Carl Cotton: Chicago’s Original Black Taxidermist

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[MUSIC PLAYING] EMILY GRASLIE:
This is Carl Cotton. It’s 1953, a time when
it’s surprising to see an African-American man working
on exhibits in a museum. I’d always been
intrigued by him. And so was Reda Brooks, who
works in exhibitions today. She saw this photo when
searching for inspiration for Black History Month
and put a call out to other staff members
in the museum to find out more about him. Together, they dug
deeper, reading work logs and scouring the archives. But to do Carl’s
legacy justice, they needed to look beyond
his records and photos. So in late 2019,
we took to social media to find Carl’s friends
and family, who responded with
remembrances, photos, and tons of fun stories. During this exchange,
it became clear that he was a true
Renaissance man who influenced
almost every department at the Field Museum
and beyond. Carl’s childhood friend,
noted historian Timuel Black, says Carl taught himself
taxidermy at a young age, starting by artistically
mounting the small animals he found dead in his
Southside Chicago community and memorializing
the departed pets of his neighbors and friends. At 22, Carl sent his first
letter to the Field Museum, expressing interest in
taxidermy and reptiles, noting that he had kept a
“collection of 30 venomous and non-venomous
live snakes” himself. They turned him down. But Carl didn’t give up. After serving in Hawaii
during World War II, Carl sent another letter, asking
for a volunteer position, which seemed to do the trick. Just over a month later,
Carl had shown himself to be satisfactory
in every way, and he was hired to work
full time in the now bygone Division of Anatomy. Carl Cotton worked at
the museum from 1947 until his death in 1971. Carl did fulfill his dreams
of working with reptiles. His alligator snapping
turtle, still on display, shows his attention
to detail, artistry, and that his experience working and living
with reptiles paid off. It was created using a technique
called the Walter’s method, where an animal’s posed and made
into a mold, which was painted with a mixture of celluloid
and early plastic and pigment to create something between
hyper-realistic sculpture and taxidermy. While it was invented by
his mentor, Leon Walters, Carl is recognized for
perfecting the technique, going on to train other
taxidermists in this method. Soon after Carl was
hired, he was transferred to the Division of Birds, where he taxidermied
much of the birds you can still see
on display today. One of his most stunning pieces
was the 16-foot tall sculpture called Colorful Birds he created with museum staff artist
E. John Pfiffner, which included 56 birds. This display broke away from traditional
zoology exhibit design. The specimens are
artfully displayed on seemingly improvised curves. It could have been
inspired by jazz culture, with the feeling of
spontaneity in the poses and dramatic colors
of the birds. It looks like music,
beautiful and accessible. Austin Rand, the chief
curator of zoology at the time, said, “The openness, the
airiness, and the liveliness “of the twisting and
turning strands of metal “as they swirl upward
make the wire structure “a particularly appropriate
place for birds to perch “and accentuate the
beauty and grace “of these creatures of the air. “As the elephants in
Stanley Field Hall “have become a sort of symbol
or trademark of the museum, “so it may be that this
arrangement of gay birds will become the trademark
of our Bird Halls.” Unfortunately it was
not to be, as the piece was dismantled in 1990. Even so, many of Carl’s
birds are still on display, like this bird of
paradise and macaw. You can identify which birds
were a part of his sculpture because they’re still
perched on the metal form Carl mounted them to
more than 60 years ago. We can’t know for sure how
many of the birds currently on display in exhibits
around the museum were created by Carl, but it’s doubtful you can
visit the museum today and not encounter
some of his work. In fact, even staff
here at the Field are constantly uncovering
work he contributed to. The seasonal plumage of the
Willow Ptarmigan Diorama had fallen out of common
knowledge in the museum until it came time to move
the striped hyenas for Project Hyena Diorama and this gem was rediscovered
behind their case. At first, you can
see Carl’s ptarmigan in its snowy plumage
set in a scene of a frigid Alaskan winter
painted by Madie Weavy. Then with a click, the bird
and the scene are the same, but you have been transported
in time to midsummer. This illusion is achieved by
the creation of a matching pair of dioramas, one set straight on
from the viewer’s perspective, and the other on the ceiling. A two-way mirror was placed at
a 45-degree angle to the viewer. So when light is shown through
it, we see the winter scene. And when the light is
reflected off the mirror, we see the summer scene. While this may seem
like a simple trick, its creation was no small task. Both Carl and Madie
