- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Imagine being turned loose to pick through the attic at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, free to take any specimen you like to a table and sketch it with a team of friendly experts by your side.

Artists who visit the museum’s Naturalist Center in Leesburg, Va., are free to do just that in this treasure trove of natural history. The small museum boasts 36,000 specimens, says Assistant Director Helene Lisy, from drawer after drawer of sea shells to giant caterpillars in glass jars to a huge purple-and-yellow crab as gay as a party decoration to the hickory horned devil, a ferocious-looking caterpillar about 4 inches long in a jar of preservative.

Merri Nelson, an artist who has been teaching classes at the Smithsonian since 1989, says the Naturalist Center is an overlooked resource for wildlife artists of all skills and interests.

“The advantage at the Naturalist Center is the animals can’t move,” says Ms. Nelson, whose next sketching class begins next month through the Smithsonian’s Resident Associates Program.

• • •

Since the Naturalist Center’s creation in 1976, it has aimed to bring visitors behind the scenes of the exhibits in the famous museum on the Mall. There are six main sections in the center: botany, fossils, rocks and minerals, vertebrates, invertebrates, and anthropology. It also has a library and equipment such as microscopes for visitors’ use.

While including specimens from the entire world, the center’s collection focuses on the biology, geology and archaeology of the Potomac region. Anyone who finds an interesting rock, fossil, insect, plant or bone can bring it to the center for help in identification. The museum may even add the most interesting specimens to its collection.

Inside the main gallery, you can stand before an 8-foot-tall polar bear, reared up and snarling, and try to imagine the damage one swipe from his huge paw might inflict. Docents Tiffany Rivera and Leslie Lombardo point out a small indentation in the bear’s creamy white fur. When he first arrived mounted at the museum downtown, a startled guard opened the door and shot the stuffed bear on sight.

On the long shelf of mounted mammals, including a gray wolf and a collection of squirrels and chipmunks, there’s Wally, a particularly large and grouchy-looking beaver. Wally used to live in a family’s pond in Leesburg, until he wandered to the road and was killed. Now he’s gained immortality as a permanent resident of the Naturalist Center.

• • •

Ms. Nelson, who is a member of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators and specializes in botanical subjects and landscapes, starts her classes with simpler forms such as shells and moves quickly to skulls and skeletons, training the students to quickly see and sketch the structure and design, filling a whole sketch pad in the space of a few hours.

“I want them to focus on getting the form down quickly,” she says. That’s a critical skill when you’re drawing from life later, she says. “Even if you’re drawing squirrels out the window, they move.”

Sketching from skeletons and mounts trains the eye.

“You need to see, quickly and accurately,” she says. “If the underlying form is wrong, it will never look right. If you want a squirrel to look like a squirrel, it can’t look like a fox.”

The class will then move on to more complex forms, such as feathers, and to coloration, using mounts such as the tiger and the leopard to focus on the way each camouflages itself.

Ms. Nelson uses colored pencils in the class and brings various papers so that students can experiment on different surfaces.

Ms. Nelson’s class in wildlife drawing techniques, “The Naturalist’s Sketchbook,” begins March 5 and continues March 12 and 19. Each 41/2-hour session begins at 10:30 a.m.

“It’s basically all day, but there’s never enough time,” she says. “It’s a very intense couple of weeks. … I can push people over into the right brain really quickly.”

• • •

Several times a year, the center also hosts “draw-ins,” in which anyone 10 or older can come and sketch from the center’s specimens with professional artists available to advise, critique, teach techniques, and talk about careers in art and illustration.

“It’s not a competition,” Ms. Lisy says, just an opportunity for anyone with an interest to come and draw.

The next draw-in is scheduled for April 2 and will feature sculptor Brian Kirk, who will demonstrate stone carving. The event is free; participants do not need to register and should bring their own supplies.

Artists don’t have to wait for formal classes to come to the center and study biological and geological structure and design. One Saturday, wood sculptor Stephanie Roam worked with Ms. Rivera and Ms. Lombardo on sketching a stone crab and a tray of scallop shells.

“This is a major crab,” Ms. Roam says, running a finger lovingly over the shell, pointing out the subtle indentations along the back, the hollows above the eye sockets. “When you put that in, that makes it real.”

Ms. Roam gestures around the room. “Look at the geese; look at the leopard,” she says. “I could go get 100 pictures of geese and leopards, but nothing takes the place of actually seeing the animal this close.”

“Here you can measure the proportions of the specimen, get the basics and then go out and see it in the wild,” she says.

