The Peter Principal: Ben Tolman leads the hunt for the missing memento mori.
The Peter Principal: Ben Tolman leads the hunt for the missing memento mori. Credit: Charles Steck

Ben Tolman has a small but distinguished curio collection. Piled on shelves in his art studio at O and North Capitol Streets NW are bones of various sizes and origins—mostly animal, some human. A centipede framed under glass hangs near a door, as does a scarab, its exposed wings pinned with needles. A skull stares from a side table. It’s not quite the Palace of Wonders, but the place isn’t lacking for odd objects.

The piece he most covets for his collection, though, is tantalizingly out of reach. It’s buried, and with any luck it’s still completely intact, even after roughly three decades underground. Tolman’s looking for a preserved human fetus—and he has a map showing where in Southeast to dig.

“I went up there with a friend of mine, shovel in the truck and everything, ready to go,” says Tolman, 27, describing his first venture out to find the X on the map, in early 2006. “So we get to the building, and we’re looking at the map, and it just doesn’t match up. We can’t figure out what door that is, what window to go from.”

Tolman set out on his quest after he overheard a story about the fetus told by painter Bill Newman, who received it, preserved in a jar, when he was a student. Newman is now entering his 36th year of teaching at the Corcoran College of Art & Design, where Tolman received an undergraduate degree in 2005.

“That was in my sophomore or junior year at the Corcoran,” says Tolman, explaining when he first heard Newman mention the fetus. “It was just one of the stories he would tell. He told it to me in passing, but it caught my attention. I came up to him later, maybe the next year, and said, ‘Bill, let’s find this.’”

Newman was receptive to the idea: He was affectionate enough toward the fetus that he gave it a name, Peter. “It was something I liked and respected,” he says.

Peter was a gift to Newman from his wife, Darlene, who would eventually take it from him. “She worked at Washington Hospital Center,” he says. “I don’t know how else she could have gotten it.” It’s not known how his then wife acquired the object. (The two split in 1974; she declined to comment for this story.) But the presentation suggested something archival, something that was cared for.

“It was actually in a professional little jar, with formaldehyde,” Newman explains. “The reason I thought it might still be there [is] because it was so professionally sealed, like an object at a museum. Like something you would see in the Smithsonian.”

Newman says he received the fetus “about 37 or 38 years ago,” when he was an undergraduate student at the Maryland Institute College of Art. For “three or four or five years,” he says, it held a place of pride on his desk. The memento mori was the sort of object an artist might keep to use in vanitas paintings—still-lifes of skulls or corpses symbolizing mortality. The fetus eventually made its way into the artist’s work. “I actually have a drawing that looks just exactly like Peter,” says Newman. “The paintings were different—I was so upset when he was gone, I distorted his image in the paintings.” The Katzen Arts Center at American University displayed one of his fetus paintings in early 2006.

His then wife’s opinion of the object soured significantly over time, Newman says, even as his own affection for it grew.

“I was living in Southeast, in Naylor Gardens,” he says. “One day I came home, it wasn’t there, [and] I got all freaked out. My wife came in and saw that I was upset. ‘Where’s Peter, where’s Peter?’ She said she had buried him and wouldn’t tell me where it was.”

Newman was despondent, he recalls. “You don’t know how desperate I was,” he confesses. “This little creature in this jar had fingernails and everything. It was little, I became attached. Maybe that’s why she took it away—she thought I was too attached.”

Tolman reinvigorated Newman’s decades-long hope to see Peter again. “He was one of my favorite students,” says Newman. “He’s a great artist, and we’re good friends.” Both artists have new work currently on display in “Drift,” a show that opened in June as part of the 2007 Art Walk on 10th Street near H Street NW. But Tolman didn’t merely inspire Newman—he also offered a physical proxy. Newman has multiple sclerosis and has used a wheelchair since 2000, so someone else would have to do the digging. With Tolman’s encouragement and offer of labor, Newman decided to brave a family divide in hopes of finding a map to Peter’s undisclosed location.

Newman began relaying messages to his ex-wife through their daughter, Jessica. Those efforts produced a map supposedly detailing Peter’s location. But Tolman couldn’t make heads or tails of the crudely detailed drawing.

“Thirty-five years later, your memory is not going to be that good,” Tolman says. “So I took some photos, sent those to Bill to get him to show them to her to pinpoint the location. I think she might be a little reluctant.”

“At this point, there’s no way I can do anything except through my daughter,” Newman says. “I think [Darlene] was trying to make my daughter feel better to make me feel better. I can’t tell whether she drew the map in honesty or to make us feel better. I got all excited, and Ben got excited.” (Newman’s daughter also declined to comment for this story.)

For Tolman, an object like a fetus wouldn’t be a mere trophy. The Dupont Circle resident works primarily in ink, making large-scale drawings that are notable for their meticulous detail. A Hieronymus Bosch freak, Tolman creates Bristol-board panels covered in imagery that reflects psychedelia, pop art, and medieval religious art. He favors the symbolism of stern German artists like Albrecht Dürer. Demons and monsters make frequent appearances in Tolman’s works, as does the human figure: He recently sold an ink drawing to filmmaker Darren Aronofsky that prominently featured a fetus. The drawing is freehand, but he says that he would love to work with the aid of a real model.

A drawing of Peter by Bill Newman, made while the artist owned the fetus.

“I’m very interested in anatomy,” Tolman says, expressing particular enthusiasm for Gunther von Hagens’ touring “Body Worlds” exhibit, which shows the musculature of human bodies stripped of their skin. “It’s phenomenal. They have everything from the different stages of life. Every different layer of the anatomy. It’s such a different experience, seeing it in person from looking at it in books.”

Tolman resists the notion that his interest in finding the fetus is cold-blooded. “It’s not like a macabre thing,” he says. “I don’t know exactly the way to frame it. A lot of people think it’s a creepy or dark thing, but I don’t see it in those terms at all. It’s just natural.”

If he does find it, he’d be torn about whether to hang onto it or return it to its previous owner. “I would definitely try to keep it,” Tolman says. “But Bill’s my teacher. Obviously, it’s his. I feel obligated to return it to him. But I would definitely try to convince him to let me keep it.”

“I actually wanted Ben to be the one to get it,” says Newman. “I’ve got enough stuff. My place is like a zoo.” Having recognized for decades that he might never see Peter again, Newman has already accepted letting him go.

“I really love Peter, but I think Ben would be the one to take care of him for the duration. He would pay tribute to him the way I did, by making art about him.”