A Career Bringing Natural History to Life

Stephen Quinn, the senior diorama artist at the American Museum of Natural History, is retiring after nearly 40 years at the museum.

Stephen Quinn, the senior diorama artist at the American Museum of Natural History, is retiring after nearly 40 years at the museum.


“I’m in my work clothes,” Stephen Christopher Quinn said as he smoothed a dark blue apron splotched with paint. “I’ve got to finish two murals by Friday.”

Standing in front of the buffalo diorama that he had restored, he meant to sound apologetic, but he sounded busy. He is the da Vinci of dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, its Botticelli of birds, its Renoir of rhinoceroses. As the museum’s senior diorama artist, he has masterminded the scenes that make the crowds ooh and ahhh: the big blue whale, the huge coral reef, the gorillas beating their chests, the archaeopteryx, the acanthostega.

Those last two are in one of the fourth-floor dinosaur halls. You cannot mention the museum’s dioramas without mentioning its dinosaurs — in this case the archaeopteryx, a bird that bridged the evolutionary gap between dinosaurs that had feathers and latter-day birds. Or the acanthostega, an extinct creature that must have looked like a small alligator. It was one of the first to have distinct, recognizable limbs and hands with eight digits, if you counted them. Mr. Quinn, who is nothing if not precise, did.

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Note: Stephen Quinn is my uncle and I’m very proud of the work he has done! Kudos and Happy Retirement Uncle Deet Deet!

Let life be beautiful like summer flowers and death like autumn leaves

John R. Quinn, 73, died peacefully on May 25, 2012, at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, MA after a long battle with lung cancer.

John was born on July 17, 1938 in Teaneck, NJ, the son of Raymond and Mary (Dempsey) Quinn. He grew up in Ridgefield Park, NJ and spent much of his childhood exploring the shimmering, hazy Meadowlands nestled in the lee of the New York City skyline. His youthful experiences formed an abiding love of the natural world that would shape his entire life. In 1959, he earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Parsons School of Design.

John was widely respected as a naturalist and a uniquely gifted artist and author, whose countless works were often evocative portrayals of the natural areas he so loved. He wrote and illustrated eleven books, including Nature’s World Records, The Winter Woods, and Fields of Sun and Grass: An Artist’s Journal of the New Jersey Meadowlands. John also contributed to a host of publications, writing articles for Tropical Fish Hobbyist, Aquarium, Oceans, and many others. His career bridged several decades and included work at the Philadelphia Museum of Natural History, Squam Lake’s Science Center, and as a freelance artist and owner of Quinn Life Studios in Plymouth, NH.

John enthusiastically shared his time, talents, and his love of nature with his children, nieces, and nephews. He was once aptly described as “a larger-than-life guy who could put pencil to paper and bring something to life.” John inspired family and friends alike to see nature the way he saw it: as something to be protected and cherished. Whether it was nursing an oil-soaked ocean bird back to health in his family’s bathroom sink or retrieving a disoriented bat from a neighbor’s attic, everyone knew injured wildlife in his care stood an excellent chance of being returned to the wild.

He retired to Gonic, NH in 2004, where he enjoyed spending time in the wooded areas surrounding his home. John’s creative spirit continued to flourish despite his illness, and he spent many hours building detailed models and sketching for his grandchildren.

A devout Roman Catholic, he lived his faith simply and with dignity every day.

John was predeceased by his beloved wife, Lucille Quinn. He is survived by three daughters, Denise, Erika, and Meredithe, who all live in the Pacific Northwest; two step daughters, Cynthia and Jennifer, who both live in New England; six grandchildren, Ben, Molly, Griffin, Afton, Monique, and Alec; four siblings, Richard, Mary Lou, Eileen, and Stephen; and many nieces and nephews.

A Mass will be celebrated at St. Francis of Assisi in Ridgefield Park, NJ, on June 11 at 9:30 a.m.  In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to St. Charles Children’s Home, 19 Grant Street, Rochester, NH 03867 or to the Meadowlands Conservation Trust, 1 Dekorte Park Plaza, Lyndhurst, NJ 07071