Back to Sugar Maple Leaves

I got sidetracked from diorama work for four months by the Peabody’s new Samurai exhibit. One of the great things about that exhibit was that I worked with Nicole Palffy-Muhoray, a grad student, who worked long hours with us as part of the exhibit team and who helped get the exhibit opened on time. After the exhibit opened, my job switched back to the dioramas and going into production with the leaf making.  One weak point I have with this process is that I haven’t been able to master the photoshop part well enough to get the images ready to print. I asked Richard Kissel, my supervisor, if I could hire a consultant to help me with the photoshop work since this has been a roadblock to getting started. After some discussion, we thought Nicole might be able to do it without having to hire a consultant. In less than two days Nicole had the leaves resized in photoshop and she figured out a simple way to “morph”the flat photographic images into the 3D molds since before I was cutting between lobes to get the veins to fit. (She will write this up in a forthcoming blog entry.)

The Forest Margin diorama (1950) is a world-class diorama and was the second one constructed at the Peabody Museum after the Shoreline diorama (1945). By the time they got to this diorama, James Perry Wilson, the background painter and Ralph Morrill had cemented their friendship and working methods. One of the compositional ideas was to produce an overhead canopy of sugar maple leaves. These get illuminated from above to glow as if the sun were shining through them.


Ralph Morrill choreographed the production of the leaves in the late 1940’s. He had a team of art students from Southern Connecticut University cutting leaves one-by-one out of crepe paper. Lines were penned in along the central and secondary veins with some tertiary veins added. Wires were glued along the central vein and the leaves were dipped in colored wax with a quick spin to remove excess wax. Final touches included spattering oil paint over the surface, burning insect holes, and adding thin spray blushes of color. The leaves are translucent just like the originals and produce a stunning effect backlit in the diorama.

The problem with Morrill’s wax/paper leaves is that over time, they sag under their own weight (see the photo below). Nicole and I removed some of the old leaves and experimented with restoring them with gentle heat. The heat has to be very carefully applied. If it gets too close, the wax melts destroying the overall pristine look of the leaf.  I think our plan A will be to keep many of the old leaves by restoring them and then add new (non-drooping) epoxy leaves, especially on the lower layer so over time, even if the older leaves sag again, the lower layer will still  look fresh. It’s possible that restoring the old leaves may prove too difficult because they are also very fragile. Next week we will try to remove one of the large branches. We will see if this plan is really feasible. Stay tuned!



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