Museum Artist Steve Quinn Honored with Lifetime Achievement Award

by AMNH on

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If anyone was born to work at the American Museum of Natural History, it is Stephen C. Quinn, who retired this spring after 39 years as an artist in the Department of Exhibition.

This past weekend, Quinn was honored with the Garden State Taxidermists Association's Hansen-Schneider Lifetime Achievement Award, for his long, productive career and for encouraging many young people in the museum arts of painting, sculpture, taxidermy, and more.

Oyster Bay Diorama in Progress
Museum artist Stephen Quinn works on the Oyster Bay diorama in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall.
© AMNH/C. Chesek

Quinn grew up in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, not far from the birthplace of Frank Chapman, the Museum’s noted early curator of birds, in West Englewood. He developed his own passion for birds, identifying and sketching them while roaming what were then the wild marshes of the Hackensack Meadowlands with his older brother, John, who would become a nature artist and museum preparator at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

And Quinn family trips into New York City more often than not included the Museum, where at age 4, family folklore has it, young Steve pointed to the elephants in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals and announced, “This is where I want to work!”

The elephants in the Museum's Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

Quinn feels the affinity as strongly today as he did then. “I’m the kid this Museum was designed for,” he says. “If ever there was a kid who took the bait, hook, line, and sinker, it was me. The Museum without a doubt validated my own passions in nature.”

Members and other Museumgoers likely know Quinn for his behind-the-scenes tours of the Museum’s dioramas; his wonderful book on the subject, Windows on Nature: The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History; the seasonal bird walks through Central Park that he led for 32 years; and his popular series of animal drawing classes that took place after-hours in the Museum’s halls.

Whether they knew it or not, most visitors to the Museum also have seen his work, most recently in the major renovation of the Jill and Lewis Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals and, over the years, in luminous background paintings for many spectacular dioramas in special exhibitions. In each of these endeavors, whether he was painting Emperor Penguins lit by the beautiful aurora australis for Race to the End of the Earth (2010) or the forests of 50 million years ago in what is now Canada for Extreme Mammals (2009), just to cite a few recent examples, Quinn’s goal was to ignite each viewer’s personal passion for the natural world.

Emperor Penguin diorama in Race to the End of the Earth
Stephen Quinn carefully studied the stars, the aurora, and more while preparing to paint the Emperor Penguin diorama in Race to the End of the Earth (2010). 
© AMNH/D. Finnin

“One of my most pleasurable tasks for the Museum was to act as an ambassador for nature,” he says. “To make the connection, see the lights go on. It’s so exciting to be part of that awakening. And the thing is it’s not that difficult to do.”

Quinn came to the Museum fresh from art school in 1974. He had met Lamont Curator of Birds Dean Amadon and ornithologist John Bull while researching Mallard ducks, Merlins, and various sandpipers in the Museum’s Department of Ornithology for his senior portfolio. Amadon and Bull encouraged him to apply for a job with Exhibition, launching a career that included a host of additional mentors: Farida Wiley, a longtime Museum educator and bird guide whose Central Park bird walks Quinn inherited in the 1980s; David Schwendeman, a master taxidermist; Raymond deLucia, foreground artist responsible for many beautiful scenes in the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, among others; and Robert Kane, background painter.

Quinn feels particularly gratified to have been able to return the favor, training a new generation by “mentoring younger artists in the diorama arts I was hired to learn in the ’70s.”

Steve Quinn painting 2
© AMNH/D. Finnin

In retirement, Quinn plans to paint murals in his home studio, work with his wife, Linda, to establish a wildlife habitat adjacent to their home, and continue to advance conservation through such organizations as Artists for Conservation, The Society of Animal Artists, Salmagundi Club, Boone and Crockett Club, and The Explorers Club. He will maintain a connection with the Museum as an “exhibition associate,” returning now and then for special projects.

Asked to name his favorite diorama, Quinn answers without hesitation that it is the mountain gorilla diorama in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.

Steve Quinn painting
© AMNH/D. Finnin

Members may remember reading in Rotunda (Summer 2011) about his 2010 trip to the Congo to do a plein-air painting of the diorama’s background as it looks today. (Aptly, the Museum’s retirement gift to him was a signed edition of Akeley’s book In Brightest Africa.)

Quinn notes Akeley’s success not just in raising public awareness through the diorama but lobbying King Albert of Belgium in 1925 to create Africa’s first national park, which, expanded, is now the last hope for the survival of the gorilla. “It was such a pivotal time with key figures, people like Carl Akeley, Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Chapman, great visionaries whose thought and efforts really drove conservation,” says Quinn of the early 20th century. 

So does he feel he has been a link in that chain? “I do,” he says. “Everyone who works at the American Museum of Natural History should feel that link.”

A version of this story appears in the summer 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.