Monday, March 29, 2010

Piranha Attack! (The Natural History Museum Inspired This! Part Five)

Welcome aboard, voyagers! Sit back and enjoy our lazy journey up the mighty Amazon river while our trusty old diesel engine does all the work, chug-chug-chugging our little river boat past picturesque ribereƱo settlements...

alongside other riverboats all loaded up for a journey from the deep forest to the colorful market in Iquitos...

This fellow certainly looks imposing, but that blowgun is no threat to us; he is just out hunting for a meal... wild jungle chicken, perhaps?

There are far greater threats in these parts: I implore you, friend, despite the heat, do not dangle those tender toes into the murky water lest you pull them out stripped to the bone by our hungry, razor-toothed scavenger, the fearsome PIRANHA!

Charley Harper's illustration of a cow being devoured by piranhas.

Some fifteen years ago, I found myself on just such a journey, chugging up the Amazon river from Iquitos into the heart of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest to learn about the plants that the indigenous people use as medicine. It was a picture perfect trip: I learned alot from the local shaman, saw all manner of fantastic jungle flora and fauna, paddled a dugout canoe up a tiny tributary to explore an overgrown medicinal plant garden, traded for some lovely indigenous crafts made by the Yagua Indians, witnessed the distillation of the local rum-like spirit (aguardiente) from sugarcane (then enjoyed some tasty aguardiente and sugarcane juice cocktails!), and even baited some tiny fishhooks with bits of raw chicken and caught several piranhas! We cleaned, cooked and ate those piranhas... they are awfully bony, and had a slightly "muddy" flavor, but they are still a popular source of sustenance for the local people. I also learned that the piranha's widespread reputation as an aggressive man (and livestock) eater has been greatly exaggerated, and even felt comfortable taking a leisurely morning swim in the same cove from which I had pulled the toothy little beasties the evening prior!

These dried, shellacked piranhas are popular tourist items in almost every populated area that abuts the Amazon, and while I didn't buy one on my trip, I did admire them, and thought that a school of them arranged in a case of some sort would make a rather fetching display.

Several years later, while taking a scientific illustration course that met within Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History, I made use of the museum's fabulous library of "Exhibit Case Dioramas" available on loan through the Harris Educational Loan Center. The cases are self contained dioramas, 24" high, 22" wide , and 7" deep, that depict actual preserved plants, fish, birds and mammals in natural settings. Upon seeing these, I immediately thought back to those preserved piranhas, and knew that I should craft my own piranha diorama!

Well, oftentimes these ideas take some time to incubate; I have been collecting materials and thinking about how my diorama should look over the past few years, and when I finally found a good source for those dried piranhas, I took the plunge and got to work on a small scale, one-fish version of my piranha diorama (larger version to follow soon)!

The wooden shadowbox I am constructing this in comes from Ikea, and is called "Bas" though in searching the online catalog, I could not locate them. I purchased several last time I was at Ikea, but find them so useful that I would be rather disappointed if it turns out they have been discontinued. In the photo above, I am painting the interior and back panel of the box a deep aquamarine "underwater" sort of color.

Next, I carefully pulled my piranha off of its base, drilled a new hole in its belly, and used epoxy to secure a length of brass rod through the hole and into the body of the fish. Once the epoxy had cured, I determined where within the box the piranha should be mounted, then drilled a hole the same diameter as the brass rod into the base of the box. After plugging the hole with a piece of scrap rod to keep it clear of glue and gravel, I carefully poured about 1/8" of thick white craft glue into the base of the box, and sprinkled a layer of gravel into the layer of glue. In the photos above and below you can see that I put a piece of blue tape across the lower back of the box so that the glue and gravel wouldn't spill out the back before drying. After the gravel had settled into the wet glue, I sprinkled sand over the top so that no shiny glue spots would be visible where it seeped up between the gravel bits.

Next I set out several plastic aquarium plants I had picked up at the pet store, and decided which ones would look best in the display. Of course these aren't accurate representations of actual Amazon river aquatic plants, but I'm not really concerned about that. Because the plants are too large for the box in their original state, I trimmed off appropriately sized tufts, then fused the bases together by holding them briefly over a candle flame (in a well ventilated area!) until the plastic softened just enough that the stems could be pressed permanently together. The plastic seems to soften at a fairly low temperature, rather like the material used to make some of the lower-temperature hot glue gun sticks.

