament--fishing line--and invisible stitches to sew the pieces into their tubular shape. The squid are given a final flourish of paint created from two-part silicone and artist dry pigments, applying the colour-matched skin patterns by hand.

But most arresting are the eyes. The large iridescent peepers were created by taking commercial glass animal eyes, scraping away the coloured iris, and substituting crushed oyster shell. And for the octopus? Its glass eyes--purchased from a taxidermy supplier--are hand-painted with an intricate gold-and-orange-speckled pattern.

These flexible models have wire filament cast within their extremities so the curator can pose them swimming effortlessly through their native western Atlantic seas.


M-J Kelley

* Is a classically trained figurative painter and artist with more than 20 years experience

* Holds a BA in art history from Carleton University in Ottawa and has completed MFA coursework from the Academy of Art in San Francisco

* Has also received advanced training in comic arts and sequential storytelling from the Kansas City Art Institute in Kansas City

* Has participated in various juried shows as well as a solo figurative exhibition

* Currently, she is pulling from her varied experience to explore more surreal and animated forms, including a graphic novel


Giant Chinese Salamander

The Starbucks take-out cups covering M-J Kelley's desk aren't simply evidence of coffee consumption. Kelley, who is building a 6-foot-long Chinese giant salamander for the Schad Gallery of Biodiversity, uses the cups to "frappe" paint colours. Who knew that a frothing tool with a touch of airbrush medium is perfect for mixing paint rapidly and well?


But the major reference tool for her project is tucked under her desk in a steel box--a real specimen of a slimy baby giant Chinese salamander. Smelling of alcohol, the specimen is on loan from the Smithsonian Institution. The catch: Kelley's model must be double the size of the 3-foot specimen. To get the proportions just right, she spent hours measuring and re-measuring its every possible angle. When she was done, she knew exactly how thick and how wide the model salamander should be--and every other specification.

Her first step was to create two sketches of the creature on kraft paper--a top view and a side view. Kelley's figurative drawing skills came in handy for drawing the salamander in the round. The slight curve she gave the body not only mimics how the salamander moves, but allows the model to fit inside its case in the gallery. "We needed to make him look like he was walking or swimming," says Kelley. "I watched a lot of video of the salamander to capture the movement of the head and the legs."

After taping her kraft-paper sketches to plywood, Kelley jigsawed both views from the wood and screwed them together, adding a wire-mesh tail. Glueing down blocks of pink Styrofoam on top, Kelley shaved and carved them into the shape of the body, which she then wrapped in paper mache. "Paper clay," made with actual paper content, was just right for creating texture--the folds in the salamander's skin, the many warts, the eyes, and the ridge along his back.

Lastly, the salamander received several coats of acrylic paint (hold the frappe, in this case). And because he's "one of the slimiest creatures there is," he was lavished with numerous coats of gloss. Though the salamander took Kelley a month to complete, "he was a charming creature to work with."

Georgia Guenther

* Graduate of the Ontario College of Art, where she studied every material and technical process possible. She also studied sculpture, anatomy, and 3-D design

* Fell in love with the ROM as a teenager on a school visit and decided she would work there

* Since joining the ROM in 1979, she has made artwork in many media for countless exhibits on topics of archaeology, art, life and earth sciences, as well as for curatorial research, public programming, and ROM retail

* One of her first projects was creating a travelling exhibit called Amphibians of Ontario. Thirty years later, two frog models left over from that show were pressed into use for the Schad Gallery



Tropical mushrooms

While busy coordinating the art team's work, senior artist Georgia Guenther fabricated some of the gallery's more concise components, including the mycology pieces--the fungi. It's the first time life-like models of mushrooms have been presented in the ROM's galleries. With no actual specimens to work from, Guenther modelled everything by hand from wax, based on photographs and descriptions from the curators.


"I asked lots of questions," she says. "And what I learned is that everything is significant when you look at a mushroom. Every detail you can see means something about the nature of the mushroom and it needs to be represented accurately."

The most interesting aspect of the work for Guenther was creating the diversity of textures. The trumpet fungus from Guyana, for instance, has a greasy quality and a colour difference between the fertile and non-fertile surfaces. Guenther first carefully dyed wax to just the right translucent orange hue. Then after modelling the fungus's cone shapes, she applied another layer of opaque white wax to the orange exterior to represent the fertile surfaces. To impart the greasy quality, she glazed the interiors with shiny brown oil paint. Part of what makes the work so exciting is that this mushroom is a newly described species.

For the coral fungus, so-called for obvious reasons, Guenther hand-rolled fine ropes of wax until they were delicate enough to represent the small divided tips. She analyzed pictures to get the relative proportions of different branches just so, then added brown oil paint to the orange surface to make it look more natural and weathered. Creating the dusty texture was easy: wax naturally has a slightly adherent property. She simply dusted the outside with crushed chalk pastel.

For the bolete mushroom, which Guenther calls "kind of a shaggy dog," the texture was modelled and then the form was painted pink with acrylic paint. But perhaps the most spectacular of the fungi is the veiled lady with its spongy stem growing from an egg-like puffball, and wearing a gauzy veil around its cap. Creating the net-like veil was Guenther's biggest challenge. Real netting proved to be too regular in form. Guenther experimented with knitted thread but rejected this net's openings as "too round." Ultimately, she took to paper and an exacto knife and simply drew the multi-faceted veil, cutting the openings by hand, and strengthening the paper with acrylic medium before carefully applying it to the mushroom's cap.

While Guenther has worked at the ROM for 30 years, she continues to revel in the diversity of the projects. None of the artists has the luxury of working on just one project at a time, and Guenther points to some tiny orchid flowers she is modelling. "You need a lot of patience ... and good eyewear," she says pulling on a Back-to-the-Future-style magnifying headset. As for managing the team, "It's wonderful working with such talented and likeminded people," she says. Even if they do laugh at her eyewear.

AMY LATHROP is the technician in the Herpetology section of the ROM's Department of Natural History.
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Title Annotation:Behind the Scenes
Author:Lathrop, Amy
Publication:ROM Magazine
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
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