So you want to buy a giant prehistoric cockroach for your museum, but you don’t know where to go. How about a Tyrannosaurus rex? The jaw of a mastodon? Maybe a nice bouquet of Permian Period ferns? If you’re looking for dioramas, coral reefs, medical models, human figures designed to complete anatomical accuracy, then there is really only one man to see. And it’s been the same man for more than 50 years.
Ever seen the giant coral reef at the Shedd Aquarium and wondered who fashioned all that coral? Richard Rush did it. How about that giant walk-through heart in the Museum of Science and Industry? Richard Rush. (He also works on the giant model-train setup there.) Maybe you’ve been to Disney World and seen the coral reef in the Seven Seas Pavilion at Epcot. Or maybe the Oceanarium in Hong Kong. Or how about the much ballyhooed Cousteau Center in Paris with video fish instead of real ones? Well the coral reef isn’t video. It and all this other stuff and much more besides was made right here in Chicago, at Richard Rush’s studio on South Desplaines Street.
In a hallway at Richard Rush Studio, a couple of fish are swimming past clumps of multicolored fiberglass coral. Past the fish, in Rush’s office, a small woman with a thick Oriental accent is carefully studying a model of the human heart. On the windowsill is a paperweight with a scuba diver submerged in water. Along the walls are small bronze sculptures, a replica of a human skull, and a Ronald McDonald figure that was done for an exhibit about Ray Kroc. Stuck to the walls–attached with Velcro, actually–are a big peanut butter sandwich, a stalk of broccoli, and a sunny-side-up egg, all made of foam rubber. Health teachers use them to illustrate the four major food groups.
A small bluish-green plastic amphibian is staring out the window of Rush’s office at the traffic below. Rush is sitting behind his desk and eyeing the critter. He picks it up and pats it on the head with his index finger.
“I made him out of synthetic rubber,” he says. “This is one of those amphibian-type lizards that roamed the earth during the time when the earth was covered principally with swamps and tropical forests. That’s the time when coal was being made. This little guy was scampering all around and it turns out he was the beginning of a line of creatures that ended up as dinosaurs.”
Over the years, Rush has had to learn a lot about dinosaurs. Natural history museums are always calling him up to make them.
“We keep coming back to him,” says Mary Brescia, who works as an interpretive naturalist at Hartford’s Dinosaur State Park, which recently unveiled a Rush-made Rutiodon, a ten-foot-long reptile. “We’ve had him make models of a dolothosaurus which was 20 feet long and a matoposaurus which was 6 feet long. The kids love them and we think they’re great. We know that he will do a wonderful job and they always hold up quite well.”
Rush was educated at IIT and the School of the Art Institute. He had dreams of being a sculptor, but his father had dreams, bad dreams, about spending his life savings supporting his son the struggling artist, so he pushed young Richard into getting an engineering degree. Since then Rush’s life has been a mixture of the seemingly divergent worlds of fine art and science.
“Our studio came about back in 1939 when I graduated from the Art Institute,” Rush recalls. “I started out to look for a job as a sculptor because that’s what I thought I was. I couldn’t find one because it was sort of Depression time.
“People said, ‘We do have occasional jobs, so why don’t you leave us your card and we’ll call you?’ I thought that was just some way to get rid of a college kid, so I wandered off and established myself as a one-man studio. I’d do anything that was three-dimensional. I did clocks for Marshall Field’s. I’d do toilet seats for Sears Roebuck, fronts of jukeboxes, anything. A sculptor is a person who can model an animal, a flower, any realistic sort of thing. I would really do anything.”
His business was going along pretty well and he got a number of jobs designing displays for store windows. But then World War II came and forced Rush to close down. In 1941 he was drafted and assigned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He helped to create three-dimensional models of potential battle sites and helped to pioneer the use of plastics in the making of these models. He was awarded the Bronze Star and the British Empire Medal for his work.
“We were attached to something called Supreme Headquarters,” recalls Rush. “They had a section which was called photo intelligence. And the photo intelligence people would come back with their photographs of various locations and we made models from those photographs and from maps. We would send the models out to the field.