Then I stood each little fused plant clump upright on a sheet of thin scrap paper in a little, nickel-sized puddle of epoxy, and sprinkled gravel into the puddle. When the epoxy hardened, I had plant clusters firmly embedded in little, natural looking mounds of gravel that I could then tear off of the paper and transfer onto the gravel base in the box. I secured each cluster in the box with more epoxy (again sprinkling in some extra gravel and sand so that no shiny glue spots show through).

I also prepared a few plant sprigs to attach to the back panel of the diorama (above) by carefully slicing off a plane of leaves so that the plant would lay flat against the panel. Then I determined the placement of the sprigs, and drilled a few tiny holes through the panel on each side of the stems through which I could pass a piece of thin wire up through the back, over the stem, and back through the other hole, tying securely behind the panel:

As purchased from a curio shop, these mounted piranhas all have a characteristic high-gloss shellac finish that I find somewhat distracting. I was able to take the shine away very nicely by spraying on a few coats of clear matte-finish enamel. The fish on the left, below, is untreated, while the one on the right has been sprayed with the matte coating:

One of the little grassy clusters in the gravel base of the box is strategically placed to hide the brass rod that will secure the piranha within the box. I went ahead and painted the rod to match the tuft of grass:

Then I finally mounted the piranha securely inside by adding some epoxy to the hole I had drilled earlier, then inserting the brass rod (again, sprinkling a little gravel and sand in to cover up any glue that was pushed out of the hole!) and leaving the whole thing undisturbed overnight while the epoxy cured completely.

I was so excited to start on the inside of the diorama that I hadn't given much thought to how the outside would look, but at this point I decided I wanted the outside to be painted white, so I used blue masking tape to cover the front glass, and sealed up the back, and sprayed a few layers of primer and flat white paint on.

Painted! While the paint was drying I started one of my favorite parts of the project: writing the informative text and designing an appropriately scientific-looking label! In the photo above I've printed out four versions and I'm deciding which one I like the best. They are sized to fit onto the side of the display box. After picking one, I inspected it one last time for typographical errors, then printed out a high resolution copy on photo paper. Inkjet prints don't hold up well, though, so I took the print to a photocopy shop and made a black and white photocopy of the label onto a nice, cream colored paper, then trimmed out the label and glued it to the side of the box:

Done! My, what a voyage this has been, and we've managed to return with our tender toes intact! I Thank You most sincerely for joining me on this Amazon adventure and look forward to our next journey together!

(That's me on the riverboat heading back to Iquitos after twelve days in the jungle. My hands and face are stained with the juice of the unripe Genipa fruit. The local Indians decorate themselves by applying the clear juice to their skin. Over the course of several hours a deep, blue-black tint develops. The juice stains the top few layers of skin, and stays vibrant until those layers of skin are naturally shed. I sure got some quizzical looks back home!)


Jana Miller said...

I really enjoyed your intro, personal photos and diorama howto Paul! I've been really into creating shadow boxes myself lately. Been putting bones/skulls and fungi/moss in mine.

PS - Some stuff at Ikea in the store are not online. I know you can't buy the frames I want online so maybe they don't sell stuff like that online.

Paul Baxendale said...

Thanks, Jana! Your shadowboxes look terrific-- can't wait to see more!

I was hoping that might be the case with the ikea shadowboxes. I need to go check it out in person.

Lisa at Lil Fish Studios said...

This is utterly fantastic. Good call on the matte finish for the fish, and your choice of fonts for the side label.

Sounds like an amazing trip, thanks for letting us ride along for a few minutes.

jek-a-go-go said...

can be anymore nifty?

i once found a dried piranha stapled to a telephone pole in Ventura.

pam said...

Your posts are always fascinating, Paul, but I especially love this one because you have combined so much information about your inspiration for the project along with the tutorial. So not only do i have one of you excellent how-to's to refer to for creating a diorama, but I have gained new insight about the Amazon.

Thank you for all your hard work and many hours you put into sharing.

Author said...

Wow - I went to the rainforests of Peru as well. What a place, huh? And the natural history museum!!!!!