Terry founded Chase Studio in 1973 after completing his graduate work in paleontology at the University of Michigan. It was there he met his mentor, George Marchand, who worked closely with Terry in Missouri when he retired, and who groomed Terry to carry on his work. George and his father before him had enjoyed long and distinguished careers in museum exhibit work. Like Marchand, Chase had a passion for both art and natural history, and was able to combine these interests to create a highly successful and gratifying career. During nearly 50 years in this business, Terry has trained over 200 individuals, both as employees and in apprenticeships conducted through Missouri State University. Almost everyone presently involved in producing natural history models has some connection to the Studio. Also during this time, Chase Studio has designed and constructed exhibits for hundreds of museums worldwide where millions of visitors see our work each week. This exposure has had a significant influence on the environmental movement. Still directing Chase Studio, Terry is also involved in laying the groundwork for a major natural history museum in the Ozarks, as well as the publication of several books.
Welcome to HMSC Connects!, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I’ll be your host. Happy New Year everyone. To kick off 2023, we have a very exciting guest for you. His name is Terry Chase. He’s a diorama maker, artist, geologist, and all-around renaissance man whose hyper realistic dioramas have graced the halls of our natural history museum, as well as the majority of the world’s greatest science and nature museums. He almost never agrees to be interviewed, so we are so fortunate to have him here with us today. Here he is. Terry Chase, welcome to the show.
Thank you. It’s good to be here.
You started making dioramas very early on, and became captivated by dioramas in the museum world when you first learned about the person who eventually became your mentor. So tell me that story.
The first diorama I created was in junior high school. It was part of a science fair project where I was displaying fossils and wanted to reconstruct what the paleoenvironment looked like when these fossils were alive. I constructed a Devonian seascape diorama, a three-dimensional foreground with a painted background. At that point in my life, though, I really didn’t know much about model building, so I actually constructed most of the models out of modeling clay. It looked really good for the science fair. In fact, I think I won first place that year. I was so pleased and proud of that accomplishment, I talked the local bank into putting the display in their front window. I thought, “Oh, this is so great.” A few days later, I took some of my friends down to see it and I was absolutely horrified. The sun coming through that window had melted all the clay and it was just a pile of snot. So that was my first failed attempt at model building. When I was in undergraduate school at Wittenberg University in Ohio, I had the opportunity one summer to work at the Chicago Field Museum. While I was there, I learned a lot of molding and casting techniques. Of course, I was always interested in who this George Marchand was, the guy whose name I had seen in museums all over the country. Unlike me, he put his name on his work, so I always knew.
He was a diorama maker?
Yeah, someday I want to meet this person, George Marchand. He had a lot of exhibits in the Field Museum, including a whole series of prehistoric marine dioramas that I was absolutely infatuated with. Finally, I found out he was at the University of Michigan. So once I finished my undergraduate work, where I majored in biology, geology, and art, I decided to go to the University of Michigan for my graduate work in paleontology. I made this decision partly because he was there and partly because of a specialist there in prehistoric corals, which is something I was also interested in. However, when I went to Michigan, I found out George Marchand had just retired, and the coral specialist had just died. George Marchand was still living in Ann Arbor, so the director of the Exhibit Museum at the University introduced us. George actually was the son of a very famous diorama maker, Henri Marchand, who came over from Paris and who studied with Rodin. He was quite well known in the sculpture world. When he came to the United States, he worked for the New York State Museum in Albany where he did some of the first paleodioramas. Frequently he asked his two sons to work with him during the school year, so they would skip classes to assist their father. They got lots of experience building dioramas with him. George and his brother, Paul, became known not only for their prehistoric dioramas, but also for their models of other natural history components, including incredibly detailed models of wildflowers and modern-day animals. They became well known by museums all over the world. I was so gratified that I could meet George Marchand, but even more gratified that he seemed to want to take me under his wing. Eventually, I became good friends with him and his wife. He had no sons or anyone to pass along his talents to, and he was impressed that he had this groupie who had followed him for years all over the country. He initially gave me molds of reptiles and amphibians he had stored in his basement. I worked with him cataloging a collection of prehistoric molds that he had sold to the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas. He was impressed that I knew paleontology and was