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Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Designing a Museum Mural to Save Space: How a Paleontologist and Artist is Creating a 3-D Plesiosaur Exhibit

In October 2016 I wrote a “Year of the Plesiosaur” blog that showcased a chain of vertebrae from the neck of one of these Loch Ness-esque sea monsters. In a perfect world we would show the awesome size of this creature by hanging an entire cast of the skeleton (all 50 feet of it) in the Underwater World exhibit of the State Museum’s Adaptation Gallery: Geologic Time. However, we do not have the kind of space needed to facilitate that. What about hanging part of the cast instead? Even a portion of the 70-vertebrae-long neck is impressive to behold. As you enter Underwater World, there is a blank wall to the right of the mosasaur on display. We decided to paint the rest of the plesiosaur on the wall and have the cast neck and skull sticking out as a three-dimensional element.

Then the question was: what to paint? Do we paint a fleshed out creature and have the bones sticking out of the wall? Seems disconnected. How about a skeleton painted, and the 3D bones? Seems a little gruesome. What about an x-ray effect, with a fleshed out creature and the bones (real and painted) fading into obscurity? Perfect! What is the process now?

Sketch of Plesiosaur mural

Initial sketch for the mural.

We measured the wall at 106” wide. Then we picked up a painting canvas at 40” wide. Since I’m the artist for this mural project, I can paint in the comfort of my office instead of pretending to be Michelangelo for weeks on end. The plesiosaur was drafted in a few different poses, until we found one that fit what we wanted. We needed an underbelly view, since the animal will be above the viewer. Take into account light sources, so there are not strange shadows. Next calculate how much the painting will need to be enlarged into a wall mural to fit the space (265%). Then check the size of the last cast vertebra – 9.5” tall. So, at 265%, the last painted vertebra needs to be 3.6” tall in order to fit the expanded painting.

Water painted on Plesiosaur mural

Washes of blue acrylic get rid of the white void, and actually make it easier for me to concentrate.

Now it is time to paint. Redraw the critter on the canvas and rough out my lighting and shadows. I like to do an underpainting of acrylic first to get rid of the blank white of the canvas. Nothing is worse than a big white canvas staring at you. Acrylic dries fast, which is good and bad. Good because I can get a lot of color on fast. Bad because I’m terrible at going back and blending with established (i.e. already dry) colors.

Some bones have been painted onto the Plesiosaur mural

After layers of acrylic, the painting is just about ready for oil paints.

Once the underpainting is done, I start in with oil paints. Sadly I have an allergy to standard oils, but I’ve found a walnut-oil based paint that is low odor and is smooth like butter. The oils I can blend on palette, as well as on canvas. As of right now, the painting is almost done – I’m not going to show the final image, however, until our grand unveiling of the exhibit including the mural and cast neck and skull. So come by the museum on April 27 and you will be able to see the finished product!

Linda Warfel Slaughter: Bismarck Pioneer and Powerhouse

Did you know that the first Historical Society in Bismarck was founded by women?

Linda Slaughter recognized the importance of archiving the early records of Bismarck and began personally collecting and preserving important papers. In 1889, she organized the Ladies' Historical Society of Bismarck and North Dakota and served as president until its 1895 merger with the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Slaughter negotiated for the rights of women to vote and hold office in the new organization as part of the merger, and served as the first vice president of the State Historical Society of North Dakota.

Did you know the first woman to vote at a national convention for a presidential candidate was a Bismarck resident?

In 1892 Slaughter attended the Populist Party convention, becoming the first woman to vote in a national convention for a presidential candidate.

Wow! Linda Slaughter sounds incredible! Who was she?

Linda Warfel Slaughter was an impressive pioneer, with a unique and effective blend of determination, vision, strength and character. Throughout her life, Slaughter accomplished many firsts: she was the first teacher, the first superintendent of schools in Burleigh County (which made her the first woman elected to office), and the first postmistress of Bismarck (in fact, the law was changed in 1874 to permit married women to occupy the position of postmaster). Slaughter started the first Sunday school from her home (a tent) in 1872, and opened the Bismarck Academy the following year, which became the first public school in Bismarck. In 1881, she crafted a bill, creating a Board of Education.

Letter from the Post Office Department, Appointment Office, to Linda Slaughter on May 8, 1875.

Appointment letter from Postmaster General, 1875.

An accomplished historian, poet, and songwriter, Slaughter published widely. Her serial, "Fortress to Farm," depicted life on the frontier post at Fort Rice, her family's arrival at Carleton City (the river landing below what is now Bismarck), the beginning of Edwinton, Dakota Territory, and the expansion of Bismarck. She served as a Washington correspondent for several years for the Bismarck Tribune. During that time, she developed a close friendship with Susan B. Anthony. Throughout her writing career, Linda Slaughter published everything from historical articles to parodies, poems, eulogies, and political serials. Slaughter wrote the words to the North Dakota state song in 1902.

State Song for North Dakota by Mrs. Linda W. Slaughter - Bismarck, North Dakota - 1902 - All Rights Reserved

State Song of North Dakota, words by Linda Slaughter, 1902.

Slaughter was a charter member of The Daughters of the American Revolution, and held office in the National Women's Suffrage Association (serving as state vice-president in 1888 and as a member of the executive committee in 1889). She was involved in the creation of the Bismarck Women's Christian Temperance Union and served as its first president. Slaughter was admitted to the bar in Washington, D.C., in 1895.

Given the importance of Linda Slaughter to the founding and development of Bismarck, we were thrilled to add additional papers to the collection of Linda (Warfel) and Benjamin Slaughter Family (MSS 10003) in 2018. The additions to the collection I am most excited about are more of Linda's correspondence records and family photographs.

Letter to an editor by Linda Slaughter

This letter to an unidentified editor is a great example of Slaughter's correspondence style. Slaughter was a truth-teller:  she knew the facts, had the skill to relay them effectively, and the courage to educate those who were misinformed.

As a whole, the collection documents Linda's life and activities, and to a small extent, her husband's, daughters Linnie Lee (Mrs. Albin) Hedstrom, and Jessamine (Mrs. Arthur) Burgum, sister Aidee, granddaughter Hazel (Hedstrom) Eastman, grandson Ted Hedstrom, and great-granddaughter Virginia (Eastman) Dullum. The collection also includes family history and genealogy information, newspaper clippings about the Slaughters, papers of Albin Hedstrom (Burleigh County sheriff), Allan Eastman (Bismarck Tribune writer), and Allan’s parents Phillip K. and Maude Eastman (store owners in Wilton).

Linda W. and Dr. Benjamin F. Slaughter family portrait, circa 1876

Linda W. and Dr. Benjamin F. Slaughter family portrait, circa 1876.

If you are interested in learning more about Linda Slaughter, feel free to come and read her writing at the State Archives. There are also a lot of excellent articles online. Of special note are resources created by the North Dakota Studies program at the State Historical Society of North Dakota.