The Art Of Fish: Immigrant Trail Museum hosts first new exhibit in 30 years
Typically, when William and Judith Vrooman complete their hand-sculpted and painted wildlife artifacts, they are sold and taken out of their gallery and never to be seen again by them.
But six months ago they were asked to create a project that would be available to the public – and stay locally -until history dictates otherwise.
Last week, the Immigrant Trail Museum at Donner Memorial State Park completed the installment of a “Trout of the Sierra” exhibit the Vroomans were commissioned to create. The colorful exhibit, which features life-sized trout commonly found in the Truckee-Donner area and native to the Sierra, is the first new exhibit the museum has featured in 30 years.
California State Park Ranger Robert McGovern approached the Vroomans, well-known local wildlife artists, more than six months ago about the possibility of creating a trout exhibit to add to the natural history display he set up years ago at the museum.
The Truckee couple was commissioned by the Sierra State Parks Foundation to complete the exhibit, which includes seven trout native to the Sierra and found in Truckee waters – the Brook, Brown, Rainbow, Mackinaw, Golden and Cutthroat, along with two versions of the Kokanee, which are shown in both normal colors and with the distinctive marking the species exhibits during spawning season (late fall).
The habitat-style exhibit also includes a hand-sculpted and painted stream bed, branches, bugs and rocks.
“Everybody comes to this museum to see the [Donner Party] tragedy that occurred here, and this exhibit brightens the place up,” McGovern said. “This is the more fun side of our history here.”
The Vroomans have been combining their artistic talents to create wildlife art for 17 years, and moved to Truckee to open their business, Vrooman’s Wildlife Gallery on Commercial Row, in 1986. Both are inspired by their natural surroundings and the native species that inhabit the local environment. William has an educational background in biological science, which he relies on when creating his wooden sculptures.
“In doing the sculptures, the biological background is important because I know fish from the skeleton out … And I’ve practiced about 6,000 times too,” William said.
The Vroomans have sold more than 5,000 wildlife sculptures, which are carved by William and then painted by Judith in their studio in their Glenshire home. Judith said before painting the trout for the museum exhibit, she consulted many biology books and fishing guides to obtain the best color accuracy as possible with her oil-based stains and colors. And she was extra careful with this particular project, which was extremely detailed and time-consuming.
“I went really, really slow because I knew this exhibit was going to be here forever,” she said. “At first I was really nervous. Then I decided we’re just going to do these as if they were for our best customers.”
Judith said William teaches her biology when they create wildlife art together.
“I didn’t have to teach him anything. He’s a self-taught sculpture artist,” she said.
The vibrancy in the museum display is a result of their careful and intentional work and partnership.
“I have always tried to create the illusion of movement in my carvings,” William explained. Each fish is carved from a single block of wood, even the small and delicate dorsal and tail fins. “It’s risky, but if you can do it right the first time, you won’t have to do it again.”
The Vroomans donated $500 of their commission money to the Truckee River Habitat Restoration Group in hopes to help support aquatic wildlife in our area and give back to the Truckee River.
“I will call it from one trout to another trout,” Judith said when she presented a check to Sarah Trebilcock of the restoration group. “We want to give back to the town and the river.”
The installation in the museum is the legacy the couple is leaving to Truckee and the state of California.
“We are a permanent part of history and that is an awesome thing to confront. Having our artwork be part of Truckee’s history is a real honor,” William said proudly.
McGovern said many museum visitors inquire about certain fish they see in area streams, rivers and lakes, and that is what gave him the idea for this display.
“When I saw the Vroomans’ work, I realized we had the potential for a pretty good display,” McGovern said. “I’m hoping tertiary critters will grow here. The fish display is something I’ve been waiting for. I’d been thinking about this for the eight years I’d been here.”
He said most questions come in the fall, where visitors and locals alike witness tons of bright orange-colored trout in area streambeds. Those are the Kokanee, which change to sport the bright color and distinctive marking during spawning season.
“It’s an incredible natural event,” William said. “It is the true salmon. It consequently dies when it spawns.”
The new exhibit is complete and open for viewing. It is located at the museum in the natural history display case.
Museum hours are seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer and 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the winter.
The Vroomans hope visitors will support Catch and Release.
“A fish in the river is worth an infinite amount,” William said.
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