An RNC project
by HCWG and Greg Knoll
The Mike Byson project all began in April 2021 when the Robinson Nature Center (RNC) was bequeathed a taxidermy bison. The bison initially named, “Billy” arrived on a wheeled shipping platform suitable for travel.
A bit of back-story; HCWG has had a long standing relationship with RNC and its staff having built benches, seats, a puppet theater, trail signs, and pyrography volunteer badges. Our work is visible at the marque, the children’s area, on the trails, on the rangers, and now in the exhibition hall.
The project – The bison exhibit is being created on the flying arm of the catwalk in the rearmost corner of the building. This sounds diminutive, but it is not. It is a wonderful spur on the descending ramp/catwalk leading to the diorama room in the lower level of the center. The bison will be a waypoint on that walk, in a brightly lit glass corner overlooking the woods.
The goal – Mike Byson should appear in his natural Maryland habitat surrounded by grasses, birds, Maryland sandstone, scat, and maybe some bones. As if grazing along chewing his cud Mike will regally inspect all passersby. During design and contemplation, an idea was hatched where we would wrap the existing travel platform, use ironwork corners, and build a sandbox filled with modelling plaster to create the desired setting, but maintain the mobility and stability of the bolted shipping mounts.
The challenge – I did some modelling in College and was a sculptor for a company doing Styrofoam and plaster models for game conventions. It was fun and I have experience with carving and sculpting natural forms, but I have never created a concrete model, nor done a life-sized diorama. Never daunted, this task began with some experiments.
May 1st – Poop day. I researched concrete sculpture and then researched bison poop images. Fieldwork was involved. To explore the material sciences I created several concrete buffalo chips. This involved experimenting with different mixtures and textural elements like soil, grass, plastic, and sand. The first experiments looked great but failed completely, crumbling to dust in the hand. More research, the second batch included drywall mud and was stronger but lacked texture, and appeared grey and smooth. They were strong though. Again back to the drawing boards a new and better recipe was found that ended up with concrete dye, 10 parts concrete, 5 parts course sand, 1 part silicate, and 1 part fly ash. Due to COVID delays, these materials took 2 months to acquire. This time was not wasted as we then build a burnt-cedar sandbox, reconfigured the base of the platform, to support concrete, and then added a sculpted, contoured hardware-cloth wireframe to mold our concrete to.
May 30th – Peg-Leg Footprint. While all of this was going on, a side project was hatched where we researched and examined bison foot prints and then carved a bison-peg-leg to be used for printing the concrete. On hindsight we should have done some bird and raccoon tracks too.
June 9th – Flora. Plastic plants and grasses were acquired for the exhibit. These would guide the artist and were selected by RNC based on regional presence and historical accuracy.
June 22nd Artist renderings. Sandbox and platform established, we then brought in the RNC Artist who would design the fauna and flora for the exhibit to plan plantings and attachments for cowbirds, skulls, grasses, and reed-work.
June 23rd Wire Frames. Still we had more experiments to run. Plastic grass had to be harvested from its foam, and experimental drillings to ensure insertion plugs would not compromise the forms. A floral poop pile was created – once again proving the materials and mixtures were correct. They were.
August 5th – Sculpture day. When the day finally arrived, and all the materials and people were present we finally installed the mud. Even this day was not without its issues. The cement purchased was hydraulic patching cement which sets up in 15 minutes and works very hot and is designed for patching flowing water leaks… This first batch was hard, hot, and set too fast to sculpt. It also was a bulletproof rock wall… The front right rock is completely made of this and could not be drilled. It set well and is strong, but maybe a bit too strong. Quick trip to Home Depot. New Concrete acquired. The remainder of the install went smoothly. The base took maybe 8-10 pans of modelling cement. Foot-printing was fun trying to make drag marks and imagine precisely where the previous steps might have landed. Adding an indecisive misstep by Mr. Byson, all leading to his frozen pose. The booties you see were to keep modeling cement off of hair and hoof, but were unanimously viewed as a nice addition making Mike look like he was ready for his jazzercise spin-class (song: …apple bottom jeans, boots with the fur… everybody’s look’n at her….).
August 8th Flora installation. Drilling your perfectly sculpted concrete is a harrowing experience. Still with some experiments under our belts we dove in and found that it cut very well with a masonry bit and the drill set on rotary mode (not hammer-mode). This created smooth clean bore holes in the materials to securely seat and angle grass plugs.
September 26th – The RNC Open House. The center will now take over placing animals and pottery and moving the wheeled exhibit down the ramp to its new home. They will add information panels, wall hangings, and other pieces to bring the catwalk and bison together for its final presentation. It will be visible immediately but is a grand opening exhibit as part of the RNC open house scheduled from noon until 5 on Sunday September 26. An event where HCWG will be present an manning a booth. HCWG demonstrators may get called in for a photo shoot with this our latest club contribution.
Next project – Terrapin tank surround. A next project is in its strawman stages now – that of building a “Tanked” style enclosure to house their newest arrival – a baby terrapin. He is cute as a button but growing like a weed, and will need a larger tank and cabinet-grade enclosure to protect pumps, stand, and tank from inquisitive hands. If anyone wishes to take this project on I would welcome a helper or a leader to make it their own.
Why do we do these things? I have participated in several HCWG efforts working with young students, museums, nature centers, historic sites, maker fairs, and conservancies around the county and state to share our crafts and our passion. These projects are tremendously rewarding and personally satisfying. I share this work with my son, and include him when I am able. Any time we visit a historic site and have a piece on display or have demonstrated there in the past we have a special connection. Any time we see the HCWG marque burnt into a piece it becomes a bit more like home. There is a fantastic joy in being part of this community and knowing your creations are benefiting the public and serving our neighbors. Countless school groups will see this exhibit, sit on these benches, get puppet shows at the theater, and while they may not know it, we will know we were all a part of making this happen. It is an opportunity to be a part of something so much larger than just ourselves. I do hope others will contribute and already thank those who do. The contributions. Your contributions will reward you in ways you might never have otherwise known.