Archive for Sunday, November 17, 2013

Lawhorn’s Lawrence: Mother Nature’s detail man

November 17, 2013

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It is a special type of person who spends as much time looking at the fungus as the foliage.

Everybody looks at the beautiful fall foliage. You can close your eyes and get a mental picture of the colorful maple leaves or the stately oaks. But what type of person remembers the details of the fungus that grows on the tree's trunk?

Well, the type of person who can win an award for a big chunk of mud, that is who.

Randall Bennett has done that. Well, technically I guess we should call his award-winning creation "a soil section of a marine estuary," but that doesn't sound as fun.

Artist and diorama creator Randall Bennett studies a clay bust while sculpting it in his studio on Oct. 31, 2013. Around him are a wall of his paintings and various leftover elements from dioramas past, such as the corn stalks, purple prairie coneflowers, black-eyed susans and soy-bean plants on the table behind him.

Artist and diorama creator Randall Bennett studies a clay bust while sculpting it in his studio on Oct. 31, 2013. Around him are a wall of his paintings and various leftover elements from dioramas past, such as the corn stalks, purple prairie coneflowers, black-eyed susans and soy-bean plants on the table behind him.

A couple of fruit bats, created by Bennett, hang together in his studio.

A couple of fruit bats, created by Bennett, hang together in his studio.

A model for a diorama at the Clinton Lake Visitors Center.

A model for a diorama at the Clinton Lake Visitors Center.

Bennett&squot;s "Web of Life" diorama, which won first place in the mixed media division of the Kansas State Fair, is composed of molds and sculptures.

Bennett's "Web of Life" diorama, which won first place in the mixed media division of the Kansas State Fair, is composed of molds and sculptures.

"It was a chunk of mud full of critters," Bennett says.

Bennett spent months recreating the microscopic clams that live in the river mud. The clams are so tiny that the naked eye doesn't ever see them, so Bennett created replicas of them that were 900 times larger than their actual size.

Months spent making microscopic clams. Weeks spent making fake fungus.

Who is this again? Randall Bennett, owner of Lawrence-based Tall Grass Museum Services, is a dioramist. There is a 50-50 chance that is a real word. If not, let me clarify: He's an artist who makes dioramas — 3-D models — of nature. But even that doesn't do a very good job of describing Bennett. Maybe the best way to describe him is that he's a man who likes all the details Mother Nature can throw at him.

"I'll make mental notes about which side of a tree mushrooms grow on, or how tall buckbrush grows when it gets full sunlight," Randall says. "Those sorts of things."

Through decades of observation he's learned more than just the characteristics of a good group of fungi.

"I've learned it is a lot of fun to get out and really look at things," he says.

•••

Come to find out, a fellow also can make a living at it. For the last 25 years, Bennett has been a professional diorama artist. For about the last five years, he's had his own diorama company that is based out of a Douglas County barn a bit south of Lawrence.

Over the years, he's made dioramas and lifelike displays of nature for almost every corner of the country — everywhere from the national wildlife refuge in Kodiak, Alaska, to the Dry Tortugas National Park off the coast of Florida. In this region, his work can be seen at the new Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan or at the Clinton Lake Visitors Center just west of town.

If the idea of a man who makes replicas of everything from trees to snakes to soybean plants didn't clue you in that Bennett has a unique job, a walk through his shop will.

"I can let the paint on one of my easel paintings dry and then go to work on a lizard sculpture until my arms get tired," Bennett says while gesturing at the various areas of his workspace.

The job of a diorama artist does require a variety of skills. There is traditional painting involved, often for the background scenes of a diorama. There's lots of sculpting involved to create the detailed molds used to create everything from tree branches to acorns. There's also work with fabric and fur to re-create animals, and there is even a fair amount of chemistry involved in mixing the special batches of chemicals used to preserve plants.

And there is also lots of planning.

"Before it snows, I need to collect some Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem out of my yard, but I'm not going to use it until next summer," Bennett says. "Sometimes you have to think two years in advance."

There are also lots of pictures. It is not uncommon for Bennett to take 500 to 600 pictures while he is out on a hike. He often uses his pictures of flora, fauna and other aspects of nature as models for the clay sculptures he makes. The clay sculptures are used to make the silicon molds that are in turn used to make the actual display pieces, which often are made of plastic resin or other material.

Sometimes, though, it is tough for him to take a picture of what he needs to make. Like the time a museum called and wanted a single item: a prehistoric dragonfly.

"That's why I spent a lot of years collecting books," Bennett said. "I have a whole basement full of them. Then I finally realized somebody invented Google. Type in dragonfly on Google, and you'll get a lot of hits."

But what there mainly is a lot of in this profession is a commitment to authenticity. I'll go back to the fungus again, because that what drove the point home for me. I was walking by one of the several trees Bennett had created, and I noticed one of the fallen logs beneath the tree had that crusty type of fungal mold on it. Bennett had created a mold for mold, so to speak. Then he took the time to exactly place it on the log where he thought it would grow in nature. I had seen such fungus in nature before, but I had forgotten it existed until I looked at this manmade piece of art.

Kind of sad, kind of cool.

•••

Re-creating nature can be a bit of a solitary job. Most days, Bennett works alone. His most frequent helper is his wife, Helen Bennett. She often gets the job of doing several of the more repetitive tasks. She has glued thousands of soybean pods, she's cut hundreds of pieces of kelp, and don't even get her started on the number of leaves she has attached to a tree.

Helen says if you want to get a better appreciation of the wonder of nature, try filling a fake tree with leaves.

"We don't put all the leaves on them like God does because it is just too much," Helen says.

Most folks will never make a diorama in their lives, but Bennett hopes just looking at a few will give them a greater appreciation of the natural world. He's convinced dioramas have done that in the past, but it is an open question of how much longer they'll play that role.

"There's talk in the museum industry that some people think dioramas are a dinosaur and may be a waste of money," Bennett says. "I think the museum industry is split on it today."

Bennett said business has been a bit soft in recent years, partly because of the economy and partly because of museums turning to higher-tech display methods. Bennett isn't a technophobe, but he says he's not convinced high-tech gizmos and gadgets are the way to inspire people to learn more about nature.

"An oak tree won't look any different in our lifetime than it does now," Bennett said. "So when somebody goes and sees an oak tree in a diorama, and then they go out in nature, they're going to know what an oak tree looks like.

"I think we have divorced ourselves from nature because of the tech drive. Nature doesn't move as fast as technology, and I guess we don't like that."

Or maybe we would, if we tried it. So, turn off the cellphone, take a hike and look at all of nature's details and wonder how long it would take if we had to create them ourselves.

In other words, slow down and smell the fungi.

— Each Sunday, Lawhorn’s Lawrence focuses on the people, places or past of Lawrence and the surrounding area. If you have a story idea, send it to Chad at clawhorn@ljworld.com.

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