Cook Museum of Natural Science Exhibit Illustrations
When the Cook Museum of Natural Science contacted SayoStudio to create museum exhibit illustrations, they already had a solid exhibition design in place. The museum was in the midst of re-inventing itself, expanding its footprint by 12x to an amazing 62,000 square feet. They needed an artist to quickly jump in, work with their team, and create scientific art for their graphics and scenic designs.
The museum opened its doors in June 2019. Its immersive exhibitions highlight Alabama’s incredible ecology, including its forests, streams, and caves.
One of the fun aspects of this project was learning about Alabama’s ecology. Did you know that Alabama’s biodiversity is the 5th highest of all 50 United States? Or that the state sits on an incredible cave system?
The Cook Museum also hosts a huge aquarium, space exhibits, and more. To help complete their grand plans, Nicolle worked with their exhibit team to create illustrations of complex natural processes unique to Alabama ecosystems. She drew skunks in tortoise tunnels, fly-catching pitcher plants, and bees’ ways of regulating temperature.
Creating Exhibit Art, From Sketch to Final Illustration
A museum this size takes a lot of planning and work. To help with the homestretch, Creative Director Sloane Bibb and Director of Exhibits John Kelton invited SayoStudio to create artwork for several exhibits, including:
- The Forest Exhibit, where illustrations showcase Alabama’s diverse natural history
- The Arctic/Desert exhibit, with drawn diagrams highlighting animals’ adaptations to heat and cold
- The Caves exhibit, where a cross-section shows the change from the filtered light of the entrance to the deep darkness within.
To meet the Cook’s exhibition goals, Nicolle created key illustrations needed to explain complex natural processes. The museum team provided a research brief describing the topics. Some had references to work from, but many required new solutions to adequately convey their ideas. Working to their exhibit design specifications, I created art that they could quickly drop into their planned space. Below are a few highlights.
Forest Food Web Ecology Exhibit Illustration
The Forest Food Web graphic needed to showcase Alabama forest ecology. First conceived of as more of a circular graphic, Nicolle re-envisioned it closer to a true landscape so that visitors could imagine how organisms impact one another. After the team confirmed that they liked the interpretation, Nicolle created the artwork with a mix of 3D programs and drawing in Adobe Photoshop. The final art shows interactions between diverse animals, plants, and fungi.
Gopher Tortoise Tunnels
The museum needed an illustrated view of underground tortoise tunnels. The gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, lives across the Southeastern United States. Averaging close to a foot long, these aren’t the largest turtles, but their ecosystem impacts are huge. The tortoise burrows tunnels into the soft sand of longleaf pine forests, making homes for over 350 other species!
Nicolle created this exhibit illustration to give the museum’s visitors a glimpse into the tortoise’s tunnel where many other animals live. First, she sketched the tunnel and the animals to match the look and feel of the overall exhibit. After collecting feedback from the team, it was time to create the color art. To start, Nicolle digitally sculpted the tunnels with Zbrush. Then she drew the animals using iPad’s Procreate. The final illustrated cross-section of the tortoise tunnels was composited in Photoshop. It shows a striped skunk (Mephitis mephitis), an eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi), a gopher frog (Rana capito), the florida mouse (Podomys floridanus), gopher tortoise ticks (Amblyomma tuberculatum), tortoise shell caterpillars (Ceratophaga vicinella), a gopher tortoise copris beetle (Copris gopher), and the gopher tortoise itself.
Virtually Visiting the Cook Museum to See Exhibit Illustrations
From SayoStudio’s Nicolle R. Fuller
From time to time someone asks how I became a science illustrator, and I’m reminded how lucky I am. Day in and day out, though, sometimes I feel a bit… jaded? Don’t get me wrong, I do honestly love an excuse to sculpt a tortoise tunnel, but once I hand off the artwork it’s on to the next project. To be successful in this gig, you’ve gotta work quickly. There isn’t a lot of time to savor accomplishments. Occasionally, my wonderful magazine clients like Science News and Sky and Telescope mail me the published illustrations, which is always a treat. But more often than not, I don’t get to see the final art in use.
That’s one reason this collaboration with the Cook Museum was particularly gratifying. The project itself was exciting; to give museum visitors a glimpse into some of the hidden worlds so near to their everyday lives. But to actually see the finished art in use? It feels amazing to see the exhibit artwork integrated into the overall design. The Cook Museum was gracious enough to send photos of the exhibitions so that I could the infographics amidst the sculpted trees and animals, and the beautifully painted background landscapes. I’m so proud to have contributed to the vision so carefully imagined and planned by the larger exhibit team.
Sadly, I’m writing this during the Coronavirus pandemic. I can’t travel cross-country to visit, but once we’re able, I’m so excited to bring my kids to see the incredible Cook Museum in person. For now, I’m grateful to have participated in helping create parts of Cook Museum’s exhibits, and I hope Alabama locals are able to enjoy.