Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Gardell Dano Christensen: To Tell the World of Faraway Places
 


Gardell Dano Christensen: To Tell the World of Faraway Places

By: Ardis E. Parshall - May 11, 2009

This is a story it will be easy to hate unless you can temporarily suspend the wisdom and judgment of your 2009 perspective. For just a few minutes, let your imagination take you back to the world of the 1930s when most of the scientists and museums shared the philosophy of an earlier age, and when environmentalists were generally not recognized for the prescience and respect the modern world generally accords them.

Gardell Dano Christensen was an Idaho boy, born in Shelley in 1907, and raised as a Latter-day Saint. He loved the outdoors, but he was an artist rather than a farmer, a modeler of clay, and he longed to devote his life to something that used his unique skills. Raising sugar beets wasn’t going to do the trick. He was in high school when he read an article about Carl Akeley, a New York farm boy who had gone on to become a great African explorer, accompanying Teddy Roosevelt on one of his expeditions. He was also one of the most notable of the early 20th century naturalists, a taxidermist who specialized in museum dioramas showing African animals in realistic poses in natural settings. Some of his pre-World War I dioramas of lions and gorillas are still displayed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

The article stirred a passionate response in Gardell – “There was work that my talents were crying for.”

Two years later [1928, I think, but I may be off] I decided not to put it off any longer and so I landed one cold spring morning in New York City without a cent and not knowing a soul. What followed would make a sermon. That was on Friday. By Wednesday I was started on my career.

To work at anything for the American Museum was the realization of a dream – a dream just beginning. Of course I had to begin at the bottom but what did that matter. The world was before me now and I was young. For seven years I labored and then the dawn came. I was asked to represent the Museum on an expedition to Africa. Would I go? Would anyone go! What had I been working for? I was in Africa for a year. Then the next year to Alaska – off every year for the next four years – to collect many kinds of animals.

And there, of course, is the point where our modern sensibilities will protest. “Collecting” animals meant killing them, to bring their skins back to New York to stretch over clay models of the once-living creatures. Gardell’s role in the expeditions was to observe the movements and poses and social groupings of the animals, to sketch their behaviors and the landscapes around them, and take samples of the trees and leaves and rocks to assist him in preparing the most realistic settings for New York museum displays. And, of course, to prepare the skins of the slaughtered animals.

His justification for the killing of these animals (he may not have thought of it as justification – it is just the way it was in that generation) he reported as:

Collecting not for sheer joy of shooting but for the education of children in New York, to broaden their lives, to tell the world of the far away places and to bring the very earth and trees for the people to know and to thrill to a vicarious adventure.

Gardell reported a trip to the Belgian Congo to collect two okapis – considered rare because their habitat was so remote that they had seldom been seen in the west – which was published in The Improvement Era of July 1942. The article shows something of the wonder Gardell felt in being in Africa, on the land he had dreamed so long of seeing.

The road from Kivu to irumu is one of the msot beautiful mountain roads in all the world, past the eternally snow-capped ruwenzori range. Few people are lucky enough to see it, for it is encased in clouds most of the time. We were fortunate, for as we drove past, the clouds opened and there sparkling in the sunlight were the jagged peaks studded with ice and snow.

As we came out of the mountains we entered the great expansek hundreds of miles of impenetrable jungle through which the Congo River and its tributaries flow. Here was the real Africa of story books.

His writing also betrays the superior attitude of westerners toward the natives:

We learned much about these quaint miniature people [Pygmies], how they hunted and gathered their food, how they built their homes and made their clothes and how they always kept happy. One night when the moon was full, they gathered around an open fire and sang. Out in a clearing two fellows began beating on drums, and everyone circled around and weird and frantic dancing began. Sometimes it lasted all night.

The maddening throb of the drums, the mingling of harsh and shrill voices in primitive tones and the surging of crusted feet on hard clay, the rhythmic sway of bodies accented by sudden contortions, glowing and gleaming in flickering light from the red fire and the pale blue moon was an experience never to be forgotten.

Meeting another group in Rwanda, Garden noted that “we played our phonograph for them. They didn’t like the classics but did enjoy jazz.”

This article also suggests the artist’s eye for detail, a talent that he employed in arranging his dioramas. After seeing his first okapi, he wrote:

Here with his strange gait a creature came towards us like something out of a prehistoric age. The first thing we noticed was the weird head with grayish white sides, black nose, and brown forehead and the huge brown ears. The head didn’t fasten on to the neck at an angle like that of most animals but seemed to be a continuation of the thin but deep neck that wasn’t held high as the giraffe holds his, instead out in front in line with the sloping back, for the shoulders were much higher than the rump. Although they were tall, they were very narrow and lifted their feet extra high as they walked – an adaptation for life in the jungle to be able to pass through narrow trails and over fallen logs. The strangest thing about him was his tongue. The okapi continuously washed his eyes and ears as a cow washes her nose with her tongue. We spent an interesting five days there getting much valuable material to work from.

