Recreating the Kalahari in Centerport

Antelope gather at a watering hole in the Kalahari Desert. Behind them, anthills appear like tall lumpy pyramids, and giraffes roam near the distant treeline. As the sun sets, the amber light glows through the trees, and pink and purple clouds float above the horizon.

Vanderbilt Museum photo Artist Tom Doncourt working on Stoll Wing wild-animal diorama
Vanderbilt Museum photo
Artist Tom Doncourt working on Stoll Wing wild-animal diorama

Intruding into this exotic scene is a hand extending an aluminum pole with a paint brush affixed to the end. The hand belongs to Tom Doncourt, who has dipped the brush into water and is cleaning plaster renovation dust from the grasses and rocks he has just installed around the antelope. The scene is an African diorama in the Vanderbilt Museum’s Stoll Wing wild-animal habitats.

Doncourt is senior principal preparator (exhibition artist) for the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), where he has worked for 22 years. He is one of three gifted artists who is renovating the wing’s eight dioramas. The others are Sean Murtha, who creates intricate background paintings for the dioramas, and George Dante, the taxidermist whose company, Wildlife Preservations, restored the animal heads mounted on the walls above the dioramas.

Where Murtha is called a “background” artist, Doncourt in museum shorthand is called a “foreground” artist. The magic in Doncourt’s work is in creating the “tie-in,” where the rocks, sand and grasses in the two-dimensional background painting converge with the three-dimensional rocks, sand and grasses he places in the diorama with the taxidermied animals.

Murtha and Dante have done extensive work for the AMNH for decades. With Doncourt, they also worked on the restoration of the Habitat, William K. Vanderbilt II’s private hall of dioramas, when it was restored in 2009 with a federal Save America’s Treasures grant. The Stoll Wing was created by Charles H. Stoll (1887-1988), onetime president of the Vanderbilt Board of Trustees and a noted Arctic explorer, naturalist, and big-game hunter. The wing complements the adjacent Habitat Mr. Vanderbilt opened in 1932.

Behind the antelope – and the sand, rocks, grasses and Lucite “water” with which Doncourt created the watering hole – is a striking painting by Sean Murtha, one of three new paintings he is creating for the Stoll Wing. (Murtha said he was fortunate to have as a guide the home-movie footage of the landscape and animals shot in the late 1960s by Charles Stoll and his wife Merle while on safari, when they hunted and collected the animals on display.)

Doncourt, a native of Islip, Long Island, was educated at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Interestingly, he and his family live in Oakdale in a building on what was once part of Idle Hour, the  Long Island country estate of Vanderbilt’s father, William Kissam Vanderbilt.

Doncourt’s first visit to the AMNH, at age four, sparked a lifelong interest in the museum. As a young man, he learned woodworking, which led to sculpting and then to building pianos for the Steinway company. Eventually, after entering art school, he volunteered his services to the AMNH. In the museum’s education department, he said “They asked me to do a lot of anthropology-based projects – totem poles and killer-whale masks, puzzles based on paleontology. Eventually the curators asked, ‘Who is this guy?’ and decided to hire me.”

One of his major projects was helping to convert a recreational vehicle into an AMNH “moveable museum” on nomadic cultures, and creating teepees and native dwellings. “My recent work includes a lot of sculpting – building a pterosaur, an ancient bird with a 35-foot wingspan, and a 10-foot model of a microbe called the tardigrade.” Doncourt also teaches a class at the museum called “Art of the Diorama”: “I include a lot of historical research, and talk about how the art of diorama making has evolved over time.”

“A century ago,” he said, “a diorama artist would dip grasses into latex and then paint them. But latex dries and decomposes over time. Today, I collect and dry grasses, then apply paint directly. For the antelope diorama I used three different shades of green to match the color choices Sean made when he created the new painting.”

Doncourt said that when Vanderbilt hired AMNH artists to create the environments for his Habitat dioramas, “curators and artists made lists of exactly which grasses, rocks and branches they needed from a particular region, and then traveled there to find them. Here, I had to recreate the Kalahari, but I can’t go to Africa. So I go to vacant lots and look for grasses.”

Restoration and modernization of the Stoll Wing is being made possible by a gift of $100,000 made in Charles Stoll’s memory by his granddaughter, Lynnda Speer, and her late husband, Roy, through the Roy M. Speer Foundation.

The Vanderbilt and the American Museum of Natural History have been closely connected since William K. Vanderbilt began creating his estate in the early twentieth century. Vanderbilt hired the artist William Belanske as his artist and curator. Belanske, who worked for the AMNH, accompanied Vanderbilt on his around-the-world oceanic journeys to collect specimens for his personal museum. Later, Belanske lived on the Vanderbilt Estate and worked full-time as the museum’s curator.

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