artistic, all of the talents necessary to carry on his life’s work. Eventually he gave me all his tools. When he moved from Ann Arbor to Missouri, he passed along to me two jobs he decided not to do. One project was building wildlife exhibits for the Burger Country-Cured Ham Company in Missouri. It was initially not a real big job, but of course I made it into a big job. They wanted to build a visitor center where they showed various exhibits representing Missouri during different seasons that coincided with the stages of curing hams. I constructed really elaborate dioramas with water flowing through them. One was a two-story diorama with a lake in the front. The other job he gave me was at the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland, Texas, where he had sold his collection of prehistoric molds. The Permian Basin Petroleum Museum was interested in constructing an exhibit that showed life in the ancient Permian sea that covered Texas 250 million years ago. In West Texas, most of the petroleum is coming from these now-buried reefs. They drill down through the caprock until they get to one of these porous reefs, which are natural reservoirs for storing petroleum. Most of the oil in the Permian Basin in West Texas comes from these buried reefs. They wanted to show what the reefs looked like when they were alive. Again, you know, this was not a big job, but of course, Chase made it into a big job. When visitors walked through the exhibit in a glass tunnel they were surrounded by the reef. We ended up cutting a hole in the basement floor so the reef cascaded from the first floor down into the basement and disappeared into a simulated deep basin. We had something like 200,000 models in that one exhibit that took about two and a half years to construct. I actually ended up moving to Midland and doing the whole construction in an abandoned airplane hangar. I set up a studio there and hired local people to help me. One of my friends from Wittenberg, George Baldwin, joined me. I knew these two projects would be stepping stones for other jobs in the future, and once I distributed photographs I started getting additional jobs from museums all over the country, including the National Park Service. Those two jobs actually launched my career.
Wow! Did you use any of Marchand’s molds for these two?
I did. In fact, because the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum had purchased his whole collection of molds, including all his Permian molds, I was able to reuse some of his models in the exhibit. What we did was kind of interesting. In West Texas there’s a locality in the Glass Mountains where the fossils are silicified in a limestone matrix. In fact, the first time I went there, I had a car that was too small to carry a heavy load. I raced back to Midland and bought a pickup truck, so I could go back the next day and collect tons of limestone.
Because it was the Petroleum Museum, we had a drilling company donate probably over 100 gallons of hydrochloric acid that is used in the drilling process. We went to Walmart and bought big plastic swimming pools which we filled with acid. Then we submerged the blocks of limestone in the acid to dissolve out the fossils. On the basis of the species diversity and relative abundance of the fossils, we were able to accurately reconstruct the way the reef looked. So, not only were we able to use some of Marchand’s original models, but we also constructed hundreds of new ones.
...for this exhibit.
Based on real fossils?
It’s just fascinating.
As a result, we have one of the largest collections of Permian fossils in the whole country.
Thousands of specimens. The detail in these is incredible. Because the fossils are silicified, delicate spines and other intricate structures are preserved when you dissolve them out in acid. Before we submerged these blocks of limestone in the acid, we had to coat the underside of the blocks with epoxy, so the acid didn’t dissolve out the fossils on the bottom and crush them. It only dissolved out the fossils on the surface, so we could continue dissolving away until we retrieved all the fossils. We would periodically drain the acid off and recoup the fossils that were dissolved out, and then submerge the blocks back in the acid to continue dissolving away. It was a really bizarre setting---people would visit the studio and see all these boiling cauldrons of acid.
I can only imagine.
Like some sort of supernatural horror movie.
Yeah, you had told me about this years ago, and I had no idea you could do that. It’s just the most amazing thing and you’ve even done that on your property, haven’t you?
Well, it’s very interesting, because as it turns out, the studio is built on a prehistoric Ordovician stromatolite reef, and we didn’t realize this when I first bought the property.
Stromatolites are, just to clarify?
Stromatolites are actually fossilized mud balls, and there are recent examples of these in the Bahamas and Shark Bay, Australia, where these things are currently being formed. They develop from a combination of blue-green algae and cyanobacteria that forms a kind of scum on the bottom of the seafloor. Eventually, the scum attracts sediment that sticks to the surface. At night, the algae and bacteria send up little filaments through this minute layer of sediment, and they form a new layer of the sticky matter. Sometimes these things over time form columns or sometimes they’re mound-shaped. If you cut through the surface, you can see the original structure that looks like an onion cut in half; it shows all of the alternating layers.
