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A world ‘Beyond’

With a sculptor’s imagination, a curious collection takes on mythic proportions

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By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / August 14, 2009

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WORCESTER - Sculptor Hilary Scott eyes a doorway on his way into the Higgins Armory Museum. “I have to measure that door for a mermaid terrarium,’’ he says.

Now under construction in Scott’s Stockbridge studio, the terrarium will join a host of other fantastical objects in the exhibit “Beyond Belief: The Curious Collection of Professor Rufus Excalibur Bell,’’ which is on display at the museum.

Professor Bell is entirely the product of Scott’s imagination: He’s billed as the museum’s curator of curiosities, and the exhibit comprises his study, a storage room, and more than 100 mythic objects. A fragment of Faust’s contract with the devil hangs on the wall. Medusa’s snake-covered head is squirreled away from direct view, but can be glimpsed in a mirror, and a fierce African dragon’s head on the wall bares its double set of sharp teeth.

“There’s a boggart in its natural state,’’ Scott says, pointing at an angry red blob on a shelf. Harry Potter readers know the boggart as a malevolent shape-shifter prone to taking the form of a young wizard’s worst fears, but before that it was a sly fairy found in English folklore. Nearly everything in the show springs from myth and folklore, except of course Professor Bell himself, and his penguin sidekick.

Seen in a black-and-white photo, Bell bears a marked resemblance to Scott, who is tall, with a dark beard and an engaging manner. As he strolls through the show, Scott speaks in hushed tones, with the dramatic inflections of a storyteller.

“[Bell] worked in the museum, but he up and left, saying ‘I’m going to walk about,’ and he hasn’t been seen since. But things keep appearing,’’ Scott relates. Bell, an explorer, has gone off in search of the treasures of ancient mythology.

For Scott, each piece in the show started with research. For instance, he delved into the ancient Greek tale of the Golden Fleece, the object of a quest by Jason and the Argonauts.

“Greeks often used lamb skins to pan for gold,’’ he reports. “So lamb skins would be impregnated with gold. Jason and his Argonauts were classical gold prospectors.’’

The collection is more treasure trove than exhibition, in that visitors are invited to explore: to open drawers and pick up photos, handwritten journals, or tags filled with typewritten information.

“I wanted to have the joy of the scientific method married with something that is clearly a fiction,’’ Scott says. “I got away with that by saying it’s all fiction, and I embraced the scientific method and applied it to harpies and to Daedalus.’’

Scott set to work last fall at the behest of the museum’s executive director, Nikki Andersen. He worked closely with assistant curator of exhibitions Linda Woodland.

“It had to be immediately accessible, relate to the school curriculum, with elements of fun and enjoyment, but also digging deeper,’’ says Woodland, who couldn’t be happier with the result.

“I am ecstatic,’’ she says. “This is beyond our expectations, one of the most ambitious exhibitions the Higgins has ever put on.’’

How did Scott make so many pieces so quickly?

“I worked on everything simultaneously; that was my son’s suggestion,’’ Scott says. “If I got stuck with one thing, I immediately turned to something else.’’

He eyes Daedalus’s wings, a giant contraption with a harness and hundreds of feathers. It hangs over the professor’s desk. “I got terribly sick of feathers,’’ he says.

Scott’s own journey has taken several unexpected turns on its way to this exhibition. He spends his summers in Stockbridge, photographing events at Tanglewood for the Boston Symphony Orchestra - a position his father, Walter Scott, held for 30 years. “I was taking pictures in seventh grade,’’ Scott remembers. “I remember Walter putting me up on a platform to get a big wide shot.’’

Scott got a doctorate in international relations at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and taught there for several years. He and his wife, Gretchen, a Tufts classmate, live in Somerville most of the year with their two kids, Hannah, 15, and Gabriel, 13.

Scott started building odd creatures and other sculptures when the kids were small and would ask their dad to make them things. That doesn’t happen much anymore. “Barbie doesn’t sail in her magnificent Barbie boat as much as she used to,’’ Scott laments.

But it did launch his career as a sculptor. He opened his home for Somerville Open Studios, and the commissions started coming in - enough for him to leave his day job as a Tufts lecturer. A recent commission, for a wine connoisseur, was a coffin with a built-in wine case.

Last year, the Higgins invited him to display some of his dragon heads and create a large-scale dragon for its Quest gallery, a family-friendly space. When the idea for a bigger interactive show began to percolate, Scott seemed like a natural fit. He took it from there.

Myths often embrace the archetypes of human experience, from the hero journey to love, loss, and grief. As he was putting the show together, Scott was facing one of his own life passages.

“When I began working on this in the fall, my father had been diagnosed with cancer of the throat, and I was in Stockbridge taking care of him,’’ Scott says. “So there’s a melancholy aspect to many of these pieces.’’

Look at those wings of Daedalus. In Greek mythology, Daedalus was a master craftsman, imprisoned with his son Icarus on Crete by the king. He built wings for the two of them to use to escape, and they took flight. But Icarus flew too close to the sun. His wings melted, and he fell to his death.

“The father creates these things to escape - out of his own genius - and he sees his son die,’’ Scott relates. “It’s a tale of utter genius, but utter desolation.’’

Scott spoke with his father about the story. “He was very sick. I remember sitting on his bed, and him propped up, and discussing the wings of Daedalus,’’ Scott says. He also invited his father to contribute to the show by writing one of Bell’s travelogues. That journal lies on a table in the storage room, open for perusal. Meanwhile, Scott’s father made it through his first course of treatment and is still fighting the cancer.

As Scott gives visitors a tour of “Beyond Belief,’’ a family wanders through and approaches a computer with a touch-screen guide to the collection. “Where’s the boggart?’’ asks one boy. “Where’s the jabberwocky?’’ demands a girl.

While “Beyond Belief’’ is chock full of amazing objects, Rufus Excalibur Bell has not finished his travels. Scott expects to continue to make pieces. “For the one-year anniversary, there will be a larger mummy,’’ he declares.

And then there’s that mermaid terrarium. If he can get it in the door.

BEYOND BELIEF: The Curious Collection of Professor Rufus Excalibur Bell

At Higgins Armory Museum, Worcester, through 2011.

508-853-6015, www.higgins.org

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