Published: January 29, 2020

Finding Carl Cotton

Tori Lee, Exhibitions Developer, Exhibitions

Alert

"As soon as I saw his photo, I needed to find out who he was," says exhibitions developer Tori Lee.

Carl Cotton, holding a paintbrush, sits at a table with various art supplies and a large model of a turtle.

Before the summer of 2019, I’d never heard of Carl W. Cotton. Six months later, I’d met his family, and one of his childhood friends. I knew his work duties each month for 20 years (and when he took sick days). I’d talked incessantly to anyone who would listen about his life. And now I’ve written an exhibit about him. 

Carl Cotton (1918–1971) was a taxidermist, artist, and exhibition preparator who worked at the Field Museum from 1947 until his death in 1971. He is the Field Museum’s first African American taxidermist, maybe even Chicago’s first professional one. And we at the Museum knew almost nothing about him. 

Thanks to a group of supportive people in and outside of the Museum, I’ve been able to sketch a portrait of a humble, talented man who was passionate about nature and the art of taxidermy. Cotton spent almost 25 years creating beautiful exhibitions behind the scenes, never expecting to be the subject of one. As I kept digging, I found more and more of myself in Cotton’s story. Like me, he made exhibits on the fourth floor of the museum. Like me, he was a black person working at an institution with a complicated racial history. When visitors see this exhibit, I hope they see themselves in Cotton’s passion and determination to follow his dreams. Here’s a glimpse at how we uncovered this partially hidden figure. 

The moment of discovery

When Reda Brooks (Exhibitions) showed me a photo of Carl Cotton she’d found in the Field Museum’s 125th anniversary book, a million questions flashed through my mind. A black man? A taxidermist? 1950?? I wasn’t alone. For years, a small group of Cotton fans around the Museum—who each held a piece of the puzzle—had wondered the same thing. 

Reda Brooks was searching for museum staff to honor during Black History Month when she stumbled across this photo of Carl Cotton.

Latoya Flowers

Cotton at work on the Nile marsh diorama in 1953. In addition to preparing every bird, he also replicated each lily pad by hand, bringing the East African habitat to life.

Finding the Cotton family

Carl Cotton enthusiast Mark Alvey (Science and Education) and I scoured the internet for family members. He scanned obituaries and sent letters. I ran Ancestry.com searches and sent hopeful DMs. One Saturday morning, I got an excited call from Carl’s grandson. When our social media team tweeted asking for more information about Carl, his granddaughter and widow also responded.

Interviewing a Chicago legend

Timuel Black—a Chicago historian and activist—and Carl Cotton were childhood friends. Both born in 1918, they grew up together near Washington Park. Black, now 101, serendipitously visited the Museum around the time I discovered this connection. When Reda and I asked to interview him, he enthusiastically agreed. My favorite part of the interview was when Black joked about Cotton’s early interest in taxidermy, “cats and rats ran when they saw Carl.”

Timuel Black, smiling, sits in front of a bookshelf in his home. He wears black browline style glasses, a white collared shirt, and a red sweater.

Timuel and his wife Zenobia Black welcomed us into their home, where we recorded his early memories of Carl Cotton and the Field Museum. 

Latoya Flowers

Sleuthing in the archives

With the help of Library and Archives staff, a few interns and I transcribed Zoology Department reports detailing Cotton’s monthly tasks, which included preparing skins and mounting birds for displays. Careful cross-checking between the reports, archival photographs, and the knowledge of collections managers helped us identify previously unknown Cotton specimens. This is my proudest bit of detective work.

Cotton’s early letters

Tucked away in Cotton’s personnel file were letters he’d sent to the Field. In 1940, he wrote to the director of the Museum in search of a taxidermy job. He was turned down, but didn’t give up. In 1947, he sent another, more detailed, passionate letter offering to volunteer. The next week he was hired, and a month later he was promoted to full-time. When Archivist Armand Esai sent me this letter, I teared up. After months of looking at impersonal reports, this was the first thing I’d seen written by Cotton himself. It showed a man driven by his passion, willing to take bold action, and undeterred by rejection.

For years taxidermy has been my main interest and hobby and my ambition is...not doing just ‘average’ taxidermy but turning out work comparable to that of Carl Akeley, Leon Pray, Leon Walters and other artists. This will require a certain ‘know how’ that I can acquire only through the experience and exactness of museum training.

Carl Cotton
A typewritten letter, in which Cotton inquires about the availability of taxidermy training at the museum.

Cotton’s 1947 letter to Clifford C. Gregg, then the head of the Field Museum.

Family day

On a cloudy day in September 2019, four generations of the Cotton family journeyed to the Field to spend a day celebrating Carl. We showed them everything we’d found so far; they shared loving memories and helped us fill in the gaps. Seeing their joy at reuniting with Carl—and each other—was one of the happiest days I’ve had at the Field.

Birds collections manager and taxidermist Tom Gnoske gave the family a tour of Cotton’s work still on display today.

Latoya Flowers

TJ—Cotton’s great-grandson—looks at a bird display created by him.

Latoya Flowers

Tori’s favorite finds

Here’s a collection of my favorite tidbits that we didn’t have enough space to talk about in the exhibition.

On exhibit

When I went looking for Carl Cotton, I found more than a few photos and handwritten reports. I met family members, archivists, and taxidermy enthusiasts around Chicagoland. I made new connections within my own workplace community. And I found my voice while trying to lift up someone else's.

Tori Lee stands in front of a wall of photos of Carl Cotton. Text on the wall above the photos reads, "Thousands of visitors see these displays every day. Meet the man who made them."

Tori at the entrance to the exhibition about Cotton's life and work. 

A Natural Talent: The Taxidermy of Carl Cotton is on display in the Brooker Gallery until October 4, 2020. Come meet Carl!