As it turns out, there’s this incredible stromatolite reef under the studio. We have unearthed some large blocks of it. Many of the stromatolites are silicified like the Texas specimens, so they’re weathering out on the surface. There are also other fossils associated with the stromatolites, including a really interesting assemblage of sponges and other invertebrates. As it turns out, we’ve actually picked an interesting place to locate a studio that does reconstructions of prehistoric environments. We’re right on top of a major paleontological site that most people don’t know about, because there hasn’t been much research work in this area. That’s one of the things I want to pursue in my time off.
What time off?
Yeah, which is rare.
You work 14-hour days.
Well, I would like to eventually get back to my research, not only the fossil assemblage that we find in this location, but my main interest on fossil corals. We have constructed exhibits for hundreds of museums all over the world, including over 100 of the National Park visitor centers. We’re not really very well-known because we don’t ever put our name on anything. In fact, CBS did a segment on Sunday Morning a few years ago, and they said, I’m “probably the most viewed [unknown] artist in the country, if not the world.” They based this on the millions of people every week who see our exhibits. I don’t know if that’s true, but it was flattering for them to make that calculation. Almost everybody in the whole country has seen our work, but because we never put our name on anything, nobody really knows us as a household name. We’re responsible for major exhibits in most of the large natural history museums around the world. For example, we do a lot of the Smithsonian’s work. Their 50-foot right whale is a model we constructed in the studio, transported in seven pieces, and assembled on site. Also, we did numerous other models through the years for the Smithsonian and other big museums in this country -- the American Museum in New York, the Denver Museum, and the Chicago Field Museum. If you travel at all, and you’ve gone to the National Parks, you will see our work, but nobody really knows about us. I don’t know, I’m the kind of person that shies away from a lot of publicity and magazine articles. We’ve had the opportunity to do magazine articles that we agreed to a couple of times, but every time I do that, I think, “You know, why are we doing this, it just causes problems.” When CBS did that segment on Sunday Morning, we had hundreds of people emailing and contacting us for job interviews. People were showing up on our doorstep. I’m not sure how they found us, but…
You’re in the middle of nowhere.
They were showing up for tours, and I thought. “you know this is the reason why I like to be anonymous.” If we gave tours, every time somebody wanted one, it would be a full-time job.
You give the best tours, Terry, you really do.
The studio is a kind of museum in itself. You know, we’ve got all kinds of artifacts, and we have a collection of over a million scientific specimens and a library with now over 20,000 books on natural history, so it’s a pretty amazing place. Even when I walk around, I’m thinking, “wow, I can’t believe this place.” Everybody in my family was kind of worried about what would happen to this place when I die, so I willed my estate to Missouri State University. Then I thought why should I wait until I die? I think I’ll just go ahead and give the whole operation to the university while I’m still alive; that way they would be responsible for insurance and taxes. It would give us an opportunity to continue working together, because I already gave the university 1200 acres of my property for their biological field station. They constructed a large facility across the road from the studio, which has a commercial kitchen, classrooms, and dormitories for25 students. So that already exists next to the studio. I thought, you know, with our collections and library and my family worried about what they are going to do with all this stuff, it makes sense to go ahead and give the operation to the University.
Let’s describe the magnitude of this campus that is your studio.
Well, we have altogether probably a little less than 2000 acres. It’s right on Bull Shoals Lake, which is one on the lakes the Corps of Engineers created when they dammed up the White River. So we’re one of, I think, five lakes along the White River. I bought this property 48 years ago. In fact, this year is our 50thyear of being in business. I decided to move here initially because my mentor, George Marchand, retired from the University of Michigan and moved to Branson 50 years ago because he liked to fish. I wanted to continue working with him. Branson was just a sleepy little community then.
And now Branson, by the way, is considered the Las Vegas of the Midwest.
For me it’s like a trip to hell when I go over there, but…
Yeah, you avoid it at all costs.
