Like most people who grew up in New York, I've been fascinated by the dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History since I was a kid running around the museum every rainy afternoon. Unlike most people, I recently got a backstage tour of the process of creating these incredible works of art with the former project director, Steve Quinn, who recently retired after some thirty years at the museum. In his book, "Windows On Nature", Quinn explains that the landscapes we see painted behind the animals in the foreground are not random scenes of an environment where you will find these animals. They are in fact specific places where the museum sent the artists, along with scientists collecting plant specimens and hunters collecting the animals for the taxidermy. In fact, the museum STILL creates dioramas of a whole variety of places, and always sends the artists there to do field sketches. Now, before everyone gets upset about the taxidermy, I have to point out that the museum is dedicated to conservation as part of its mission, and OF COURSE there are no animals "collected" nowadays. But times were different at the turn of the century when many of these animals were collected. Back in the golden age of dioramas, during the first half of the Twentieth Century, the artists themselves were hunters and naturalists as well as explorers and geographers. Carl Akeley was perhaps the most famously adventurous of them all. He was nearly killed several times, once by an elephant and once by a leopard. He was also a sculptor and a visionary, and he came up with the technique that makes the creatures in the dioramas so lifelike--but you have to read the book to find out about that. Trust me, it is amazing. You don't have to know anything about the dioramas to know that they are magical, but when I read Quinn's book and had the experience of walking around the museum with him, I realized that these dioramas are a place where science, art and theatre meet. The museum and the artists are scrupulous about reproducing the setting and the landscape. Teams of foreground and background artists reproduce the flora and fauna with scientific precision because these dioramas are meant to show us something in nature that most of us will never see in our lifetimes. The place where the background painting and the three dimensional foreground meet is called the "tie in" and how these artists work together to make a seamless whole is where the illusion of theatre begins. A shadow from the actual lighting inside the box of the diorama is painted out on the floor so that the scene will remain true to where the shadows would be at dawn on the Libyan desert. As Quinn says, the dioramas capture a moment in time. An exact time of day but also a time that is lost in history. The backgrounds that were painted are often no longer there. A wetland has become a city, the smoke from village campfires in the distance, exactly reproduced by an artist in the 1930's, is now replaced by refugee camps when you stand looking from the same spot that was first chosen as the vantage point for a diorama--as Quinn and other museum artists have done. I came away from my day with Quinn even more impressed than when I arrived, armed only with his beautiful book. A time when artists were also field naturalists, explorers and geographers seems very long ago. And though it was certainly a boy's club, there were some fearless women there too. Rebels like Gertrude Sanford Legendre who led an expedition for the museum to Ethiopia in 1928 (because she paid for it!) and came home with the Nyalas displayed in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals and a fiancé, Sydney Legendre, one of her companions on the expedition. Carl Akeley's first and second wives were hunters, explorers and geographers in their own right. Every diorama has its own secret history, and here is a link to the book which you can order or buy at the museum bookshop after you wander the great halls. We all love the Squid and the Whale, but who knows where the Whitney Hall of Pacific Bird Life is now hidden?
The Cicadas are here, at least they were everywhere in the Hudson Valley this weekend. Every tree limb was lined with them, husks crunching underfoot and the electric buzz of winged procreation that never stopped. It was searingly hot, and I was thinking about the heat and time it took for all of these creatures to burst from the ground after seventeen years of gestation. Where were each of us seventeen years ago? Where will we be seventeen years from now? Will we be here at all? I know that I've been through more than one transformation in the last seventeen years. Apparently when the cicadas are larvae their wings are still liquid. A friend said this weekend, "that's like me, my wings are still liquid." I knew what she meant. I also thought a lot about slowing down. The heat slows you down, and when you think of waiting seventeen years for the next phase of metamorphosis, that slows you down. Stop and think about where you were seventeen years ago . . . that can slow you down for a minute. I saw another unusual nest last week outside the window of an apartment in Chinatown. This is the home of the lovely Silvia, who lives in an apartment painted all white, goes on tour with her boyfriend's band, and when she is home in New York she works as a hair stylist. You only find out about Silvia from other people who know about Silvia, and her building feels like old New York, which I guess that means the Seventies to me. A three story building where everyone knows each other, and the neighborhood is revealed though the lettering of the signs you pass: Chinese, Hebrew, Hipster Design (is that a language? I think it is). When you climb to the third floor, past the Paper Bag Players rehearsal space on the ground floor, you reach the landing outside Silvia's apartment, where you remove your shoes and are offered tea or water. Last spring, Silvia noticed that a pigeon or Rock Dove, as they are officially called, made a nest and hatched babies in the metal frame outside her window that is built to hold an air conditioner (you don't see these much anymore--nowadays we shove the AC out there with a few bricks underneath it and hope it won't crash to the sidewalk below--why don't more air conditioners fall out of windows at that terrifying moment when your super or your boyfriend, or you and your roommate are balancing it on the ledge before you close the window down to hold it? Better not think too much about that). This year, Silvia wove branches above and below into the metal frame, and put in a bird bath by filling a ceramic window box with water. The dove came back, and was now sitting on its second round of eggs. Silvia says the mother and father take turns sitting, and they never leave the eggs alone, though they don't seem disturbed by various humans leaning in for closer look (these are city birds after all). I am writing this from the reading room at the great New York Public Library, with the rain beating against the arched windows and a painted mural of blue sky and clouds framed by gold gilt on the ceiling. An image of nature framed by an ornate example of humanity. This room is filled with people gestating, hatching, transforming their thinking in seventeen seconds, seventeen minutes, seventeen years.
I have been painting chairs this summer. It is my second summer visiting my boyfriend at his country house in the Catskills, though it’s not only my boyfriend’s house. The house belongs to him and his wife. I am here because his wife is dead. She passed away two and a half years ago, and her death sometimes feels as blunt and brutal as the undeniable fact that the phrase “passed away” is trying to soften. I didn’t know her, but she was a powerful woman who died too young and left behind an adolescent son and a husband of twenty years.
Loving someone who has such loyalty to the one who came before is not without complications. This house is filled with photos of his wife, the two of them with their son, aglow with the happiness of a good marriage. They had one child and the sense I get is that this boy completed their world. The three of them created a perfect geometry for each other. I also have adolescent children, but their father is alive. He and I were not the perfect geometry for each other, and there are no framed photos of my married life in my home anymore. (cont'd)
Listen to my essay on turning books into movies, which aired today on NPR's "All Things Considered" today. Here's the link - feel free to comment and share if you like!
I have another piece about sailing with my father on AOL if you are interested in more memories and reflections . . .
I have a piece on the Huffington Post for Father's Day, about sailing in Buzzard's Bay, the setting of the fictional "Rock Harbor" Check it out!
Silvia's nesting dove, look carefully …
You know who