Remembering the gallery

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Local artist looks back at gallery

This weekend’s 48-hour bash at the Royal Alberta Museum will be a melancholic one for St. Albert artist Ludo Bogaert – it could be the last time that anyone will get to see the project he worked on for over two decades.

The museum’s wildlife dioramas have been part of the place since 1967, entertaining millions of visitors with their lifelike depictions of Alberta’s birds and beasts.

Bogaert, who helped create many of these displays, said he’s heard rumours that some of them won’t be used in the museum’s new location.

“Which would be a bloody shame,” he said, as they were very expensive to produce.

One last look

The Gazette toured the dioramas this week with Bogaert to learn the history behind them.

Bogaert said he signed up with the museum in 1968 to help build the 16 dioramas in the facility’s natural history section. His main partner was artist Ralph Carson, with whom he had a “hate/love” relationship.

Each display portrays a real place in Alberta, each of which Bogaert and the other artists on the diorama team visited personally, fording rivers and climbing mountains in the process. The pelican display depicts a river near Fort Smith that is the site of the northernmost pelican colony in the province, for example – a place of deafening rapids, he recalled – while the pronghorn display portrays the mountains you’d see looking over the border into Montana.

The shorebird display shows a wide lake with rolling waves. If you don’t recognize it, that’s because it’s Beaverhill Lake, which today has all but dried up.

“This is now basically a cattail marsh,” Bogaert said of the site.

While on site, Bogaert and the other artists collected substantial amounts of materials for use in the displays. The rocks in the pelican display are casts of the real Precambrian shelves found at that location, for example, while the leaves littering the floor of the grouse exhibit came from Sherwood Park.

The caribou of the caribou diorama was personally collected on site northeast of Fort McMurray by Bogaert.

“I was actually the guy who killed this caribou,” he noted.

Bogaert recalled that the American pilot who had to helicopter the animal out of the wilderness complained bitterly about his task, yet was the first person in line for some of the meat when he skinned it.

Artists used numerous tricks to give each diorama a lifelike appearance, Bogaert said. They pickled and painted spruce trees to preserve them, and hand-made wildflowers from moulds and casts. Careful use of perspective let them blend the 3D foregrounds and 2D backgrounds together, and create endless prairies and plunging valleys in spaces less than two metres deep.

The artists worked together to construct a story for each display, Bogaert said. The trumpeter swan exhibit (his favourite) shows a mother with four cygnets on a nest, for example. An infertile egg has rolled out of the nest, and a dragonfly flutters through the nearby reeds. Look at the background, and you can see red-winged blackbirds, coots, and the swan’s mate in the distance.

You might also notice some huge thunderheads on the horizon.

“When we were working there, every day at about noon-hour these huge clouds came in and it started pouring like the dickens,” Bogaert explained, sending crews scrambling for shelter in an old shack. He decided to put this into the finished product.

Last chance to see?

Peggi Ferguson-Pell, president of the Friends of Royal Alberta Museum Society, praised the dioramas, noting that renowned artist Robert Bateman once told her that they were “the finest he’d ever seen.”

Museum spokesperson Oksana Gowin said that staffers were still looking at their options when it comes to what to do with the dioramas.

“We are trying to incorporate as much as we can into the new museum while ensuring a new visitor experience.”

It’s sad that the museum will be closed for two years after this weekend, Bogaert said.

“I had 22 years of my working career in this place, and they were most enjoyable,” he said.

“It’s the end of an era.”

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.