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Small World

U-M museum man works in miniature

By Peter Potter

When you pause before one of the eye-catching display cases at the University Exhibit Museum containing a miniature scene of Indian life, you may overhear other onlookers saying such things as:

“Don’t they look lifelike?”

“Didja notice the way the fire even glows?”

“Hey, look, Mom, there’s a bird up in that tree!”

These are the ways the public pays tribute to the artistry of Robert S. Butsch, the man who built these three-dimensioned scenes, or dioramas.

There are two sets of dioramas at the head of the stairs on the fourth floor. The one on the left deals with North American Indians, the one on the right with Michigan Indians. One case among the latter is dark. The diorama has just been completed and will soon be installed.

It’s setting has a real-life counterpart. It’s a bend in the Huron River between Ann Arbor and Dexter. This “model” has much significance because the Chippewa Indians really gathered wild rice there and any portrayal of their environment must be accurate for it to have educational value.

“As a zoologist, I’m interested in environment, I think that’s where other exhibits I’ve seen have failed,” Butsch says. But he adds that the background must not intrude upon the central figures.

Was the river wide? Was the land hilly? Which way did the village face? (The lights and shadows depend on it.) What grew there?

Butsch recalls that he was seeking yellow and white flowers, which show up best in miniature and chose the common Queen Anne’s lace, seen everywhere through the countryside. He had already made some of peppergrass, wax and white paint when he read that Queen Anne’s lace is a European import and didn’t exist here at the time of the Indians he was portraying. But it wasn’t all lost motion. He traded yellow paint for white and came up with miniature goldenrod.

Butsch has also done much research on the lives and customs of the Indians.

Each diorama is set in a domed plywood case with a Fibreglas lining. The dome eliminates corners in the “sky” and contains fluorescent lighting. The lining provides a good painting surface.

The background is painted first, the foreground contours are created next, the figures and accessories follow, and the foliage is last.

There are some special problems in working in miniature, some of them obvious and others surprising. One of the latter is texture.

It won’t do, Butsch points out, to produce miniature leather clothing from leather.

“Take the finest kid and it still looks too rough on a figure only a few inches tall,” he says.

Butsch has had excellent results from using the same beeswax from which he molds the figures. For the clothes, however, he mostly uses wax in sheet form. It can be touched up with paint for accentuating contours.

The same problem of texture applies to foliage. Butsch uses common tow for grass, peppergrass for popular tree branches and goldenrod plants and driftwood.

“I can’t use that fancy stuff used for decorations in the living room,” Butsch says of the driftwood. “What I need is rough, gnarled stubs that I can cut the top off of and come up with a miniature tree trunk or a stump. I’m always looking.”

Human hair presents another problem For the Indians’ black hair Butsch uses the silk from Japanese parachute cords he collected in New Guinea.

There are some tricks to color and perspective, too. The case is semicircular and the horizon must be made to appear level and continuous with the foreground. This means the horizon line at the sides must be about 1 1/2 inches higher than at the back. The figures in the distance must be paler than those of the same color in the foreground, and the lines must be softer. The heights of the figures must be right — diminishing with distance. And the angle between the base and the sides must be filled in and curved with wax, then covered with vegetation or other cover to match that of the background it touches.

The figures themselves require a minimum of eight hours apiece to form. The parts are cast from molds but must be bent, connected and sculpted to individual character and purpose. Butsch keeps a large reference file of photo graphs of men, women and children in various poses.

It quickly becomes apparent that the preparation of a diorama requires artistic ability, and with this Butsch agrees. “You have to have a natural ability or the rest of it is no use,” he says.

Part of “the rest of it” is the fact that Butsch holds a bachelor’s degree in science, a master’s degree in museum preparations and a doctorate in zoology.

Butsch’s artistry is equally apparent in his fine taxidermy — his bird specimens are remarkably lifelike — and his pen and ink drawings, many of which appear on the covers of the Michigan Audubon Society magazine.


WHAT’S GOING ON?: This “mystery” picture which appeared on this page in The News yesterday shows the hand of Robert S. Bustch placing wax miniature figures of Chippewa Indians in a three-dimensional display at the University Exhibit Museum. The accompanying article describes the process.

STEADY DOES IT: Butsch uses a fine brush to paint in details of a diorama background. The right perspective and shading are necessary to make the background blend, and seem natural, with the figures and foliage in the foreground.

PARTS OF THE WHOLE: A completed section of the foreground, with an Indian dwelling and foliage in place, is being set into position in the diorama. Note that the sides of the “floor” are higher than the center to create the illusion of increasing distance toward the back. The corners will be filled in and disguised to heighten the effect.

FINISHED PRODUCT: The completed diorama depicts a Chippewa Indian group gathering and processing wild rice on the Huron River between Ann Arbor and Dexter.  It is complete even to a glittering campfire.