• Image about Terry Chase
Installing a model of the lion’s mane jellyfish at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, D.C.
His parents nurtured his interests by taking him to natural-history museums across the country. He soon realized that the exhibits that caught his eye — those that sparkled with detail and life — were all made by the same man: George Marchand, whose family pioneered the art of the museum diorama at the turn of the 20th century. “I became a groupie,” Chase says. “I idolized him.”

Chase had always been equally drawn to art and science. High school teachers scolded him to choose one over the other, but he simply couldn’t. He was as comfortable with a paintbrush as he was with a chisel. So when he arrived at the University of Michigan in 1970 to pursue a Ph.D. in paleontology and study under Marchand, Chase found an ideal mentor. Marchand wanted to retire, but he didn’t have any children or anyone interested in taking over his exhibits business. “He took me under his wing and trained me to do everything he’d learned in his life,” Chase says. When Marchand retired to Branson, Chase followed and set up his own studio.

Over the years, the studio has become a museum in itself. Chase’s childhood fossil collection has grown into one of the largest private natural-history collections in the country, with more than a million items neatly cataloged in basement cabinets. The campus includes more than 2,000 square feet of library space, housing more than 15,000 books and subscriptions to 110 scientific periodicals. The library is so specialized (Journal of Ichthyology, anyone?) that the studio developed its own cataloging codes to supplement the standard Dewey decimal system.

The staff draws on those vast resources daily to ensure their work is as accurate as possible, especially when they’re re-creating animals and plants that haven’t existed for millions of years. After all, there’s no Carboniferous fern section in the silk-flower aisle of a crafts store.

“A lot of design firms know how to draw or paint, but they don’t have a scientific background,” says Peter Tirrell, associate director of the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. “Terry does, so details that a design company might miss are unlikely to escape Terry’s attention.”

“I tell my employees, ‘If you consider the thousands of people who see our exhibits daily, it’s amazing to think how much influence we have in educating people about the natural world.’ ”
This quality comes at a hefty price: between $600 and $1,000 per square foot of developed exhibit space. But the level of detail to which Chase’s team adheres is worth the cost. Take, for instance, just one plant model — a broadleaf milkweed — being created for an upcoming installation at the Sam Noble museum about the Black Mesa region of Oklahoma. Model makers begin with a specimen of the plant; they take it apart and pour plaster over it to create a mold. A vacuum-forming machine creates a perfectly clear plastic copy of the milkweed leaf, replicating not only each tiny vein but also the microscopic cell structure. As a model maker paints each leaf, he or she will add a few insect holes here, some drought-withered leaves there — damage that would be found on a real broadleaf milkweed plant — and details specific to that species. That’s only one leaf on one plant out of thousands that the studio will handcraft for a single installation.

The project dearest to Chase’s heart, though, is even closer to home: the Ozark Museum of Natural History. The museum, which is still in the planning stages, will be a partnership between Chase Studio and Missouri State University, in nearby Springfield. “I’ve done projects all over the world and never anything at home,” Chase says. “Right now, all the scientific work done in the Ozarks, all the specimens collected, go to either the Smithsonian or the Field Museum in Chicago. There needs to be a regional repository for natural-history specimens here.”

Chase and his committee members have selected a site, identified a director and are wooing a potential donor to underwrite the $100 million price tag. Chase Studio will become the museum’s exhibition division, and Chase himself will donate his private collection to the museum.

The 10-year-old boy in Chase comes out as he leads a tour of his collection cases that will one day stand empty. There are delicate ammonites from his first solo project, the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum, in Midland, Texas. Some newly acquired uranium-laced zinc from New Jersey fluoresces red and green under a black light. And in the back stand a half-dozen cases from his childhood explorations more than five decades ago, simply marked “Falls of the Ohio.”