For example, she used the center’s specimens to help carve a bald eagle crouching in a defensive pose over a fresh salmon. The mounts helped her get those basics: the length of the beak in relation to the head, the size and position of the talons, the patterns of the feathers.

Then she went to the headwaters of the Missouri River in Montana to see the birds in the wild and observe how they would threaten others away when they had caught a fish.

• • •

On the other side of the room, a group from the Audubon Naturalist Society is studying hawks, honing their identification skills with birds that they can touch that don’t fly away. The mounts of the kestrel, the red-shouldered hawk, the peregrine falcon and the red-tailed hawk are studied for the patterns of banding on the tails and relative size to make those on-the-fly identifications easier.

Walter Wilt, from Harpers Ferry, W.Va., brings his daughter Samantha and her friend Danielle to visit the center. Samantha has turned 10 and is excited about being able to go into the main exhibit area after having been relegated to the Family Fun area in her past visits.

“She was dying to get back,” Mr. Wilt says. “She’s always been into science.”

Ms. Lisy shows the girls how to open the cabinets and pull out the drawers, and how to correctly open split rocks to reveal the fossilized leaves and fish inside.

They move on to touch the other polar bear mount. Danielle knows already that the proper way to touch a mount is with the back of your hand because it has less oil to soil the specimen — and that you just lay your hand against the fur and do not stroke, as tempting as that may be, because stroking can pull away the hairs over time.

They are encouraged to examine and touch the exhibits — except for the coffee-table-size fossilized stump of a giant tree fern, which emits minute amounts of sulfuric acid. The fossil is from the Devonian geologic era, 375 million years ago.

The girls are also asked to solve the “Museum Mysteries,” including whether the dog whose skeleton stands on the mammal case died of the injuries he suffered in what was most likely a car accident.

When asked what they like best, each replies, “Everything.”

While the girls move from brilliant crystals to sea shells to corals to insects and butterflies and along the walls of glass-topped jars with specimens of fish, lizards, salamanders and snakes, docent George Herbert carefully replaces bird specimens after the Audubon group leaves.

Each year, the museum closes for two weeks so that all the specimens can be fumigated to kill the moths and other pests that gradually damage them. He points to the leg feathering on the broad-winged hawk mount, which has been eaten away, to show what kind of harm tiny insects can do.

• • •

The Naturalist Center is always busy. Educational groups from fifth grade through graduate school book the center throughout the week. One of the most popular areas of the museum is the forensic anthropology section, where students learn how to identify the age and sex of human remains.

Ms. Lisy removes skulls from drawers and shows how the male has more prominent brow ridges and the female a tighter angle at the jaw. Tiny holes in a pelvic bone reveal that it belonged to a woman and that the pitting had been caused by childbirth.

The staff is always ready to help visitors find answers to their questions and even to help identify their own collections of shells or butterflies. Volunteer opportunities are abundant — the center has as many as 65 volunteer docents at any time — and any group can book the center for particular projects.

So, the next time you feel the urge to rummage in the attic, head out to Leesburg and have at the Smithsonian’s Naturalist Center.

Sketch or just marvel at exhibits on display

It’s a sketcher’s paradise, but you don’t need an interest in drawing to enjoy the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s Naturalist Center in Leesburg, Va.

With more than 30,000 natural history and anthropological specimens and an assortment of shells, skulls, butterflies, birds and animals, it’s a hands-on study center for all ages.

The main gallery is open to visitors 10 and older. The Family Learning Center in the front provides an area for younger children. Microscopes, balances, measuring tools, audiovisual equipment and more are available upon request. Any group can book the center for particular projects.

Find the Naturalist Center in the Leesburg Air Park, 741 Miller Drive SE. Hours are 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. It’s closed Sundays, Mondays and federal holidays. Call 703/779-9712 or 800/ 729-7725 for directions and scheduling information, or see www.mnh.si. edu/museum/virtualtour/tour/ground/natcenter.

Here’s a brief guide to upcoming events:

• The Naturalist’s Sketchbook: Learn to draw accurately by sketching objects from the Naturalist Center’s collection. This series of three classes is taught by artist Merri Nelson and sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates Program. Participants should already have some basic drawing experience. 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. March 5, 12 and 19. General admission $155, RAP members $110. Register at 202/357-3030 or https://residentassociates.org/studio/sketchbook.asp.

• Draw-in: Anyone over the age of 10 can drop in and sketch from the center’s specimens with professional artists available to advise, critique, teach techniques, and talk about careers in art and illustration. Participants bring their own art supplies and can come and go as they wish. The next session runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. April 2. At 1 p.m., sculptor Brian Kirk will demonstrate stone carving. Free. No registration required.

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