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The Lewis and Clark Diorama at the Beaverhead County Museum.

Lewis and Clark Diorama, 1954-55. Built for the Montana Historical Museum under Director K. Ross Toole for the new building. Rudy built the figures out of petroleum and beeswax one at a time over the kitchen stove at the family home while also working at the Archie Bray Foundation.  Click here for images

It was over a gas stove in a small Helena kitchen that a 28 year-old sculptor melted beexwax to a viscosity soft enough to apply in marble-sized lumps to create a kneeling two-foot tall figure, one of 26 to appear in the Lewis and Clark diorama of the new Montana State Historical Society Museum. The year was 1954, and the young sculptor was Rudy Autio, who was supplementing his income as co-director of the Archie Bray Foundation.

The diorama was one of many that were envisioned by Director K. Ross Toole. The Historical Society Museum building was new and enthusiasm in the staff was high. During his tenure he employed teams of artists including Bob Morgan and Les Peters to create eras from Montana history like the building of telegraph line, the hunting of buffalo, and the building of roads in early Montana.

How we children loved the dioramas! It was television before television. How dramatic was the Buffalo Jump, with the poor upside-down beasts suspended in air, falling to their doom. As a toddler at the time I felt pity, then a sense of wonder at how such a thing could be made.

But we saved the 20 foot-wide Lewis and Clark diorama to view last, there in the place of honor at the end of the room. It was like dessert. The story unfolded of the Corps of Discovery splitting camp in early August 1805 near present-day Dillon, when Sacagawea, their Shoshone guide, "recognized a high plain" as the Beaver's Head by her people. Meriwether Lewis and two men broke from co-captain William Clark and the rest of the party to try to obtain horses from the Shoshone Indians.

The Corps was the Seal Team Six of 1805. Each had a job to do that was crucial to the success of the expedition. The men were running low on food. Exhaustion had set in. No white men knew what lay beyond the range to the west, now known as the Pioneer Mountains. Capt. Lewis thought he must surely summit the Continental Divide soon and view the great Columbia, where all tributaries would then flow west. He had no way of knowing there were many more ranges to cross.

Rudy may have been thinking along these lines when he got the assignment to begin sculpting the figures. He drove his old Model A to Dillon along state Highway 41, an old two-lane that probably didn't have much of a shoulder in 1954. I can see him getting out of the car and looking toward the Beaverhead River as he imagined the Corps at that moment in August 1805.

Did he see Captain Lewis waving goodbye to the main party? In the diorama Captain Clark stands on the left next to York, compass in hand. A hunter, who could be Private Shannon, kneels to wrap up a bundle to load into the canoes.

Over the course of a year, Rudy built the figures and placed them in the space as each was finished; he started with beeswax but later used petroleum wax to sculpt in an additive process. Muriel Guest, who was also a resident potter at the time, helped create clothing, leather goods, and canoes. Les Peters and Bob Morgan began to paint a landscape on the curved wall behind.

In the 1980s, the dioramas were disassembled due to changing ideas of exhibit design, and they were sent to small county museums around Montana. Eventually the Lewis and Clark Diorama was reassembled in the old depot at the Beaverhead Museum, Dillon, where it resides today. A team of artists and painters in Dillon rebuilt the diorama in a smaller space but with a more accurate background of Beaverhead Rock and surrounding countryside. Rudy made the trip to Dillon to rededicate the diorama with son Arne, who says it was a humorous presentation, full of all the stories of the early days of putting it together in the mid-1950s.

Lisa Autio, daughter, April 8, 2018