Remembering His Artistic Drive and Environmental Passion

by Luci Cipera and Carolyn Leckie

Clarence Tillenius, the renowned wildlife artist who created many of the treasured mammal dioramas at the Canadian Museum of Nature, died last week at the age of 98.

Clarence left a final Facebook posting:

Clarence Tillenius in front of a mounted thinhorn-sheep (Ovis dalli) specimen.
Clarence Tillenius in front of the thinhorn-sheep (Ovis dalli) diorama during a visit to the museum in 2004. Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature

I believe that there is in the universe an underlying rhythm, a stream of life common to all ages; that the work of an artist who could tap into that rhythm would be timeless, it would be understood in any age, since man himself is bound by, and responds to, the same rhythm as the animals.

When that rhythm calls me to a universe other than this one; I ask each of you, who wish to remember me, to look at my paintings or my dioramas. As long as my work is appreciated by the generations that follow, my work will have tapped into that rhythm and will be timeless; even thought I have now crossed that great Divide.

For us, these words truly capture the artistic drive and environmental passion of this amazing man. We met Clarence on a number of occasions while working to preserve and move the mammal dioramas (2003–2006) from one side of the “castle” to the other, during the museum’s massive renovation.

In the beginning, the museum wanted to demonstrate to Clarence that his dioramas were being well cared for. But as our paths continued to cross during the project, he proved to be extremely helpful in clarifying details about the complex construction of the dioramas and giving us a deeper understanding of the tremendous fieldwork required to prepare for the dioramas.

Clarence Tillenius standing on a ladder and painting. Archive #CMN J 8468 8.
Clarence Tillenius painting the background of the thinhorn sheep (Ovis dalli) diorama in 1962. Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

Similarly, he provided information to other teams relating to the locations and intent of the dioramas, as well as the stories behind them.

At 90, when we first met him, this kind and gentle man was still actively painting and full of incredible stories of his life as a wildlife artist. At the heart of his stories were his deep appreciation for nature and his desire to bring nature to people so that they could enjoy it, understand it and care enough about it to value and preserve it.

It struck us as an amazing perspective, given the fact he grew up in a pioneering community, came of age in the Depression, lived through two world wars and then was painting dioramas in the ’50s and ’60s, when the modern industrial approach was to dominate the natural world. Clarence’s divergent perspective seemed to have come from growing up as a boy in northern Manitoba and actually seeing the “disappearance” of wildlife from the native prairie.

Listening to his stories left you equally amazed at the physical and artistic challenge of creating the dioramas, which are much larger than they appear. For example, the bison (Bison bison) diorama in our Mammal Gallery is 8.4 metres (28 ft.) wide and 4.8 m (16 ft.) high.

Clarence travelled to each remote location to study the animals in their habitat, collecting plants and making sketches before planning the details of each diorama.

Clarence Tillenius crouches beside a mounted bison (Bison bison) specimen in the bison diorama in 1960.
Clarence Tillenius: "On my first visit to this bison range, the wardens told me: 'If you want to see the real interaction of the wolf packs and the buffalo herds, come in winter—we'll take you out in one of our big snowmobiles and let you see the action.' A couple of years passed before I was able to take up the invitation but when I did, I was given the royal treatment—on one occasion the wardens set me up in a pile of old logs and brush in a clearing and then drove a couple of hundred of bisons straight at the log pile while I was crouched in the middle of it and wondered what I had let myself in for. But the wardens knew their stuff and the proof is I am still here telling you about it.' Image: © Canadian Museum of Nature

This activity seems all the more amazing because in his 20s, a nearly fatal accident while building train tracks had taken his right arm—his painting arm. He learned to paint with his left hand and continued to work as an artist.

The result is a magical experience in which the audience is immersed in a wild place, as if having just happened upon the animals. As per Clarence’s plan, the longer you look, you are rewarded with ever more beauty and details—just like nature.

The moose (Alces americanus) diorama in the museum's Mammal Gallery.
Clarence Tillenius: "When I arrived there in mid-February, the snow was already three and a half feet deep, so to find a painting site, the chief ranger and I traveled day after day on snowshoes in search. Because all hunting was strictly forbidden, the moose population had grown far beyond the capacity of the park—large though it is—to sustain them. This because the natural enemy of the moose—timber wolves—had long since been eradicated from the park and even the cougar (mountain lion) was thought to be long since extinct. However, two of the park rangers showed me unmistakable proof that at least one cougar still existed in the park, though they are such stealthy creatures that only the most dedicated seeker would have discovered their existence." Image: Martin Lipman © Canadian Museum of Nature