A Career Bringing Natural History to Life

“I’m in my work clothes,” Stephen Christopher Quinn said as he smoothed a dark blue apron splotched with paint. “I’ve got to finish two murals by Friday.”

Standing in front of the buffalo diorama that he had restored, he meant to sound apologetic, but he sounded busy. He is the da Vinci of dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, its Botticelli of birds, its Renoir of rhinoceroses. As the museum’s senior diorama artist, he has masterminded the scenes that make the crowds ooh and ahhh: the big blue whale, the huge coral reef, the gorillas beating their chests, the archaeopteryx, the acanthostega.

Those last two are in one of the fourth-floor dinosaur halls. You cannot mention the museum’s dioramas without mentioning its dinosaurs — in this case the archaeopteryx, a bird that bridged the evolutionary gap between dinosaurs that had feathers and latter-day birds. Or the acanthostega, an extinct creature that must have looked like a small alligator. It was one of the first to have distinct, recognizable limbs and hands with eight digits, if you counted them. Mr. Quinn, who is nothing if not precise, did.

Now, at 62, Mr. Quinn has decided to retire after nearly 40 years of creating the museum’s behind-glass environments (and many that were out in the open). His last day at work is Friday. He will become an “exhibition associate,” having a first-of-its-kind title conferred by the museum’s scientific staff, but retirement will give him time to do limited-edition paintings and to work on an urban nature center adjacent to his home in New Jersey.

So the pressure was on to finish background paintings for an exhibition on poison — a tropical rain forest like one in Colombia.

“What people don’t realize is these aren’t just generalized scenes,” he said on Monday. “It’s not just an artist getting together with a curator at the museum. The museum has a set protocol of actually going to a place and replicating that place.”

It is a boots-on-the-ground approach that sent him off to see polar bears on the frozen Chukchi Sea off Alaska and killer whales in what he calls the “rosy sunset waters” off the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia.

Mr. Quinn, who arrived at the museum as an intern artist in 1974, went on to write the book on the museum’s dioramas — literally. “Windows on Nature” is a full-color volume that says dioramas are relics. They are not as old as their subjects, perhaps, but they are an art form that predates television and movies. “They were powerful forms of virtual reality” before 3-D glasses and DVRs, Mr. Quinn said.

It turns out that the term “diorama” was coined by Louis Daguerre, who used his name as the basis for another coinage, the daguerreotype, an early commercial photographic process. Daguerre created the first dioramas, in 1822, as theater sets in Europe.

In the book, Mr. Quinn wrote that the most frequently asked question of a diorama artist is, “Is it real?” The second-most frequently asked is, “How do you get in to water the plants?”

The answers are, “Not necessarily” (some plant specimens are in there, but not every leaf that you see is real, and the animals have been stuffed) and “You don’t” (the dioramas are sealed).

To open a diorama and redo it is a once-in-a-lifetime project. He relished those, starting with his very first assignment, working on the foreground of the wood stork diorama in the Hall of North American Birds.

He was good at birds, thanks to what he called a “Tom Sawyerlike childhood in the New Jersey Meadowlands” in the 1950s and 1960s, before the world knew it just for a sports complex. It helped that his older brother, John R. Quinn, had raised mallards, wood ducks, wigeon and bobwhite quail in the backyard. Together they learned to paint them. John went on to paint a mural of Alexander the Great on their bedroom wall.

“On his horse, marching to the Mediterranean,” Mr. Quinn said. (John grew up to become a museum exhibit artist for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and later a naturalist with the Hackensack Meadowlands Commission. He died last year.)

Stephen Quinn’s travels have taken him far from home in Ridgefield Park, N.J., where he still lives in the same house — and where the Alexander the Great mural is still on the same wall. In 2010, he went to the Democratic Republic of Congo, retracing the steps of Carl Akeley, a pioneering taxidermist who did many of the museum’s dioramas in the early 20th century.

Mr. Quinn camped on Mount Mikeno, where Akeley had camped on his first gorilla expedition in 1921.

“You’re up 11,000 feet,” he said. “The volcanoes are still active, so at night there’s this brilliant vermilion color. But the first night we were there, we had snow flurries as we were pitching our tent and starting our fire, which was remarkable for equatorial Africa. You just assume you’re in the steaming rain forest, but it got cold.”

But the prize for an artist — a glimpse of his subject — eluded him: “The gorillas are wary of people.”

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Assemblyman Explains Opposition to Hospital Measure

A push by the Cuomo administration to allow private investment in two New York State hospitals met an impasse during state budget negotiations last week, with strong opposition from Richard N. Gottfried, the chairman of the State Assembly’s health committee.