Gardell worked for the museum until 1941, then sought other work, generally with western museums. He continued to do taxidermy but also developed a less destructive technique for bringing the wilderness and its animals to school children and other city dwellers: through miniature models. You can see here working on one of his most popular displays, a diorama created for the museum of the Montana Historical Society in Helena, depicting the practice of the Plains tribes in harvesting buffalo by driving them to their deaths over a cliff. This time, no animals were harmed in the making of the display.

Gardell assisted the Church in its 1947 pioneer centennial displays by preparing exhibits of oxen – skins stretched over clay models – in lifelike poses.

In the 1950s and ‘60s, he turned to writing and illustrating books, chiefly for children, detailing the lives of both common and uncommon animals, and preserving forever what he had seen in his travels.

Gardell Christensen died in 1991.

I don’t care what direction comments take – you can even blast away at the ethics of killing animals for display, if you wish, as long as you acknowledge that the 1930s were a different world, with different ideas about the natural world.



35 Comments »

  1. just three weeks ago, i was in the AMNH. while that museum has not stayed with the times in terms of exhibits, those dioramas are truly beautiful. i’m so glad to read this connection. thanks!

    Comment by ellen — May 11, 2009 @ 8:31 am

  2. Very interesting. I think the amount of good museums do in kindling a love and respect for the world is easily worth the price of the times.

    Comment by J. Stapley — May 11, 2009 @ 9:25 am

  3. Wow – Gardell’s description of the locale is superb. I found myself wishing that I could experience the chance to travel this same road, with the clouds opening up . . .

    As for displays, I remember visiting Temple Square as a youngster, and how the miniature diaramas of the pioneers in the visitor’s center were so captivating to me. I loved seeing all the detail, and imagining that I was there with them as they reached the Valley. I truly loved these displays, and they made me connect with the early Church members like no other. Silly, but true. As an adult, diaramas don’t do it so much for me, but as a kid, these displays were wonderful.

    Comment by Hunter — May 11, 2009 @ 9:49 am

  4. What a great tale of someone who set out after their dreams and spent a lifetime living them. Quite inspirational!

    The hunting doesn’t bother me. In the days before color photography, ZooBooks, and nature films, this was often the only way to see exotic animals in a lifelike setting. I’d wager that the “collected” animals, mounted and preserved in a museum, have probably done more to raise awareness of their species than 100 of their dead relatives who died naturally in the jungle. IMO, this type of display created the awe of nature that drove the environmental movement. Thankfully, today we can “collect” animals with movie cameras instead of guns.

    Comment by Clark — May 11, 2009 @ 11:54 am

  5. Oh, I’m glad several of you appreciated this. I know it isn’t the typical Keepa post, except that it shows a Latter-day Saint at the very top of his field.

    Did you ever make dioramas in a shoebox by cutting a viewing window in one end and pasting in stand-up figures of whatever your subject? We did that a few times in elementary school, and I remember doing it once in Primary with palm trees and vaguely Middle Eastern buildings to show Jerusalem at the time of Christ. Pale, pale versions of Christensen’s work …

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 12, 2009 @ 4:29 am

  6. It is kind of ironic because John James Audubon (of the Audubon society fame) killed thousands of birds, posed and drew them so they could be published in his books. It was all for education.

    Comment by rk — May 14, 2009 @ 8:08 pm

  7. As Gardell Dano Christensen’s son, I truly appreciate and enjoy this article. This is a wonderful piece to pass on to my children and grandchildren. My father’s gift was remarkable and took him all over the world.

    I vividly remember him building the, as he called it, Buffalo Kill diorama in Helena and was fortunate to just revisit the museum in 2004. It was the first time I have seen it since I was 12!

    Thank you for writing this piece on my father.

    G. Dano Christensen

    Comment by G. Dano Christensen II — May 17, 2010 @ 8:44 am

  8. Thank you for your comment, Dano. As a writer, it’s especially rewarding to know that a family member approves of the way I interpreted your father’s life.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — May 17, 2010 @ 9:08 am

  9. Hello,

    My great-uncle was the leader of the expeditions to Africa that Christensen went on. I have rare photos of Christensen and the rest of the expedition if anyone is interested.Including the Okapi.