We’re isolated from Branson. It takes about, oh, 45 minutes to an hour to get to Branson from the studio. So our area is mostly wooded and not very well populated. We have plenty of acreage so it’s a very natural setting, and we’ve constructed about 11 buildings. It’s well landscaped with lots of plantings. It’s kind of like a Camelot. I’ve created my own little Mecca here in the middle of nowhere.
Truly you have. It’s one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been. It’s like this kind of Willy Wonka land of museum design. You literally walk in a different building, and it’s like its own kind of magic, essentially. You have a whole building that is for making giant fiberglass models of things, and then you have a whole building that’s for painting models, and a whole building for various collections. And then you walk in your main building, like where your office is, you have pieces of just the most beautiful diorama models you’ve ever seen, and pieces that you’ve collected from other museums, as well as the ones that you’ve created yourself. I don’t mean to create additional tourism for your studio, but it’s just a magical, magical place. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Right now the studio is choked with hundreds of taxidermy animals. We have a contract with the Cleveland Museum in Ohio, to clean and restore hundreds of their taxidermy animals for new zoology galleries they are in the process of constructing. I mean, we have elephants, and tigers, and gorillas, and all kinds of animals. It’s absolutely incredible. It’s taking up a lot of our space, but it’s really a bizarre feeling to walk through the studio now and see all these exotic animals. They shipped two semi truckloads of animals and there’s a third one on the way. You can imagine how much space that takes up. Sometimes, I stop for a minute and ponder, “how did I end up doing all of this?” I can honestly say I have such a passion for what I do, that I feel the same way today as I did the very first day I started. There’s a program of gifted high school students that tour the studio every summer as part of a curriculum and I always tell them, kind of like a graduation speech, you know, you can always find ways to combine your interests for your life’s work. I’ve found a way to combine my interest in science and art. And I say, if you find a way to actually combine your interests as a means of your life’s work, then you will always be happy and it will eventually pay off. I knew probably when I was in grade school, is that this is what I wanted to do, because I was always interested in the combination of art and science. All through school the counselors tell you, “You’re going to have to decide one way or the other, because art and science require so many different courses, and there’s no way you’re going to be able to combine the two eventually.” Especially in college, they tell you “You’re going to have to major in one or the other.” Well, in college, I had a triple major in biology, geology, and art. You don’t have to listen to what the counselors tell you. Go with your passion. Go with your passion for life’s work and you’ll never regret it. You know, some young people, think, “I want to go with something that makes me a lot of money. I want to be a physician or rocket scientist, but it’s not really what I’m interested in. I’m really interested in math and ballet.” Well, there must be some way you can combine math and ballet. Just figure out a way to do it and do that for your life’s work. It’s not a hard thing to do and you’ll always be happy. Students who tour the studio often follow up with a thank-you note and they say things like, “It was a life changing experience to go through your studio.” I’m wondering how many young people I have actually influenced. I know that you can change the life of a young person in just one encounter. I was thinking when I was younger, my father worked with a man, Raymond Downey, who had a large mineral and fossil collection. I remember the first time I visited, I thought. “Oh my gosh, this is so fantastic. This is what I want to do.” I was still in grade school. He would give me specimens every time I visited. It was so fantastic. He and his wife would take me on field trips to collect fossils. It was wonderful. And it changed my whole life. You know, I was initially interested in astronomy. Astronomy? Well, it quickly changed to geology. Raymond Downey was also an artist so we had a lot in common. It was just magical to be able to make his acquaintance. I think, based on my experience, one encounter here at the studio could change a young person’s life forever. And when you get responses back, that the tour was a life changing experience. I’m thinking, “well, there’s another one I influenced.” We’ve always had an apprenticeship program. We’re starting it up again this year after a two year lull because of the pandemic. Over the years I’ve trained hundreds of apprentices and employees to do this kind of work. Probably everybody that’s doing this kind of work in the whole country has some connection to the studio now which is a pretty amazing accomplishment. Sometimes people say, “Well, you know, people go through your studio, you train them, and then they go off and start their own business. Aren’t you worried about them competing against you?” I’m thinking actually no, because I have opened up the exhibit-building world to so many people. It’s just gratifying to know that so many people are carrying on my work.
