It’s a rainy afternoon in Washington, D.C. Inside the Sant Ocean Hall at the National Museum of Natural History, the crowds swell as visitors escape the downpour outside and enter the watery realm of creatures that live their lives submerged. Overhead, a 45-foot-long replica of a North Atlantic right whale named Phoenix dives down, its mouth open in anticipation of its next plankton feast. The gleaming white tentacles of a 25-foot-long lion’s mane jellyfish cascade toward the floor. A sprawling diorama of a 250-million-year-old Permian reef, teeming with more than 100,000 models of corals and creatures, provides visitors with a scuba diver’s view of life in the ancient seas.
These visitors have likely never heard of Terry Chase. His name doesn’t appear on a single exhibit. However, his signature style — a masterful mix of art and science, of breathtaking beauty and painstaking accuracy — is writ large on these showcase pieces that he and his Chase Studio have created for the Smithsonian.
Whether a museum needs a life-size mastodon model or a tiny taxidermy specimen of a pocket mouse, Chase is the man to see. For the past 38 years, hundreds of museums and national parks in more than a dozen countries across the globe — from Indonesia to Egypt — have turned to Chase and his talented studio staff to bring the natural world, past and present, to vivid life.
A small sign on a mailbox is the only indication to visitors that they’ve arrived at Chase Studio in the tiny town of Cedarcreek, Mo. (pop. 507), an hour’s drive southeast of Branson. The studio’s 11 stone-and-wood buildings are tucked away in a forest of oak and hickory trees, on 1,500 acres along the shore of Bull Shoals Lake. The 50 or so staff members — including electricians, mural painters, librarians, graphic artists, model makers and paleontologists — find inspiration in their surroundings, as does Chase. “I’ve been to some pretty spectacular places for my work, but I still come back here and think, ‘Wow, this is the best place in the world I could ever be,’ ” he says.
He hasn’t spent much time here lately. Repeat clients and word-of-mouth referrals keep the studio busy with an average of a dozen projects at any given time and often keep Chase on the road. His to-do list reads like a 10-year-old boy’s dream journal: Install a mummy model at a children’s activity gallery; head to Wyoming for an installation at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center; clean the Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.
In between, Chase will fly to China to follow up on the studio’s $74 million exhibit contract bid for the Shanghai Museum of Natural History. “This will be the largest natural-history museum that has ever been done,” Chase says excitedly. “Larger than the Smithsonian; larger than the American Museum of Natural History, in New York.”
The job truly is Chase’s childhood dream come true. “I always knew I wanted to do this kind of work,” says the 63-year-old. He grew up in Jeffersonville, Ind., a short bike ride from the Falls of the Ohio, which is a 390-million-year-old exposed fossil bed along the Ohio River. The Falls became Chase’s childhood playground, where he spent hours searching for ancient coral fossils for his collection. “My parents worried about the house sinking from the weight of all the rocks,” he says.