    Thanks
    TM

    Comment by Tom Merrick — April 7, 2011 @ 6:00 pm

  10. Hi,
    I was just cleaning out some things when I came across some old paintings I did years ago under the tutaledge of a Gardell Christensen. He had moved to my (then much smaller) town of Statesboro, GA. I knew he was from out west, and was an accomplished wildlife painter, but had no idea how honored I should have been to be in his studio. I am wondering if this was, indeed, the same person in this article.

    Comment by Maryann — June 19, 2011 @ 12:42 pm

  11. It feels good to read a blog post about my grandfather (Dano is my Uncle and Gardell was my mom’s father). Thank you very much for this heartfelt article. Tom Merrick – I would LOVE to get rare photos of grandpa!

    Comment by Vaughn Ripley — March 7, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  12. TM, As Gardells son I would love to have copies of any pictures or information that you may have to share.

    Maryann, yes my father moved to Ga from Wyoming. As I understand it He helped start the Artist Guild there

    Comment by Peter Christensen — March 7, 2012 @ 10:50 pm

  13. My parents were friends with Gardell and Eugenia. Sometime in the early fifties we visited them in New York and we had a private, after hours tour of the Museum with Gardell as our guide. I was very young, but it was one of the most interesting days of my life.

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — June 29, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

  14. Tony — Very happy to hear from you (wanted you to know that your comment was noticed, even though the post is a couple of years old — exactly two years, come to think of it). That must have been a fantastic tour, with such a tour guide and without bother from other tourists. Thanks for mentioning it — it helps to add some depth to Gardell.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 29, 2012 @ 5:40 pm

  15. I have asked my older sisters to tell me what they remember. Perhaps they can add something of interest. I also remember visiting their home – we children went out into the woods and I have some memory of Gardell’s children having a bow and some arrows..

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — June 29, 2012 @ 5:58 pm

  16. My oldest sister (she was around Dano’s age) remembered this:

    “Gardell and family had a NY loft apartment with the sleeping arrangements in an open loft accessible by a ladder. The loft did not have walls, but had rails. Do recall riding around the city on buses with Dano and Peter. They took us to Radio City to see the Rockettes and Annie Get Your Gun.”

    Comment by Tony Lawrence — July 2, 2012 @ 7:15 am

  17. Fun! Thanks, Tony.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — July 2, 2012 @ 7:24 am

  18. I met Gardell and Eugenia in Statesboro, just before they moved to Idaho. He taught small classes in painting and was an inspirational artist. He once said “Do you think that Picasso never rejected a sketch? His trashcan was probably full! Keep trying until you get what you want.”
    I was never discouraged again. By learning to make dozens of sketches and practice many strokes I improved more than under any teacher I had previously.
    The Christensens invited friends and pupils into their home and their hearts. He gave us copies of his book “The White Buffalo” and I made a book of cartoons for him.
    I would treasure any early photos of him if someone would email them to me. I worked as a commercial artist since 1984.

    Comment by Nan Sherrill Smith — October 11, 2012 @ 9:47 am

  19. I am the youngest of Gardell’s children. I have a few of his paintings and a file of photo’s from his African trip and most precious to me I have the “Natural History” February 1937 magazine with dad’s painting of the Okapi on the cover and including an article entitled “Hunting the Rare Okapi” showing dad in Africa on the expedition. Several years ago I started a website with Christensen art including dad’s, my sister Barbara’s and mine. It only has one of dad’s sketches right now and I plan to revisit this site soon and include several other of dad’s sketches. The site is yahna.net I should also post several of the photo’s of him in Africa. Additionally dad was a great philosopher. He passed on to me many expressions that have helped guide my life, such as “When there’s a will there’s a way so keep at it until you find the way” and he told me to dream big, but my favorite was “shoot for the moon and if you make it half way you have a tremendous accomplishment”. What wonderful memories we the children of Gardell have. I would appreciate any additional pictures, information and stories on my dad.

    Comment by Yahna Christensen — November 30, 2012 @ 12:34 pm

  20. As a granddaughter I think my mygradfather was an amazing man ,I love sharing this with my daughter so she can share it with her children someday.I also have some of his books and I’ve also seen his work ay the DuPont museum in Delaware., the National history museum in New York and the buffalo in Wyoming….