In our Museum of Natural History, you’ve done quite a bit of work. You made dioramas for our New England Forests exhibition, as well as for our gallery of Marine Life. You’ve restored our taxidermy in our Great Mammal Hall, and now this week, you will be restoring and installing our giant papier mache octopus in Northwest Labs, which is going to be just amazing. We obviously love you at Harvard. Tell us a little bit about the projects you’ve done for us.
We modeled all the prototypes for your exhibits from scratch. When we make these models, we usually sculpt the prototypes out of wax or clay, and then we make molds of them. Most models are cast in various kinds of plastic materials. So, for the marine diorama, which goes from shallow water to deep water showing the characteristic fauna and flora of the New England coast, we had to model, oh, I don’t know how many species there are. There’s probably at least 30 or 40 different species represented in that exhibit. We have employed an interesting technique in this exhibit that conveys shallow water to deep water. We do that with the lighting effects. On the right end of the exhibit representing shallow water, we have lighting effects that create shimmers and wave highlights over the surface that move at a relatively fast pace and are brightly colored. As you move to the left end, which represents the deep water, these wave highlights slow down, they undulate more slowly, and they are a darker blue color. So intuitively, when you stand in front of this exhibit, you understand that it goes from shallow to deep water, and we don’t have to say that in the interpretation. We also did other models for that gallery, some models we suspended in the space over the walkways. The marine diorama is the biggest one. We also did a smaller diorama which shows a typical tide pool, a cross section above and below water. In this exhibit we show some of the characteristic fauna and flora of a typical tide pool. It was an interesting project for us. The forest gallery which we had a big part in designing, went through several designs until we finally figured out one that everybody was comfortable with. Instead of dioramas, it’s sections of habitats encased in vitrines. When we do these exhibits, I take along a diversity of personnel for the installation. We have cabinet makers and installers, many who are local to southern Missouri. Most of them have a high school education, but some of them don’t have much more than that. In addition to employing these really fine craftsmen, I have employees with advanced degrees in art and the natural sciences. My degree is in invertebrate paleontology. So we have quite a diversity of educational staff members. And that can be a little bit of a challenge, because after a while the staff becomes like a dysfunctional family. They all have different problems to solve and different kinds of communication skills.
Having myself done a bit of work on ships. I think you kind of run into the same thing, where the people that are kind of wrangling everyone, most of their job is just figuring out how to help people get along. And that’s such an important job. So I think it’s amazing that you can be a person who is in charge of the creative aspects of your job, you’re in charge of the science, but you’re also in charge of managing group mentality and happiness.
I take a personal interest in everybody, and some of these younger people almost seem like my progeny, and in some cases, their family life is not so great. And so I’ve become their father figure. It’s gratifying that I can serve as an example. One thing that we’ve never really talked about, which is kind of interesting.
I didn’t think I was actually going to bring it up, but you know as an undergraduate, I felt this calling to be a minister.
And yeah…..it was very strong. My advisor in geology was kind of upset by the whole possibility. But I talked to my minister at the time. He sat down and he said, “you know, Terry. You have talents and abilities that are unique. Most people don’t have those kind of abilities. And you can always serve the Lord as an example in your life.” I’ve really used that as a pattern for my behavior. All through my career, I’ve tried to serve as a model for honesty, and morality, and serve as an example to all my employees. And so not only have I trained people to do exhibit work, but I think I’ve also had a major influence on their life, their life values. It’s gratifying to know that I really have influenced so many people.
Really? I’m glad you brought that up too, because one of the things I wanted to ask you about is, in this industry, in this incredible career that you have had and continue to have. What do you think your legacy is in the industry and the field, and I guess, now that you bring that up, just kind of in your life?
