Life

These animals look real, but they're not. Check out this new exhibit at Indian Creek Nature Center

The exhibit too nearly a year to create

A life-size model of a painted turtle is shown emerging from winter hibernation in the creek exhibit in the floor of Ind
A life-size model of a painted turtle is shown emerging from winter hibernation in the creek exhibit in the floor of Indian Creek Nature Center on Friday, July 10, 2020. The 65-foot installation by Terry and Paula Brown of Loretto, Minn., company Museum Professionals, Inc., follows the four seasons of life in the creek. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — It took Terry and Paula Brown a year to create a new creek exhibit being installed at Indian Creek Nature Center this month.

The exhibit stretches 65 feet and wends through the floor in the main hall of the Nature Center. It will be covered with glass, so when visitors look down, they will see a diorama of wildlife that reflects the real wildlife found in the actual Indian Creek outside the Nature Center’s doors.

Except these turtles and fish and tadpoles are not real, but painstakingly created replicas made of urethane and vinyl and paint.

There are a few taxidermy mammals in the exhibit — an otter, a muskrat and a beaver — but most of the strikingly realistic creatures in the case are the result of careful research and craftsmanship.

“Everything we do has to be scientifically correct,” Terry Brown said.

To create one small piece of the diorama, which features a spring peeper frog sitting on a branch, surrounded by frog eggs, they figured out how to create the eggs at scale. The real eggs are just two millimeters in diameter, covered with a see-through gel that makes them 3 millimeters. So the Browns found three millimeter clear crystal beads, then put tiny one millimeter bits of silly putty inside to mimic the real eggs. They then sealed each tiny egg silicone to protect it, and carefully arranged it on the branch.

“You always have to get creative when you’re making something you’ve never made before,” Terry Brown said.

To make a tiny fish, they first made a mold out of silicone, then cast it in urethane. The fins are made out of vinyl. Paula Brown then carefully painted it to replicate every shifting hue and tiny spot from the real fish.

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The creek follows all four seasons as it wends through the hall, so visitors can see what it looks like in spring, summer, fall and winter. That required specific research on things like, for example, how the orange spotted sunfish changes colors throughout the year. A cluster of 40 leopard tadpoles are placed in the correct spot in the season to be big enough to see, almost ready to turn into frogs. Painting those tadpoles, which are covered with spots, took Paula Brown three weeks.

“It’s more than just an educational tool, it’s art we’re putting into the building,” said Indian Creek Nature Center Executive Director John Meyers.

The Browns, who have their own studio and company, Museum Professionals, in Loretto, Minn., worked with an exhibit committee and the staff at Indian Creek Nature Center to design the display. Terry Brown has been building museum and nature center exhibits for 28 years, a career he got into after teaching himself how to do taxidermy. He said he’s worked in 97 museums and nature centers across the country. His wife, Paula, joined him in the studio about five years ago after retiring from a retail business. She has a steady hand and careful eye and has taken over painting the creatures from her husband. The first time she painted an animal, Terry Brown said he knew that would be her task because she was so good at it.

“I said, ‘Holy smokes, I didn’t know you were an artist,” he said.

Their jobs are part artist, part naturalist, part craftspeople and part engineer. Once the glass is installed, their goal is to have it displayed for decades to come. So the LED lights that run through the edge of the display to illuminate it will have cool air flowing over them to extend their life.

“It will be a positive air flow, so no dirt will get in. That will keep it preserved for a long time,” Paula Brown said.

A second, backup string of LEDs is waiting in case the first one fails. The Browns are leaving a “care of the exhibit” booklet with the center so that when the first sting of lights goes out — hopefully not for 50 years — someone knows what to do to switch to the second string.

The exhibit also is designed so that it can be lifted straight out of the floor in pieces and preserved if it ever needs to leave the current building. It’s designed to last for at least a century, if not longer.

Meyers said some sort of display in the floor was part of the original plans for the building, but they raised money for it separately from the campaign for the building itself. The nature center raised around $500,000 in donations to fund its creation, as part of the $1 million Land & Creek Legacy fundraising project, which still is underway. The rest of the money raised will go to fund a purchase of 26.6 acres of land adjacent to the nature center.

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“Even prior to any walls going up, this creek was poured into the floor,” he said. “We were scared, moving from the barn to here, we would lose the namesake of the creek. We’re celebrating that connection.”

Meyers said they’re hoping to install the glass in August. In the meantime, most of the display will be covered with wood to protect it, he said. Indian Creek is aiming for a September unveiling, though the timeline could change depending on coronavirus-related disruptions.

The Indian Creek display includes 125 animal models, as well as real wood, shells and other artifacts, like a deer skull. Most of the natural pieces, including the sand and soil that line the creek bed, were sourced from the real Indian Creek, to make it as accurate as possible. Educational panels will be placed along the creek to add context to the display.

“My favorite part is seeing kids and families come in and use the exhibit and see them all down on their hands and knees looking at everything,” Terry Brown said. “I just get a thrill out of it, thinking of all the people who benefited from something we built.”

He said this is his retirement project — he had built an exhibit for the old Nature Center 20 years ago and promised he would build something for the new one.

“I wanted to go out with kind of a flame of glory, so we added a lot of work to this,” he said.

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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