In a letter to the editor submitted on Thursday to The New York Times, Assemblyman Gottfried, a Democrat from Manhattan, provided his reasons:

“New York’s laws barring large business corporations from owning hospitals are important. It’s bad enough that distant stockholders control most of our health coverage. They shouldn’t also control health care delivery.

“The proposal in this year’s budget legislation to allow for-profit corporate ownership of two hospitals (one to be in Brooklyn) had no plan for how it might be implemented. Corporate ownership can mean cutting ‘unprofitable’ services and shipping ‘profitable’ services to powerful hospitals in other communities. This is especially true for underserved communities like much of Brooklyn.

“Brooklyn’s hospitals need help. The Health Department should sit down with the Legislature and the affected communities to work out solutions, including ways to bring in capital that do not involve corporate control.”

In an e-mail, Mr. Gottfried added, “I do hope the executive branch will pull people together on this topic so we can do something this session.”

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City Has Financial Ties to Carwashes Under Investigation, Report Says

Workers protested outside the Sixth Avenue Car Wash in February. Yana Paskova for The New York Times Workers protested outside the Sixth Avenue Car Wash in February.

The owners of a string of carwashes with a history of labor law violations and who are under investigation by the state attorney general’s office are paid by the city to clean city-owned cars, according to a new report.

Using publicly available documents, the report shows that the city has paid more than $400,000 to businesses operated by the carwash owners, John Lage and Fernando Magalhaes, since 2007. That amount includes money to wash Police Department vehicles.

In 2005, the federal Department of Labor sued a company owned by Mr. Lage, Lage Management Corporation, accusing the company of violating labor law by failing to pay minimum wage and overtime. The corporation eventually agreed to pay $4.7 million in back wages and damages to more than 1,300 employees.

In March 2012, the state attorney general’s office announced that it had started a separate investigation into labor law violations at 23 carwashes in the New York City area owned or operated by Mr. Lage and Mr. Magalhaes. The investigation is continuing.

Carwash workers across the country have long complained about unlawful abuse, including nonpayment, underpayment, insufficient safety training and unsafe conditions. In March 2012, city carwash workers began a campaign to unionize the approximately 200 carwashes in the five boroughs. Since then, employees at five carwashes have voted to unionize.

Three groups have led the unionization campaign and produced the report: Make the Road New York; New York Communities for Change; and the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. The report has not been publicly released.

Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker and a Democratic candidate for mayor, said that the city should “immediately take action and reconsider doing business with them.”

Dennis Lalli, a lawyer for Mr. Lage, defended his client’s practices, noting that Mr. Lage recently raised workers’ wages, and “now pays well in excess of the state minimum wage for tipped employees,” which is $5.50 an hour.

“The city does business with Mr. Lage’s carwashes because he does a good job,” said Mr. Lalli, who also represents Mr. Magalhaes. “Those who say that the city should stop doing business with Mr. Lage do not have evidence of labor law violations. They aren’t out to advance the workers’ interests. Rather, they are a front for a labor union that seeks to advance its own interest in collecting dues from the employees’ hard-earned pay.”

Other agencies that have paid for services from businesses owned by Mr. Lage and Mr. Magalhaes include the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development; the Department of Sanitation; the Department of Homeless Services; and the Department of Transportation. The information is available on checkbooknyc.com, a city Web site that lists some, but not all, transactions that the city makes with outside vendors.

Hector Gomez, 24, began working at the Sixth Avenue Car Wash in Greenwich Village, which was owned by Mr. Lage and Mr. Magalhaes, five years ago. He was paid $5.50 an hour, never received safety training and was never offered protections like gloves or masks, he said. “We washed 50 or 40 police cars each day,” he said. “The white ones, the black ones, every kind. Of course it didn’t feel good, the cars come in, many cars, and we’re not even earning minimum wage.” After workers at his carwash voted to form a union, his salary was raised to $6.03 an hour.

When the Sixth Avenue Car Wash shut down earlier this year, he was transferred to another carwash in Queens. “All I want is for them to pay us the minimum wage,” he said, “for them to give us regular days to rest.”

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Blunt Doctor Cures Headaches

Dear Diary:

A few years ago, I was getting these headaches, which was unusual for me, so I went to see my doctor, a very professional stoic man.

Me: “Doc, I’m getting these headaches. I think I may have a brain tumor.”

Doc: “Everybody with headaches thinks they have a brain tumor. No one really does. (Pause) Well except for this woman last week. She really did. (Sees utter horror in my face). But that’s unusual. And she’s old.”

Soon after, my headaches went away.


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