My greatest legacy is probably the work I leave behind, because most of the exhibits we do are not ones that museums scrap. After 35 years, most museums say, “it’s time to get some new exhibits.” But the kind of dioramas and models we do tend to be things that museums will continue to use forever, and some of the exhibits that we do are very permanent. I mean, when we build trees, for example, we make them all out of welded steel. These things are going to be around through the Armageddon. But anyway, one of the legacies is the work we leave behind. We’re working on a book now called Life in the Ancient Seas, where we’re showcasing the hundreds of reconstructions we’ve done of marine animals in dioramas around the world. That’s one thing that we’ve recently featured in a calendar that we produced to celebrate our 50 years in business. We picked twelve different dioramas that represent life in the ancient seas through geologic time, arranged chronologically. Aside from our legacy of exhibits, of course, is our legacy of all the people I’ve trained, who continue doing this kind of work and who probably will train more people in the future to do this work. I’ve taken basically what was almost a lost art, and I’ve turned it around and made it accessible to a lot of different people. I say, it was almost a lost art because back in the 60’s, dioramas were considered old fashioned. Museums had row after row of dioramas that were almost like pretty pictures in a calendar. They had little educational value and in the 60’s, dioramas were replaced by big graphics and interactive exhibits, so that model building and dioramas were considered passe. Most of the people who knew how to build them had either died or retired, and so there was nobody coming along that actually knew how to do the work. I was very fortunate to be able to work with George Marchand who not only knew all of these techniques, but was trained by his father before him. I’m actually the third generation of model builders to continue this work and pass it along to a whole new generation. So the people I’ve trained is a major legacy for me. Plus, maybe the third thing is everything I leave behind in the studio, because as I said, we have collections of over a million specimens, the library, and even though it’s going to go to the University, the University is partnering with us on a natural history museum. We’ve already designed and are planning to build what will be the largest natural history museum to be constructed in North America on the last century. We’ve made a scale model of this, and we’re actually…
Which is absolutely incredible. I’ve seen it.
We’re also now talking to Crystal Bridges, which is an art museum in Arkansas, funded by Alice Walton, who is the heiress to the Walmart clan. She has built a really impressive art museum called Crystal Bridges. Their original plan was to partner the art museum with a natural history museum, because one of their themes is how American art was influenced by nature. So they have always planned on this natural history museum. But Alice has since decided to expand the art museum by 35%, and connect it with a children’s museum that’s close by with some elaborate playscape. The museum is also involved in some expensive health initiative, so the board decided, even after we had negotiated with them for building the natural history museum, that they were going to have to table those plans until all these other accomplishments came to pass. And so, after all of these are accomplished, we will resume our negotiations with Crystal Bridges to do the natural history museum. We’ll see what happens next. Once the natural history museum gets going, then our whole operation will turn its attention to constructing that. We probably won’t do much work for other museums, because we figure it’ll take about five years for us to construct this museum.
I mean, that’s a short period of time, I would think just with the magnitude.
Well, we’ll have to employ just about everybody in the country doing this work, certainly all the people I’ve trained, to come back and help us with this project. Probably we will be working with over 100 model builders in the process. If we can accomplish this, then that’ll be a fourth legacy I’ll be leaving behind.
A magnum opus.
Not only have I led a fulfilling life that I am completely in love with, but I’ve also left behind a lot of impressions for museums and private individuals, so it’s very gratifying.
I can attest to that. That’s certainly the case with us at Harvard and certainly all our exhibit staff, and definitely myself, and actually my parents. My dad and my sister, the three of us actually flew out to your studio because I’d already been out there, and you so graciously hosted us, you cooked us dinner, gave us a place to stay, and this was four or five years ago at this point, and it’s still a big topic of conversation. It was just an amazing…
It would be an even bigger topic of conversation if you came to visit now because we’ve added on to the studio and we’ve added on to my house. One room in my house features a 1940 school bus that was turned into a bedroom.
We had to actually build the building around the school bus. I found it on the property. It was all rusted with bullet holes and lichens. To me it was like an art piece, you know, and I thought. “That is really a beautiful structure.” It’s kind of weird, yeah, but you know, after all, I’m an artist and artists sometimes do weird things. I’ve resurrected a lot of pieces of old rusted junk and turned them into art pieces. I’ve always had this fascination with found art and that’s just another piece of found art.
Terry Chase, thank you so much for being here. It is always such an honor and a pleasure to talk to you.
Well, it’s and an honor for me too. It was a pleasure to talk to you.
Today’s HMSC Connects! podcast was edited by Eden Placitelli, and produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Chase Studio, and to Terry Chase for his wisdom and expertise. And thank you so much for listening. If you like today’s podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks.
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