Sitting outside Bass Pro Shops® Outdoor World®, Adam Wolken pulled out a paint splattered iPad and began flipping through photos of breathtaking, hand-painted murals created by him and his brother, Aaron.
The Wolkens were taking a short break from their dream job to talk about helping create one of the largest, most immersive conservation attractions in the world — Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium. As they swiped through photos representing their years of painting inside the new facility connected to the original and largest Bass Pro Shops in the world, they reflected on the work they’ve done and the amazing opportunity it represents for them.
Sink or swim
Aaron Wolken (left) and Adam Wolken (right) stand in front of a mural they painted in Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri.
Adam, 37, and Aaron, 35, from an early age were encouraged to push their creative boundaries. As kids, they drew everything from caricatures to comics and carried that passion into their college years.
After college, Adam set up shop in a small art studio where he fell in love with painting murals. Almost immediately, Aaron joined him, and after a couple years of learning the trade, they were on their own and making their mark for Bass Pro.
“Honestly, it was sink or swim,” said Adam. “[Bass Pro Shops] asked if I could paint a 250-foot-long marshland scene with 100 ducks at their store in Toronto, Canada, in 15 days. This was my first large-scale landscape, and I did it."
The big gig
Sheep Mountain in Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri.
As Bass Pro Shops founder, Johnny Morris, laid out his vision for Wonders of Wildlife, he commissioned Adam to create the first mural in the 315,000-square-foot facility — Sheep Mountain in the wildlife galleries, a stunning 360-degree view of the Himalayas.
“From day one, we knew this was a momentous project,” Adam said. “The reception to the Himalayan scene was so great, they decided to expand the original design to completely surround the viewer.”
Just as the brothers finish each other’s sentences when talking about their work, they also finish each other’s meticulous paint strokes — working together to help create one of the biggest, most immersive experiences in the world.
“We paint very close to the same style, but there are little things that we do differently,” said Aaron. “So we tend to work in a space for awhile, and then we switch places.”
Creating an experience
Africa section of Hunting Heritage Hall in Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri.
One of the most visually impressive areas of the museum is the Africa section of Hunting Heritage Hall — wildlife galleries that bring visitors eye-to-eye with a huge collection of record-setting big game animals from North America, Africa and the Arctic.
Visitors will be transported to an African bush camp prowled by lions at night and into a cavernous hall complete with elephants, giraffes and other game that bring the African savannah to Springfield. It took the brothers nearly a year to complete the painting.
“I don’t think there is anything in the world like it, especially the African section, because it’s one huge piece and it’s hard to tell it was painted by two different people because of its cohesiveness,” said Aaron.
From the intricate details on a blade of grass, to different tones of blue that make up the grand African sky, the brothers spared no detail — all with the experience of the visitor in mind.
Aaron said part of the challenge with large-scale dioramas is making a seamless mesh between the painting and the 3-D elements, including big game, that stand in front of the murals.
“We started them without the 3-D elements in place and then once they bring in the rocks, grasses, etc., then we’ll go through and match their foliage in terms of color and tone so that the line between 2-D and 3-D disappears,” added Adam.
Over the course of their careers, Adam and Aaron have painted just over a half million square feet of murals. They believe they’ve been given the “canvas of a lifetime,” and are excited to push the envelope in their approach to painting.
A piece for generations
Aaron Wolken works on a mural in Wonders of Wildlife National Museum & Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri.
Reflecting on the last nine years they’ve spent helping bring Wonders of Wildlife to life, the Wolkens said they are “humbled and blessed.”
At the grand opening of the museum in September 2017 with former presidents Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush in attendance, Morris recognized the Wolken brothers and other artists for their contribution to history.
“I wanted to say a special thanks to the unbelievable amount of work that the craftsmen and women, the artists, the painters, the metal workers, the woodworkers and many others have put into this,” said Morris.
“It’s more than an attraction, it’s part of our country's history and the effort, the relentless hard work and dedication of these people and their talent is unbelievable.”
Visit wondersofwildlife.org for ticket information.