It’s night in a small clearing in the great hardwood forest. From the black, velvety sky, a small moon bounces off the oak’s summer leaves and highlights the whitewashed walls of the tiny log cabin.
If you approach quietly, you can glimpse the hand-hewn floorboards, the hearth’s blackened walls, and the simple furniture.
Inside a similar cabin, a pioneer family is asleep: mother, father, sister and brother. 45 years from now, the seven-year-old boy will hold the future of the country in his hands and begin his journey into immortality. For now, however, he wakes up early each morning, picks up his axe, “that most useful instrument,” and spends the day helping his father clear the fields and harvest the timber for logs that provide shelter for the family.
Back to the Future
200 years later and 500 miles away, Jon Altemus is walking through the forest of a West Virginia nature camp, looking for the perfect tree. His own roots run deep here. This is where his parents met and worked, where his brother now serves as director, and where Jon himself returns every summer to teach.
For most of humanity’s existence, we really only knew our own backyard.
The Indiana State Museum has commissioned a replica of the typical log cabin of Lincoln’s time, and Group Delphi’s senior scenic designer wants to be sure that his creation will be completely accurate. He collects several samples of prospective species and sends them to the museum’s curators for their feedback. They declare the White Oak a perfect match, he makes a cast for reference, and the project is underway.
Shrinking the World
For most of humanity’s existence, we really only knew our own backyard. ‘Natural Philosophers’ began expanding our boundaries by collecting exotic plants and animals, which were eventually assembled into private, then public collections that became our great natural history museums. A little over a century ago, a big leap forward was made when scenic designers began crafting lifelike displays that combined people, plants and animals into one holistic and dramatic environment. Their work was epitomized in dioramas, which incorporated painted backgrounds, false perspective, and models or preserved specimens to create a realistic, living scene.
A Small Community
For the past 20 years, Jon has been a member of that small band of artists who thrive in the nexus of art, science and history, illusion and authenticity. His credentials for membership are impeccable: his father is an interpretive naturalist and ornithologist, and he spent his boyhood around a museum in Battle Creek, Michigan, where his father was curator; he studied art and science in college, and he continues to be enrolled in what he calls “an open-ended continuing education department,” getting to work with leading experts in the natural history field and often giving three dimensional representation to their life’s work.
His curiosity and naturalist’s eye and his commitment to authenticity, however, cannot be learned. “If, for instance, you do a flower,” says Jon,” you can’t just give your impression of the flower; you have to study its anatomy as a botanist would. You can’t just say, ‘Well, this is my impression of what the flower looks like.’ It can’t be an impression; it has to be the exact structure.”
At Group Delphi, Jon and his team of two scenic artists have a daunting mandate: to create compelling images of the earth’s artifacts, animals and environments and make them living and accessible to people everywhere.
“You can’t just give your impression of the flower; you have to study its anatomy as a botanist would.”
Over the past 100-plus years, some of the materials may have changed, but the methods of reproducing the world remain the same: a lot of hands-on fabrication and traditional artistic technique — painting, composition, model making, and the manipulation of depth. The latter is very important in crafting displays: “You want to push [depth perception] even further,” says Jon, “you want to make it look even more three-dimensional than it is. And, when you achieve those illusions, the diorama has more life to it … You want to make it seem like the people [in a diorama] are really standing and looking out into the wild.”
Remembering Those Who Came Before
When the pioneers arrived, powerful winters were on the horizon, and unexplored territory enveloped them. They needed shelter, and they needed it fast, so speed, not longevity, was their yardstick. Placed directly on the dirt, their cabin’s lifespan was only five to ten years. If all went well, it would be replaced by a larger, more permanent home, and turned into a barn or shed, or just left to return to the earth.
“What’s fascinating to me,” says Jon, “is that they made them so quickly. Five men could make one of these cabins in a week, cutting the logs, notching them, filling the cracks, making the floor … and all without a saw. In the early century, the frontiersmen did not have a saw, they split or they chopped — and the chinking was just whatever mud or clay they had available to them.” (When it would fall out, they would just grab more handfuls, and Jon’s exhibit reflects this mixture of new and weathered material.) “They also left the bark on, so there is bark texture on all the logs.”
Reflecting on the hearth, he laughs: “The fire was basically inside the cabin. They built a really rudimentary chimney and flue, and the hearth smoke came out into the cabin floor. Most of the smoke went up the chimney, but I bet a bunch of it didn’t. The cabins were probably always full of smoke.”
The Cabin Gets Made
At the Indiana State Museum, Jon’s task was to reproduce the typical settler’s cabin. With no remaining examples to copy, however, he had to rely on historical accounts and tutoring from the museum’s curators.
Working from these sources, he designed sketches, then built a scale model. When this was approved, he and his team fabricated the cabin on site, using traditional methods and the basic material for dioramas, a polystyrene foam, which they carved with hot wires or saws, manipulated into a general shape with rasps and wire brushes, then covered with a plaster and fiberglass shell and a finished texture of plaster and vermiculite.
Jon followed through with a stunning attention to detail: “We did a whitewashed interior, which they would have done, whitewashed right over the bark of the trees and the chinking and everything.” They replicated the places where the families would have reapplied the whitewash and added new handfuls of chinking; they also blackened the walls around the hearth, and, in the interests of accuracy, even created a floor that was sprung to mimic the creaks that the original inhabitants would have heard.
Five men could make one of these cabins in a week, cutting the logs, notching them, filling the cracks, making the floor … and all without a saw.
Finally, they gave it a dramatic, minimalist setting: a dark environment, a simple path, a tree leaning over a rudimentary corral. “It’s a textbook cutaway of a typical log cabin, says Jon, “so you can see all the parts: the beams, the rafters, the logs, the chinking, the fireplace,” as well as the historical artifacts that will be on display, including Lincoln’s own mallet, and some of the furniture his family brought with them from Kentucky.
And Back to Honest Abe
14 years after they built their cabin, Lincoln and his family moved to Illinois, where he helped establish a new farm, then set off on his own, moving through many jobs (boatman, clerk, soldier) to the law, then the state legislature and House of Representatives and the highest office of the land. But his childhood spent in that humble setting would forever remain part of America’s mythology.
Jon is clear that he and his team were tasked with making a cabin that memorialized all the veterans of that challenging journey, not just the future president. By generalizing their exhibit, the museum endowed the project with an Everyman aspect that Lincoln himself, always modest and self-effacing, surely would have applauded.
The tiny structure is ennobled by its connection to America’s greatest president, but its true power lies in the homage it pays to the brave, unnamed families that made their way west. Using the tools of art and science, Jon and his team are giving voice to those settlers and preserving their heritage with the respect and historical honesty that is part of their calling.