Dan Erickson is not one to idle.
His position as properties carpenter/artisan in University Productions in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, and with a toddler at home, are usually plenty to keep him busy.
When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down public performances, Erickson had some unexpected time on his hands.
He and a friend filled some of it recently by helping remount an elephant skeleton that had long been displayed at a Wayne State University building.
“Since the theater’s large scenery shop is pretty much unused and empty due to the pandemic and I have ‘free’ time, it seemed like a good combination,” Erickson said.
The skeleton belongs to a female Asian elephant named Iki and was obtained in 1980 by Jeheskel (Hezy) Shoshani, one of the world’s most prominent fossil elephant experts who was killed when terrorists bombed the bus he was riding while researching in Ethiopia in 2008.
It took years for the skeleton to be mounted for display at Wayne State’s Science and Engineering Library, and it stood in front of a student-painted mural for 30 years before being disassembled in 2019 while the library was transformed into the new STEM Innovation Learning Center.
Iki will have a prominent home in the renovated building, but Wayne State sought some skilled U-M museum preparators to put it back together.
Michael Cherney, a recent U-M graduate and research fellow in internal medicine at Michigan Medicine, had learned of Wayne State’s desires and approached Erickson about doing the work. Cherney and Erickson had previously worked together as museum exhibit preparators mounting mastodon and whale skeletons at the U-M Museum of Natural History.
Erickson enlisted his friend and U-M graduate Brian Cressman, whom Erickson had worked with in the past on a large wildlife illustration project. Cressman had also worked with Shoshani on Iki during his undergraduate years at Wayne State University.
The challenge that laid before them in boxes of labeled elephant bones was daunting.
“The task of putting it back together again didn’t sound too hard at first, but there were a few catches involved, such as the skeleton now has to pass through a standard set of double doors in order to get into the new building,” Erickson said. “This required some more thought into how to make the head and legs removable, and to do it all so the next person who has to move this won’t be cursing me years from now.”
Erickson and Cressman spent about two months — mostly weekends and late nights to avoid staff and students — working on the bones in the Power Center for the Performing Arts theater shop space. They made use of as much of the embedded hardware and previously drilled holes as possible.
Erickson said they even employed some of the same tools, ropes and pulleys he used years ago while making a 16-foot-long model of a prehistoric fish.
A few weeks ago, Erickson and Cressman completed their work, and the sub-assemblies of the pachyderm mount were crated and driven back to Wayne State for storage until the new building is ready along with a wall graphic in front of which the skeleton will be displayed.
Around that same time, the theater was returning to its intended uses.
“The idea of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ being rehearsed next to the elephant skeleton sounded like some potentially interesting images, however keeping everyone safe and separate seemed to be more important,” Erickson joked.
His interest in art and museums took hold at a young age. Erickson said he was naturally good at drawing and making things and had an interest in nature — “often wandering fields and streams looking to fill my pillowcase with snakes as a kid.”
As an elementary student, he and his class visited the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.
“Years later I found myself as a college art student studying taxidermy and exhibit preparation and design in the same museum,” he said. “It was a good combination of my interests in both art and natural history.”
He has spent nearly three decades of his career at U-M in two stints, the first in 1990 as an exhibit preparator at the Museum of Natural History. He left in 2011 but returned in his current role three years later.
In a non-pandemic year, his main duties include making stage props for the 10 stage performances and other shows University Productions supports on campus. He also teaches students how to safely work with power tools and how props are constructed.
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Among his most rewarding props are two chairs he built, one based on the Coronation Chair that was used in a Shakespeare play and again in a production of “The Little Mermaid.” The other was a 15th-century-style chair that Falstaff sat in for another Shakespeare production.
“There weren’t many other props for me to make at that time, so I actually had sufficient time to make a chair the same way it was done in the 15th century, starting with rough slabs of oak I had cut from a tree,” he said. “I chopped out mortise-and-tenon joints by hand and even made wood dowel pins by driving wood through a steel plate. It was fun to show the students how such a thing can be done.”
In addition to his work on the Iki elephant project — and caring for his toddler — Erickson has spent his down time upgrading his own home workshop with new tools and machines and developing new skills for making things in anticipation of returning to more typical times.
“I’m looking forward to seeing the students and staff again,” he said. “They are a fun bunch of people.”