Natural History Museum diorama painter Fred Scherer dies at 98
TOWNSHEND -- Fred F. Scherer, a painter whose work has probably been seen by more people than that of any other local artist, died Nov. 25, at Valley Cares, surrounded by family and friends. He was 98.
Born on March 1, 1915, in Queens, N.Y., Scherer spent the majority of his working life, from 1934 to 1972, in the Exhibition Department of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where he created or collaborated on many of the dioramas that are still on display there. His work has been seen and appreciated by millions.
He learned the techniques of painting dioramas from his mentor, artist James Perry Wilson, and worked with a crew of other talented artists who created the dioramas and displays that remain popular today.
"He was employed at the museum during what might be referred to as the golden years of diorama production. Fred's contribution was extremely significant," said Stephen C. Quinn, who recently retired as an exhibition associate after nearly 40 years at the American Museum of Natural History. "His standing was legendary."
Quinn came to the museum in 1974, two years after Scherer retired, but got to know Scherer over the years. In 2006, Quinn wrote the book "Windows on Nature," about the dioramas and their painters, in part to champion their work.
"In the American Museum of Natural History, the artists who were working at that time, they were applying the old academic tried-and-true method of painting directly from nature, at a time when the rest of the world was interested in avant-garde methods of art," said Quinn. "Now they're being recognized ... as absolutely amazing art because they do so accurately depict nature and science. ... They are an early form of virtual reality."
Although the diorama artists worked in anonymity -- "There was this thing about the artists being invisible," Fred Scherer said in an interview with the Reformer in 2007 -- Scherer worked later in life to make sure the artists did receive the credit they deserved, including plaques on the dioramas they created.
Scherer painted 15 dioramas in the Chapman Memorial Bird Hall, The African Hall and the North American Mammal Hall. His backgrounds for the Bison and the White-tailed Deer in the American Mammal Hall are among the last things Quinn worked on as part of a restoration project before he retired.
"He was a remarkable, remarkable artist," said Quinn.
Born into a family of painters, Scherer left high school to paint houses with his brother during the Depression. When he was 19, a neighbor who worked as a carpenter in the American Museum of Natural History mentioned to him they were looking for artists. Scherer showed up at the museum with a model he had crafted of a polar bear and impressed museum staff enough to get hired.
He apprenticed with George Peterson at the museum, learning how to make plants, trees and rocks. He was paid only car fare and lunch money. The next year he was hired to paint backgrounds for $17 a week.
It was in this job that he came under the influence of James Perry Wilson, his greatest mentor.
"He taught me how to look at things -- trees, plants and rocks. One of the big things would be light," Fred Scherer told the Reformer in 2007. "Through his teaching, it really opened my eyes."
Though Wilson remained an influence always, Scherer eventually developed his own style, incorporating pointillism into backgrounds he did in 1964 for the Hall of North American Birds. For Scherer, it was move not merely for art's sake, but for realism.
"I would juxtapose warm and cool colors to give it more air-like qualities," Fred Scherer said. "It's painted that way to vibrate like air in the distance does."
"Fred's paintings really stood out. His style, on one level, was about painting everything exactly as it was, but if you look carefully, you could see all this experimentation going on," said Sean Murtha, an artist who worked at the museum after Scherer retired but became friends with him and frequently visited him. "The way he painted makes the paintings sort of glow in their own light."
In 1967, Scherer produced a Peruvian desert mural at the World's Fair in New York. After retiring from the museum, Scherer and his wife, artist, Cicely Aikman, lived for 32 years in Friendship, Maine, where he worked for 20 years as a consultant for the Maine State Museum in Augusta, where he also painted dioramas. He and Aikman moved to Brattleboro in 2005.
A tireless and irrepressibly creative soul, Scherer turned his attention to other pursuits including designing and building the family home and inventing an endless stream of practical devices, some specializing in successfully deterring squirrels from bird feeders.
An early supporter of the modern organic gardening movement, he cultivated blueberry bushes and loved harvesting vegetables from their large garden.
Scherer loved music of all types and was a self-taught pianist who played by ear. He continued to paint and draw up to his final days.
"He could look at almost any scene, even a mundane one, and he pick out something to look at. ... He'd been painting his entire life. Everything he looked at, he was amazed by," said Murtha. "He was constantly painting, even if he didn't have a brush in his hand. ... His artist eye was always on."
"He was always inquisitive, always admiring beauty. He would be talking with you, and in mid-sentence, he would stop to notice the sunset or the color of the light," said Quinn.
Scherer attended the Advent Christian Church of Friendship, Maine, for many years, and more recently, the Calvary Chapel in West Townshend.
"He was very, very spiritual," said Murtha. "It was interesting to see how his spirituality affected him, not just as a person but as an artist. ... Painting was a spiritual statement. ... It was him seeking to almost pay homage to creation."
Scherer is survived by his second wife of 44 years, Cicely Aikman Scherer, of Valley Cares, in Townshend; and by his four children with his first wife, Marguerite Scherer, deceased: Janice-Ellen Scherer-Dufner and her husband, Frank Dufner, of Lyman, Maine; William Scherer and his wife, Sitora, of Cold Spring, N.Y.; Deidre Scherer and her husband, Steve Levine, of Williamsville; and Gregory Scherer and his wife, Makhiruy, of Cold Spring; an adopted daughter, Kim Scherer and her husband, Paul Young, of Seattle, Wash.; and stepson, Paul Breslin and his wife, Catherine, of Paris, France; 14 grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, a large extended family and many friends who will miss him.
"He was just a very gentle, kind and very sweet wonderful guy," said Quinn.
All are welcome to memorial services that will be held on Wednesday at 3 p.m., at Valley Cares, 461 Grafton Road, Townshend; and on Sunday, Dec. 8, at 2 p.m., at Calvary Chapel, Route 30, in West Townshend. Receptions will follow both events.
Donations can be made in Scherer's name to Valley Cares, 461 Grafton Road, Townshend, VT 05353; or to the Calvary Chapel, Route 30, West Townshend, VT 05359.
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