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The Birdman of the Academy

William Becker, RIP

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Not long ago I heard that William Beecher had died. For 28 years, starting in 1955, he was the director of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the offbeat natural history museum in Lincoln Park. For a short time he was my boss.

I first met him in 1960, when I was eight years old. My family had signed up for the nature walks he led for the academy. One of the environments we explored was Lake County's Volo Bog. I later found out that he was instrumental in the campaign of the late 60s to save the bog from developers.

I still remember him gently prodding a little twig, which then began ever so slowly to move. He explained that this was a variety of insect known as a walkingstick. He kicked open a rotting log and described the complex world of bugs and fungus he'd revealed. He imitated birdcalls, hoping for a reply.

Our paths crossed again 21 years later. I had recently graduated from the Art Institute, joining the throngs of eager, exploitable artists anxious for any job remotely related to their field. Dr. Beecher hired me for not much more than minimum wage to help build and restore the academy's exhibits. As I recall, the staff consisted of eight artists, four security guards, four office workers, and a janitor. It was quite a crew.

Ed, a capable artist and a Moonie, was generally assigned the most mundane chores, like scraping tape residue off the exhibit cases. He always wore headphones when he worked, listening to recordings of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon as he performed his tasks with endless patience. I only saw him express frustration over this arrangement once, when we were assigned to dismantle an exhibit together. It was an ancient, faded thing, proudly predicting that man might one day visit the moon. Ed attacked the exhibit with a large ax. Afterward we stood on top of the debris and laughed.

Johnson, a security guard, was tall and thin with perfect posture and beautiful teeth. He was 90 years old, smelled like whiskey, and flirted with all the women.

George was the supervisor of the artists. The stories circulating about him could have made the National Enquirer (and were probably about as true). There was the one about how he shot a feral cat the office secretary had admired and gave it to her in a box--gift wrapped. He was always a gentleman in his dealings with me. I stayed out of office politics.

Carol had been the top artist before my arrival. She had to move over and share her spot with me, which I don't think she was too happy about. We could have complemented each other, but mostly we were each other's antithesis. I saw a design as a starting point, she was a meticulous follower of plans. The surface of her sculptures was always smooth; she would build the pieces up in thin layers, rarely taking anything away except to maintain that glassy finish. My work method was to add and subtract in equal measure, maintaining a rough painterly surface until the very end. The tension between us was held in check by a thin veneer of diplomacy.

Most eccentric of all was Dr. Beecher himself. Nicknamed "the Birdman," he had a long, thin beaklike nose and spindly legs. He professed to prefer the company of birds to humans, and he was clearly more preoccupied with them.

Over the years the board of trustees developed great respect for Dr. Beecher, and funded most of his ideas, which he brought to fruition in the museum's exhibits. The academy occupied an 1893 building in the park near the intersection of Clark and Armitage. Its second and third floors wrapped around a hollow core so they could benefit from the domed glass ceiling, but Dr. Beecher had many of the windows and the ceiling covered up so he could control the light in the exhibits. When I was hired, he'd finished exhibits in the lobby and on the second floor and had made a good start on the third. In the lobby the walls and the ceiling were painted to look like the sky on a warm spring day, full of a huge variety of birds in flight. The dome was painted like the night sky, complete with glow-in-the-dark constellations. The second floor featured murals including one of marsupial tigers and another of a band of Neanderthals crouched around a campfire, their faces painted with Day-Glo paint and lit with black light. Children loved it.

A trapdoor to the attic was rigged to open with the rotation of a bicycle wheel. After climbing a steep staircase and squeezing through this door, and after your eyes adjusted to the dim light, you were startled by two life-size figures brandishing spears. Then an array of objects came into focus: piled into heaps were green Styrofoam iguanas, bones, plastic leaves and flowers, fossils.

The artists' workroom was in the basement. Fiberglass body parts--pieces of donated department-store mannequins--hung from the pipes, giving the room a surreal feel. We used these to make figures for the exhibits. They were cut apart, then wired together, then fattened up and smoothed over with Bondo, the stuff used on auto bodies. It was a material ill suited to my subtractive technique, since the cutting and sanding created a lot of unhealthy dust. After George's pet parakeet dropped dead I was allowed to switch to plaster and spackle. (He had the bird stuffed and put into an exhibit.)

As time went on, the balance in Dr. Beecher's exhibits between science and imagination had begun to tip toward the latter. Perhaps if he had abandoned the science altogether he could have built himself a reputation as a quirky installation artist. That option, unfortunately, was not one he would consider.

The exhibit he hired me to work on was "The New World Man," featuring various Native American tribes before the arrival of Columbus. It was to be set into a group of cases each measuring about 32 inches high and three feet across. The fronts of the cases were made of glass, and the sides were lined with mirrors. These cases were stacked three high and two across, covering two perpendicular walls.

My first assignment was to make a life-size female figure holding a rattle--to fit into one of those 32-inch-high cases. I made the figure squatting and bent over. Dr. Beecher was pleased and ordered me to paint it. I used a high-intensity spotlight to mimic the light and shadows of the sun. Beecher kept insisting that I add more red to the flesh tones, and I obliged him until the figure was almost bright red. I realized that he wanted me to make this Native American literally a "redskin."