“We would send one model to Supreme Headquarters, and Eisenhower and whoever would decide what they wanted to do with them. But they wanted us to make more of these models so we could send them out to division commanders so they could see what these places looked like too. A British fellow and I got together with the British plastics industry to develop a system of making these models.”
In 1945, Rush came back to Chicago and reopened his studio, and it’s been in business ever since, working on projects as diverse as Smokey the Bear–Rush designed and made the costume–and, for the 1984 Knoxville World’s Fair, a model of the Holy Mosque in Mecca, made in cooperation with the Saudi Arabian government.
One of the studio’s specialties is transparent mannequins. “We got a call from a doctor in California who asked if we could do transparent figures,” says Rush. “I said certainly we could. He was the representative of a holy man from Bangalore, India. And this guru wanted an eight-foot-high transparent man with a circulatory system. So we went to Bangalore and negotiated with this holy man.
“We produced it and installed it over in India. This holy man was reputed to cause all kinds of miracles, but he wasn’t what we expected. He wasn’t like one of these gurus you hear about who have Mercedes Benzes. This guy was a very plain, conservative, little guy. He lived on the grounds of a university he built and he wanted the man so he’d be able to show his students how the circulatory system worked.”
Rush now holds the patent for something called the Transparent Anatomical Manikin, or TAM. You can find one on the second floor of the Museum of Science and Industry or in one of the rooms at the Robert Crown Health Center in Hinsdale. TAM is a life-size clear mannequin whose internal organs light up as they are described by a taped narration.
“Hello,” says TAM in a sweet 2001 voice, while her larynx lights up. “This is my voice box. It’s where voice sounds are made.”
“It’s a good learning tool,” says Frank Cycenas, project designer at the Museum of Science and Industry. “She stands there with her arms open and she’ll rotate on a platform. The whole thing is anatomically correct and the design process works very well.”
In 1967, the Shedd Aquarium asked Rush to help design their giant coral reef. “We went on a collecting trip to see what the real underwater world looked like. I learned how to scuba dive,” says Rush, a 77-year-old Eagle Scout who still dives on occasion. The coral reef was the first one of its kind, Rush says, and led to assignments designing similar reefs for museums all over the world.
Behind his thick glasses and light-blue lab coat, Rush has the calm demeanor of one of those instructors from a 1950s classroom science film. He appears to be a very quiet and unassuming fellow, but when he strolls around his studios to check up on projects, all of his workers (there are now 34 of them) straighten up and nod toward him with a touch of reverence. He’s not “Hey Rich” around here. He’s always “Mr. Rush.”
One worker is putting the finishing touches on an imposing-looking rust-colored dinosaur. Another is sculpting asteroids and planets. Rick, Rush’s son, is supervising the painting of some fiberglass coral for a new Disney project. The coral is black with splotches of reds, purples, pinks, and yellows.
“Those colors aren’t really realistic,” apologizes the elder Rush, “but Disney wanted us to zap them up a bit.”
He pauses by a series of bronze busts gathering dust on a shelf. One is a small one of Ray Kroc. Sitting next to it is a larger-than-life bust of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley. Rush scowls as he looks at it.
“We made it on speculation,” he glowers. “We very seldom do that and it should be a lesson to me not to do it ever again. At the time he died, everyone thought it’d be a great idea to have a heroic sculpture of him because they thought everybody would want one. Well, Bilandic got in and he wasn’t too interested. Then Mayor Byrne got in and she didn’t like the idea at all.”
The boss walks on, past a man who is sculpting a head for an exhibit in Bahrain. Another is working on a circulatory system. Another is designing cilia for a bigger-than-life nose. They work from pictures and diagrams.
“I tell my customers that we’re artists, designers, craftsmen, but we’re not doctors,” says Rush. “We need their help to do these things. They describe what they want us to do. We get books and specimens and things like that and then we make drawings. Then we make the model.
“The saying around this place is we’ll do anything. Given a certain amount of time and money, anything can be accomplished. If you have less time, it costs more money. If you have more money, you can do it in less time. If it’s a physical thing–building, sculpturing, painting–we’re capable of completing most anything.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Kathy Richland.