    Comment by Tanya Woolford — June 26, 2013 @ 8:05 pm

  21. I think your grandfather was an amazing man, too, Tanya. Thanks for commenting here– there’s nothing quite like hearing from the family of someone I’ve written about.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 26, 2013 @ 8:07 pm

  22. Thank you so much keep it coming.

    Comment by Tanya Woolford — June 26, 2013 @ 8:09 pm

  23. I am wondering if Gardell was the artist that worked in Albany NY sometime during the 60’s? If he is that same man, I worked with him for a year while constructing a diorama of the Battle of Oriskiny NY. He was a unique human being. Many times I have searched the internet to see the final exhibit that we had made together. To this day, I have not been successful. Gardell was amazing with his construction of General Herkimer and his proud steed, the general’s tiny grasping fingers, and the realistic facial expression and details. During this same time period, he made two 3D wild boars to put at the entrance of his home driveway. Thanks to his awesome patience and teaching, I have enjoyed over 50 years of creating art in my own life. He would always tell me that if you had a passion, you never tire of it. I am still excited about art, so I guess it must be my passion. Thanks for the information in advance. Diane

    Comment by Diane Marie Rudolph — January 17, 2014 @ 6:47 pm

  24. Diane,
    I am yahna christensen the daughter of Gardell, I am now living in Salt Lake City. Dad did live in Albany New York in the 1960s my two brothers lived with him … at that time I was living with my mom so they would know better on what he did in Albany… but I wanted to at least confirm that yes he was there and yes he was an incredible mentor, coworker, friend, Father.

    Comment by Yahna Christensen — January 18, 2014 @ 7:36 am

  25. Thank you for your response. I’ve enjoyed reading all about your grand father in the many comments. Your dad had given me his first proto type wax carving of General Herkimer. At that time, Gardell helped me construct a comical mule out of wax,(It was sitting down being stubborn) upon which I put his General Herkimer. I have treasured this piece all through my life. So many people have heard this very story of where it came from. Thanks again Yahna

    Comment by Diane Rudolph — January 27, 2014 @ 12:15 pm

  26. I’m planning on writing a blog post on Eugenia this week and found this site as I was looking for info on Gardell. I, unfortunately, never met him. I met Eugenia in 1994 in Dubois, WY. I remember her speaking on the phoe to a niece and I met her nephew from Santa Rosa a couple of times.

    I was hoping someone could let me know more about Eugenia. She was one of the most captivating women I’ve ever known and I loved her. She spoke often of Gardell.

    We lost touch in about 2005.

    Comment by Shelia Rudesill — June 22, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

  27. I don’t know about her, Sheila.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 22, 2014 @ 12:07 pm

  28. I am Gardell’s youngest daughter Yahna… Eugenia passed away I believe it was January of 2012. Perhaps you met my brother Peter who lives in Santa Rosa, this would be her step son. Eugenia was a very interesting lady. I have just started to follow in dad’s footsteps of painting wild animals and intend to redo my very outdated website within the next two months to reflect my new paintings. I have one of several of dads Ink sketches on my website yahna.net I am switching from architectural pen and ink to the wild animals in oils. I wish you all the best on your blog about Eugenia if I can help in any way please let me know. Yahna Christensen

    Comment by Yahna Christensen — June 22, 2014 @ 12:37 pm

  29. If either of you will give me permission to share an email address, I’ll try to put you in touch directly with each other.

    Yahna, I hope you’ll come back here to leave a link when you’ve updated your website. I think people who have enjoyed your father’s work would like to see yours, too.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 22, 2014 @ 1:16 pm

  30. Thank you yes of course you can share my email I’m always happy to talk with anyone who wants information on dad and now even on Eugenia. I will post again as soon as my website is updated thank you again yahna

    Comment by Yahna Christensen — June 22, 2014 @ 1:25 pm

  31. Thank you for the response, Yahna. Even though I knew Eugenia fairly well I knew her best in her later years. We shared some awesome times. I wish I could remember all the stories she told me about your father. I know that she loved him very much and carried fond memories of their life together.

    Of course Mr. Parshall, you may share my email.

    Comment by Shelia Rudesill — June 22, 2014 @ 2:48 pm

  32. Were Gardell’s dioramas and/or paintings in the American Museum of Natural History? Is that the museum that sent him on foreign expiditions?

    Comment by Shelia Rudesill — June 22, 2014 @ 2:52 pm

  33. Yes the Museum of Natural History in New York City. .. My brother Peter is really the one to give you the most history after I get your email I will send you his email too…. Between us we have many great memories

    Comment by Yahna Christensen — June 22, 2014 @ 3:20 pm

  34. I’ll leave my email on your website.

    Comment by Shelia Rudesill — June 22, 2014 @ 4:19 pm

  35. It’s fun to see these connections develop over time!

    If you enjoyed this, you may want to stick around and read Keepapitchinin regularly. Ardis is a great historian with a lot of fascinating stories to share. She has created a Topical Guide which lists her blog content by topic. One of the popular sections is “Latter-day Saint Lives,” with its many fascinating stories.

    Comment by Amy T — June 22, 2014 @ 7:11 pm

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