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VOL. 127 | NO. 169 | Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Visual History Lesson

Painter’s son seeks permanent home for Civil War diorama

By Bill Dries

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Ken Scott is preparing for another move.

A visitor views the Civil War diorama on display in the Mud Island River Park Mississippi River Museum. The 100-foot-long, 19-panel diorama is on display at the museum until Sept. 2.

(Photos:  Lance Murphey)

After the long Labor Day weekend, he and several friends will go to the Mud Island Park Mississippi River Museum and begin taking down the latest exhibition of a Civil War diorama his late father, Fred “Buster” Scott, researched and painted over a 10-year period in the 1980s and 1990s.

It’s hard work. The diorama is on 19 panels and about 100 feet in length and in its proper order it depicts not just the Civil War, but notable Civil War events and battles in the state of Tennessee from Memphis to Chattanooga.

“I put it back up on the wall to basically store it and no one gets to see it but my family and friends. Most of the time they are helping me take it down and put it up,” Scott said.

“My goal would be to find a permanent home, somewhere that I would consider putting it on permanent loan.”

A permanent home would include a place with some kind of climate control to preserve the rich detail his father put into the painting after extensive research that included battlefield visits and thousands of photographs.

Scott realizes the diorama is just as much of a challenge for any museum as it was for his father.

“He put 10 years of his life after he retired from the highway patrol into these paintings. His desire was for as many people as possible to see them,” he said. “By the time you set these up, you are talking about a room that would have to be almost 1,000 square feet to house it. Normally what we would do is set it up in a big U-shape.”

That’s what he and his friends were able to do at Davies Plantation, the last place before the River Museum to host the diorama.

The inspiration for the diorama is another massive work of art that is also challenging logistically, the Civil War Cyclorama in Atlanta. The cyclorama, which remains an attraction in Atlanta, was painted in 1885 and covers 15,030 square feet.

A visitor views the Civil War diorama on display in the Mud Island River Park Mississippi River Museum. The 100-foot-long, 19-panel diorama was painted by a retired state trooper and World War II veteran, the late Fred Scott. Scott, of Memphis, spent 10 years painting scenes of and researching the Civil War in Tennessee. 

The cyclorama surrounds viewers and Scott said that is the best way to view his father’s diorama.

“That influenced what he was doing in his mind to create that effect. When you got in that U-shape, you had no option but to get drawn into it,” Ken Scott said. “It is a different effect.

“But I appreciate the opportunity to get in (the Mississippi River Museum). They’ve been really great.”

The Mud Island exhibit includes not just the diorama. There are also items from his father’s work on the panels in a workshop at the family home in Berclair. And there is a video recorded by family members of Buster Scott explaining his work on each of the panels that his son says they recorded initially simply to have a family archive of the effort.

The display opened at Mud Island shortly after the 150th anniversary in June of the 1862 gunboat battle of Memphis on the Mississippi River. The nation is observing the 150th anniversary of the war through 2015.

Next year’s observances will include President Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation with Gettysburg’s anniversary as well as Sherman’s March to the Sea and Appomattox still to come.

The Civil War in Tennessee is not simply the story of a state that joined the Confederacy. If one cites a Tennessee regiment or battalion’s number, it’s necessary to also note if it was Union or Confederate. The part of the state it was from is usually a clue to those who know the basic history of a state that raised troops for both sides of the war.

Fred “Buster” Scott was a World War II veteran who fought at every hot stop in the Pacific including Saipan, Tarawa and Okinawa. He went to work for the Tennessee Highway Patrol after the war.

“He studied the subject thoroughly. He studied war tactics,” Ken Scott said of his father. “He had that background of being in a battle and all of that. … He knew Tennessee pretty good. But if he didn’t he would go to Chattanooga and Lookout Mountain and took pictures of the landscape.”

Buster Scott had polio but was never in a wheelchair, walking instead with the help of leg braces.

He did other paintings before embarking on the diorama. His son was surprised to encounter people who had some of the paintings and even some who recalled his painting on the side of a post office.

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