When he was finally satisfied with the paint job he gave me my next assignment. "Cut it in half, down the middle, front to back." I put the longest blade into the power saw and sliced the figure through the top of the head, down between the eyes, through the nose, between the breasts, and all the way down. Then the halves were attached to a mirror inside the case. Each half figure, combined with its own reflection, made a strange whole figure in a perfectly symmetrical pose. "Two for one," he explained. "Saves money."

We filled the cases one after another with life-size figures, each one contorted in a different way to fit into the small cases. Each was painted with Day-Glo paint, then cut in half, attached to a mirror, and lit with black light. The mirrored walls created a strange spatial effect, making each case simultaneously cramped and infinite as the reflections bounced back and forth. It was like a high-rise from hell, an image of alienation. Each figure reflected endlessly, twisted and contorted in its own little cubicle, unrelated to the other figures stacked around it.

My favorite case featured Aztecs. It contained two half figures with their reflections, a priest and an architect. They sat on top of a pyramid, which was painted on the floor and back of the case, each absorbed in his own activity. The half priest was leading a ceremony involving human sacrifice. In one hand he held half a human heart, complete with dripping Day-Glo blood, which ran down his fingers and made a puddle on the pyramid's top step. Next to him, but facing the opposite direction, sat the half architect, who held a half blueprint, plans for the building of the next pyramid.

The case on the upper right corner of the left wall had been filled with an exhibit made personally by Dr. Beecher. It featured a life-size man climbing a ladder. I think he was supposed to be a Pueblo Indian climbing to the roof of his adobe house. Only Dr. Beecher would attempt to put a life-size figure climbing a ladder into a 32-inch case. He included only the upper torso of the figure and a few rungs of the ladder. The figure was sliced just under the armpits by the floor of the case. He was holding a rung of the ladder with each hand, pulling himself up out of thin air, as it were, and about to disappear into the ceiling.

Directly below this was the only case that didn't contain life-size figures. It was a tiny Pueblo village with a few eight-inch adobe houses and a handful of three-inch villagers going about their chores, carrying baskets, making tortillas, tending children. The villagers were made from reconditioned plastic army men.

To me the ladder man was a god floating majestically above the tiny village he controlled--something like Dr. Beecher himself, towering over and protecting his academy.

Above the stacked glass cases was another piece, a flock of carrier pigeons frozen in flight. They were painted in subtle hues of gray, with soft Day-Glo orange highlights to suggest a setting sun. A Native American boy flung a net, a failed attempt to capture the birds, which were headed toward the domed ceiling.

The "New World Man" exhibit was scheduled to be completed in January 1984, to coincide with the museum's annual black-tie affair. The board and other VIPs would be there, dressed to the hilt, proudly showing off the results of their contributions and support. Dr. Beecher went into a frenzy, insisting on 60-hour weeks so we'd finish in time.

It got a little hairy, but usually the Ed Wood hokiness of it all helped me swallow my pride. Once, however, when I was attaching one of the half figures to a mirror, he flew into a rage. "You're not an artist; you're a hammer, a tool in my hands." This time it was too much. "You can't speak to me like that," I said. "No job is worth that." He looked at me. "It doesn't matter," he said. "We're all going to be fired." Dr. Beecher knew something that I didn't. The board had already hired his replacement.

Two months before the reception, the artists were introduced to the new director. He had a wonderful warm handshake. He was a specialist in evolution, and very much of this world, as opposed to Dr. Beecher's black-light netherworld.

George gave him a tour of the third floor. It was painful to watch: "And over here there's going to be a woolly mammoth. He's attacking a caveman, over here, holding a spear, like this. The black light will be placed here."

"I see, I see," the new director replied politely.

George was the first to go, followed in rapid succession by others. The "New World Man" exhibit was roped off and covered in brown paper. Dr. Beecher's peculiar piles of objects were quickly deposited in a large Dumpster rented especially for the occasion.

Johnson and the other security guards were advised to retire, which they did. They were replaced by clean-cut young college students, who gave guided tours of the exhibits in addition to guarding them.

Ed was promoted to chief graphic artist. He hurriedly put together a bunch of scientific drawings of magnified cells to replace the "New World Man" at the party.

Carol was promoted to artists' supervisor. Since Carol and I had never got along, I decided to leave on good terms while I still could. The new director bade me farewell with lunch and flowers.

In 1995 the academy traded its building to the Lincoln Park Zoo for a piece of land in the park north of Fullerton. The zoo uses it for administrative offices, and the academy built a spanking new facility, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, on the bartered land.

Dr. Beecher went on to invent a pair of lightweight binoculars that could be worn like glasses by birdwatchers with unsteady hands. He opened a factory for their production, contributing all of the proceeds to help save the rain forests.

The last time I heard Dr. Beecher's voice was in 1985. He was being interviewed on the radio about the problem of birds crashing into the windows of high-rises and dying. He was insisting that every window of every high-rise be equipped with a colored paper cutout of an owl to scare away potential victims.

Dr. Beecher, the academy never displayed your final, most fantastic exhibit, but I will never forget that bizarre self-portrait. New World Man was you, wasn't it? Reflecting endlessly in that black light, crouched over that Day-Glo bleeding heart, towering over that tiny village, your charge and creation. You did escape with those birds, didn't you?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Courtesy Chicago Academy of Sciences Archives.

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