Ohio’s mythical beasts to be on life-size display at presidential museum

Local artist Dan Chudzinski’s singular rendering of a pukwudgie, which are small, arrow-toting creatures from Native American lore, that will be featured in the “Unnatural History” exhibit at the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums beginning Feb. 28.

Calling all paranormal pundits, creature creeps and beastie buffs: at the end of February, a new museum exhibit devoted to cryptids, myths and all things odd in Ohio’s history is opening its freakishly large jaws to the public in Fremont.

The Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums at Spiegel Grove are premiering an exhibit on the weirdest parts of Ohio’s folkloric past called “Ohio: An Unnatural History” Friday, Feb. 28. Once open, the exhibit will run through Sunday, Nov. 1.

The exhibit focuses on myths and legends local to the state of Ohio and will feature the artwork of Dan Chudzinski, curator of the Mazza Museum at The University of Findlay and an artist who has consulted on films and other art projects.

“In this exhibit, we are going to look at what folklore is and why it’s important,” said Kevin Moore, curator of artifacts at the museums.

“And paranormal ideas are really popular right now, in pop culture, podcasts and TV shows,” he said. “We wanted to talk about which of these ideas pertain specifically to Ohio, find out what our legends are and where they came from and try to parse out which kernels of history we can.”

Giving life to Ohio’s monsters and myths will be Chudzinski, whom the Hayes Library and Museums reached out to about the exhibit. He and the Hayes Library and Museums got together and began to plan how to exhibit Ohio’s folkloric history, considering there is no hard evidence of these mythical beings to put on display.

“I design a lot of creatures and have consulted on projects for films and books,” Chudzinski said, “and that was the role they wanted me to fill. It worked out especially well, because I also had done a lot of personal research into cryptids from the special effects I’ve done.”

Chudzinski said he wanted to make the creatures appear as real as possible, even if they aren’t necessarily real creatures.

“I went to the zoo and pay a lot of attention to animal behavior in my creations,” he said. “I also used my experience in taxidermy and the research I’ve done to make these sculptures and illustrations,” he said.

Chudzinski said his youth was full of dissections and unusual pets, since his mother was head of a college biology department. He said his family was also “full of great storytellers.”

“When I asked my parents whether the Lake Erie monster existed, rather than telling me it didn’t they would tell me to go and find out for myself,” he said.

He said his childhood led him to work with the Toledo Zoo, where he first helped catalog the Biofact room in the basement, full of skulls and hides and unidentified things, and eventually worked in taxidermy.

“At the time they’d just skin a zoo animal when it died and do a necropsy, which is like an autopsy for animals,” he said. “Once I sat in on a necropsy for a snow leopard, and I interrupted them and asked if I could step in, because they weren’t really preserving the animal.

They let me, and I removed the skin, and they asked me then to become their guy for taxidermy.”

Chudzinski would go on to skin a hippo at the Zoo and is even affiliated with the work today, albeit in a different capacity, he said.

“I always wanted to be close to those animals, so it was a way they could live on for me,” he said.

“I also used that era for education about animals.”

In creating his depictions for “Ohio: An Unnatural History,” Chudzinski said he researched witness and police reports taken from those who claimed to have seen the creatures over the years and used the information and imagery as references for his own creations, treating the process like a police sketch artist in terms of level of detail.

But he also wanted his drawings to remain unique and fresh.

“Take the Loveland Frog, for example: can we mix human and frog anatomy and not make it hokey, and can we also make it look different than everyone else’s depictions of the mythical creature?” he asked. “That’s what I was going for.”

“His take on Mothman is a great example of his unique depictions, completely different from any other sketches I’ve seen,” Moore said of Chudzinski’s work.

“There are a lot of similarities in the descriptions of these cryptids that exist out there, but you don’t always get full details,” Moore said. “Dan’s work is really realistic but it also imagines those missing parts.”

The exhibit will feature Chudzinski’s lifelike illustrations printed onto cardboard cutouts, printed to the size that the creatures have been reported to be, Moore said. Chudzinski also loaned the museums four creature sculptures he’d made previously that will be worked into the display.

“Dan [Chudzinski’s] contributions are realistic,” Moore said. “And they’ll be life-sized, so there will be an 8-foot-tall Bigfoot, or Grassman as he’s called in Ohio, in the exhibit, among all the others.”

Attendees can expect to see depictions of myriad creatures from Native American folklore and Ohio’s more recent past at the museum, including the pukwudgie, the Lake Erie Monster, the Loveland Frogman and a dogman (not to be confused with the werewolf) among others.

“We encourage people to take pictures with the cutouts, too,” Moore said.

The exhibit will also feature a host of information panels discussing the study of folklore and why these tales might matter to society.

“We interviewed professor of folklore at Bowling Green State University Dr. Esther A. Clinton about the nature of paranormal beliefs, about the percentage of Americans who believe in the supernatural and we profiled Ohio’s local legends,” Moore said.

The video footage of the museums’ interview with Clinton plays into the exhibit, Moore said.

There will even be a children’s area in the display where kids can draw their own cryptids and hang up their pictures within the exhibit itself, adding to the existing historical tapestry of depiction and mystery that surrounds Ohio’s legends.

Access to the exhibit is included with regular admission to the museums. Hayes Presidential members are admitted for free.

Partial funding for this exhibit has been provided by Decker Roofing and Gutter Solutions and Hanneman-Chudzinski-Keller Funeral Home, a release from the museums states.

There also will be a companion program to the exhibit Sunday, March 22 at 2 p.m. in the museum auditorium, in which local historian Mike Gilbert will give a talk regarding his research into giants, Moore said. Admission to Gilbert’s talk is $5; for details and tickets, visit rbhayes.org.

And for more information in general, call (419) 332-2081 or visit rbhayes.org or the museums’ Facebook or Twitter pages.


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