had to construct pieces of art that
were perfectly matching in form and composition. But because a mirror is
used to create the illusion, one diorama had to be a
mirror image of the other. In talking
with Carl’s family, we learned about
some of his work that definitely wouldn’t be
in the museum archives. In an apparent side hustle,
Carl created and delivered a bearskin rug to the Playboy
Mansion, which was located here in Chicago at the time. But it wasn’t all so glamorous. According to Carl’s wife, when
a hippopotamus from the zoo died and was too large to
fit in the freight elevator, Carl had to prepare it in
the loading dock, which took several days
in the heat and humidity of a Midwestern August. Carl’s wife mentioned another
less than pleasant task– replicating the same
dinosaur vertebrae out of plaster over and over because visitors
seeking a souvenir couldn’t help but snag the
tip of Gorgeous George’s tail, which was just within reach
when the specimen was on display in Stanley Field Hall. Who knows how many people have
a plaster vertebrate handmade by Carl Cotton stashed
somewhere in their homes by a slightly ashamed
parent or grandparent. Carl eventually branched
out of taxidermy to create insect display cases. His experience as
an urban taxidermist is epitomizes in this tiny
diorama of a mouse being consumed
by carrion beetles. The slight bloating of the
mouse and the interaction between the beetles
gives the feeling of a very lively death scene. But perhaps his astounding
attention to detail is shown nowhere better than
in his masterpiece, the Marsh Birds of the
Upper Nile River Diorama, which he constructed in 1953. By then, Carl had
demonstrated vast capabilities in both his taxidermy of
diverse animal groups, as well as his mold-making
and crafting abilities. So when the museum announced
the expedition to Uganda with the goal of creating
a new bird diorama, Carl was ready for
the opportunity. He was involved with the
display from its very inception, including preparing and packing
the supplies for the expedition and unpacking the specimens once
they returned to the museum. He worked on all
aspects of the diorama, from building the habitat
to sculpting and painting the lily pads to the taxidermy
of every one of the 31 birds. It was a big
responsibility and required a tremendous amount of work. But he was up to the task
and devoted two years to the project,
from the beginning of the expedition to the
opening of the diorama in 1953. In the footage from the
Field Museum archive, you can see the
care and attention he gave to every
animal he mounted. As you approach
the diorama, you’re transported to
a vast wetland on the edge of Lake Kyoga in June of 1952. The sky is nearly empty, despite
the many birds on the ground, signifying that these
are native birds still here after the migratory
birds from Europe have gone for their summer. The entire scene is
packed with life, giving the impression
of an abundant and diverse environment. Perhaps not representing
a single moment in time, but giving the impression
of what someone sitting in this spot might see over
the course of a few days. It’s somehow a truer
impression of the habitat than a single
instance could show. You get the feeling that you– and not the animals
in the diorama– are the center of attention. It’s as if you just stumbled
out from behind the papyrus and have caught the
notice of each bird. The shoebill stork,
being the largest and most fearsome predator
in its own right, is vigilant but unconcerned. The smaller birds
are more alert. The quick and skittish painted
snipe begins to take flight. The great crested grebe
and the long-toed plover both have young
to protect, which is reflected
in their anxious poses. The openbill stork
looks up from eating a snail, the evidence of past
meals scattered around it. And the buff-backed heron
is startled in the middle of preening, surrounded by
lost white feathers. The scene feels complete
because of such small details, like the different ages of
the lily pads and the bird droppings
clinging to the papyrus. You can almost feel the
breeze coming from the right and smell the damp earth
and muck in the water. And so the diorama accomplishes
what any great work of art sets out to do– it moves the viewer
outside of themselves. For a moment,
if you allow it, you can become lost
in another world, in another moment in time. You’re lost in this
masterful illusion of nature. Carl Cotton’s
incredible artistry wasn’t only highly influential
here at the Field Museum. His expertise in taxidermy
and exhibition methods were sought out by popular
and scientific institutions around the globe. But those he taught in turn
pass on their knowledge, so there’s no real way to know
the true extent of his impact. But he continues to
influence any visitor who happens to stop and admire
the hundreds of examples of his artistry on display
at the Field Museum, from the subtle to the grand. [MUSIC PLAYING] It still has brains on it.

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