story and photo's by: larry kline
page design by: bobbie morse
CHINOOK - "There's nothing like the real thing," Liz Marshall said as she knelt in mud made from real dirt mixed with Elmer's glue and water.
Marshall was flanked on her left by an elk fawn, geese defending their young from a predatory ferret, and wood ducks tumbling from a hollowed tree nest in their first attempts at flight. On her right, a beaver pond was still under construction - the dam of tree branches was completed, but the plexiglass sheet that would serve as the water had not yet been installed.
Marshall and her husband, Kurt Wohnsen, have made a career out of using dirt, rocks, preserved plants and animal mounts in combination with plaster, epoxy resin, paint and foam insulation to create dioramas of natural settings. The couple, who are based in St. Paul, Minn., travel all over the country for their company, Acorn Exhibits Inc., working on dioramas at natural history museums and the like.
Their work, Marshall said, is a combination of art, construction and nature research.
This month, the pair is in Chinook, where they have been hired to construct the second of three major displays at the Blaine County Wildlife Museum. The 30-foot-long display depicts a spring scene in the Bear Paws and includes a beaver's home, a pond and a meandering creek that will be stocked with mounted fish, and numerous waterfowl set up to display how they raise, nurture and defend their young.
Marshall hopes that one day, the display and others like it in the museum will teach visitors both young and old about wildlife found in Montana.
"There's so much potential ... for people to learn about local wildlife," she said.
In the beaver pond/waterfowl display, visitors can learn lessons about how birds' coloring works for males - their vibrant colors help attract mates - and females, who blend into the background to hide them from predators while they tend the nest.
Marshall was raised on bird watching, and Wohnsen spent much of his youth traipsing through the woodlands. They share a love of nature, an attention to detail, and the drive to thoroughly research their subjects so they can properly educate viewers of their displays. The couple also spend a great amount of time on the little things, details like creating a mold of cottonwood bark to spice up a fiberglass tree, or using epoxy resin to create puddles in the dirt and make animal tracks in the mud look wet.
"We just want it to look good," Marshall said. "It's very labor-intensive."
It's that attention to detail that attracted organizers of the Wildlife Museum to the pair.
"We're very happy with their work," said Sheri Nicholson, who chairs the museum's board of directors. "They're perfectionists, and they want to make sure everything looks natural."
Work has been proceeding at the museum for about a decade, and there is no set time line for it to be completed. Nicholson and the board of directors want the museum's displays to be professionally done, so they have been contracting with the couple for the work as money becomes available.
The museum has been acquiring animal mounts using donated funds. It also receives mounts from the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and from private donors.
The mounts include the animals in the couple's dioramas, plus a collection of elk, moose, bears, mountain lions, foxes and other Montana wildlife. On the museum's wish list are a bull elk and an eagle.
To create the beaver pond/waterfowl display, and the buffalo jump the couple finished several years ago, Marshall and Wohnsen use a variety of skills and materials from different trades.
Wohnsen's background includes sculpture and carpentry, and he has become adept at welding metal brackets and positioning them in a way to keep them hidden from view - giving visitors the illusion that the mounted duck is flying near the tree instead of hanging off it.
The couple uses planning and artistic license to make everything look realistic but still be viewable. For example, in the marsh, there is enough vegetation to make the scene look real, but less than in a real marsh, where most of the wildlife would be hidden.
Marshall said the couple has enjoyed working for the museum, and looks forward to coming back for the next big project, a diorama that will be about 60 feet long and depict a mountain slopping down to a prairie.
"They're a great client, because they let us do what we want," she said. "We have artistic freedom. They give us a bunch of animals and say, 'Do something with this.'"
Nicholson said the museum will probably be opened after the mountain/prairie display is completed. Organizers have also planned several smaller displays.
The mountain/prairie diorama will be completed once the museum has the money. Nicholson said the group is applying for grants, but will gladly accept donations.
The museum's annual fundraiser, which will include dinner, a live auction, silent auction, raffles and prizes, will be held Nov. 5 at St. Gabriel's Catholic Church in Chinook, with the women of the congregation preparing the food, museum board member Stuart MacKenzie said.
Anyone wishing to make additional donations of funding or animal mounts can contact Nicholson at Western Bank in Chinook at 357-2244.