Resurrecting a WPA Diorama
Accidents happen, even to highly experienced museum staff. Thus, I received a message from History Colorado museum, Denver, regarding a diorama damaged when it slipped from a fork lift. The diorama is from the WPA and is one of many depicting Colorado and Western history, owned by the history museum. Construction of the dioramas was underwritten by the Federal government to provide work for architects, artists and others during the Depression.
The diorama is alternately titled Free Trappers, Voyageurs Red River Cart and simply Trappers diorama. The procession moves from the viewer’s left to right. A pack horse and pack mule, a wagon piled high with payload while the driver sits casually smoking on the buckboard and a mountain man on horseback plod along a trail through a river valley in springtime. A painting of a river and mountains form the backdrop.
In the depths of the Depression easily obtained materials were used to create the dioramas. The figures were hand modeled from plaster over wire armatures. Other components were cleverly fashioned from wood, metal and paper. The mules and horses were affixed to individual wood planks over which metal window screening was affixed. Brown Kraft paper was placed over the surface of the diorama to form the topography and sandy soil and pigments were sprinkled over it. Rocks (pebbles), gravel, dried and painted bits of cacti and yucca made of toned paper completed the scene. Despite these mundane materials, the artistry involved is remarkable for its realism and detail. Note, for example intricate "bead work" in plaster and paint on the saddle blanket..
The diorama was heavily damaged. Brittle plaster had broken and underlying wire armatures deformed by impact. The entire ground, made of a thin shell of plaster over the undulating brown paper, was extensively damaged, with losses and deformations. Adhesive holding the wood components of the wagon had failed. Cacti, stones, gravel and sand had shifted. Delicate leaves of the yucca broke off. Overall, everything was covered in fine soil and dust.
91 hours were required to repair the diorama. A photo of the undamaged diorama was an essential resource for reconstructing the diorama. Every effort was made to "honor the spirit” of the original artists. It was not possible to remove the backing board without further damaging the original ground so a mirror was used to assist repair – as far as possible - of the back of the figures. Bent armatures were re-shaped to some degree and fragments adhered back into place. Losses were filled and missing portions reconstructed, shaped and inpainted. The wagon was re-assembled. Sandy soil was collected, washed and heated to sterilize; however, as much as possible of the original sandy soil was used after being sifted to remove plaster particles. Chalk was used to resemble the “emerging grass”. It was not possible to know the ground’s original appearance, so it was approximated.
Hopefully, the WPA dioramas, a unique legacy of the history museum, will be displayed. Their historic import and superb craftsmanship warrants a closer look by later generations.