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Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Paleo-Road Trip through Art: Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway

Ray Troll is one of my favorite paleo-artists, thanks to his very peculiar style. Colorful vivid, ironic, dreamy: Troll's artworks have a unique, unmistakable appeal. Recently, Troll and Kirk Johnson organized an exhibit with a weird name: Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway. It makes no surprise that I decided to investigate.

I discovered that 'Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway' was presented at the Burke Museum, displaying a sort of paleo-road trip through American West. What an engaging theme! Unfortunately, I live in Europe, so it is quite difficult to visit the show. What a pity!

A look at artist Ray Troll's artistic process throughout the creation of the Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway exhibit, on view at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture.

Nevertheless, I found a possibility. Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson authored a book with the same name: it is 'Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip'. It follows the travels of a paleontologist and an artist driving across the American West in search of fossils. The book is filled with Troll's art! Although only this makes the book a must-have, there is much more. 'Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway' is not a coffee-table book, it is a sort of illustrated diary. The story is presented with a very engaging narrative, full of anectodes and curious facts. It's a pleasure to read it!
'Cruisin' the fossil Freeway' recalls the spontaneous road trips of Kerouac and his friends across mid-century America. More in detail, I thought of Kerouac's 'On the Road' when I read of a 'paleontologic' backstage with Ziggy Marley!

Kirk Johnson, PhD, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science talks about his award-winning book, Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway.

Curiosities apart, the book is an amazing road-trip travelogue with an impressive visual part, including not only Troll's illustrations but also many 'on the road' photographs.

If you like adventure, fossils or art, then you will enjoy this book!

Ray Troll authored also a paleontologic song: this is the 'Devonian Blues'! If you liked the music, you can't miss Troll's 'Cannery Girl'!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Diplodocus in Art

Heinrich Harder, Diplodocus (1916). Although the idea of sauropods is quite changed from then, the work of Harder is still a masterpiece of paleo-art.

Diplodocus is a sauropod dinosaur which lived in what is now western North America at the end of the Jurassic period. Alongside with Tyrannosaurus, Diplodocus is one of the most famous and much-depicted dinosaurs.
His role in popular culture is partly related to the industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who donated many mounted skeletal casts to potentates around the world at the beginning of the twentieth century. Thanks to him, people worldwide familiarized with Diplodocus.
Carnegie's project drew much public attention in Europe and the German satirical weekly Kladderadatsch (or 'Crash') devoted a poem to the dinosaur:

[...] Auch ein viel älterer Herr noch muß
Den Wanderburschen spielen
Er ist genannt Diplodocus‚ und zählt zu den Fossilen
Herr Carnegie verpackt ihn froh
In riesengroße Archen
Und schickt als Geschenk ihn so
An mehrere Monarchen [...]
The translation is:
[...] But even a much older gent
Sees itself forced to wander
Goes by the name Diplodocus
And belongs among the fossils
Mr. Carnegie packs him joyfully
In giant arcs
And sends him as gift this way
To multiple monarchs.

Successively, the artist Winsor McCay's based his animated character 'Gertie' on sauropod dinosaurs (i.e. Apatosaurus and Diplodocus). Although not the first animated film, 'Gertie the Dinosaur' was animated character with an appealing and well-defined personality. The first presentation of the film was at the Palace Theater in Chicago on February 8, 1914. The performance consisted of McCay interacting with Gertie, following the tradition of vaudeville theatrical shows.
The animator-actor would stand on stage in front of the projection screen, dressed in a tuxedo and wielding a whip. He would call Gertie and instructed her to perform various tricks, similar to a circus act.
He would appear to toss an apple to her — McCay palmed the apple while Gertie caught an animated copy of it. For the finale, McCay disappeared behind the screen just as a cartoon version of him climbed onto Gertie's head and rode off.

Winsor McCay picked up by Gertie!

Gertie's poster. 'She's a scream!'

Here is the movie of Gertie the Dinosaur. The author - Winsor Mc Cay - also created the newspaper comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland.

Gertie was named #6 of the '50 Greatest Cartoons' of all time in a 1994 survey of animators and cartoon historians.
Sauropod dinosaurs appear also in Centennial, a novel by James Michener that traces the history of the plains of northeast Colorado from prehistory until the early 1970s. In most recent times, the Dutch electronic music trio Noisia composed a song named 'Diplodocus'. Check it out!

'Diplodocus' by Noisia.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Ultimate Dinosaur

When I was just a paleo-enthusiastic kid I recieved "The Ultimate Dinosaur" as a present. It is a book which alternates essays written by paleontologists, short stories authored by science fiction writers, and artworks created by first-class illustrators. The book mixes coherently very different languages to describe prehistoric life: science, literature and visual arts. A great concept.
I will take three authors as an example of the multi-faceted nature of the book: Phil Currie (paleontologist), Ray Bradbury (writer) and William Stout (visual artist).
Phil Currie. 'The Ultimate Dinosaur' includes a scientific essay by Philip Currie: 'Migrating dinosaurs'. Currie is a Canadian paleontologist researching on dinosaurs, with particular interest for theropods and the origin of birds. He helped to describe two of the first dinosaur specimens with feathers, indicating that many dromaeosaurids were feathered.
Intriguingly, Currie is a life-long science-fiction fan, and fan of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Geology and Art, again.

Philip Currie, paleontologist..

Ray Bradbury. Probably my favourite story from 'the Ultimate Dinosaur' is 'Besides a Dinosaur, Whatta Ya Gonna Be when you grow up?', authored by the noted sci-fi writer Ray Bradbury. He is a prolific writer and his works includes classics such as 'Farhenait 451' and the 'Martian Chronicles'. Bradbury attributes his lifelong habit of writing every day to an incident happened in 1932. Mr. Electrico, a carnival entertainer, touched him on the nose with an electrified sword, made his hair stand on end, and shouted, "Live forever!".
It was from then that Bradbury wanted to live forever and decided his career as an author in order to do what he was told: live forever. It was at that age that Bradbury started his interest for magic. Curiously, Bradbury was a close friend of Charles Addams, an american cartoonist who invented the characters known as 'The Addams Family'.
Ray Bradbury has long had a fascination with dinosaurs, as demonstrated his stories and poems about the mesozoic beasts. Some of Bradbury's stories on dinosaurs are included in the volume 'Dinosaur Tales'.

William Stout.
Among the artists who illustrated Bradbury's 'Dinosaur Tales' there is William Stout, which also provided some works of art for 'the Ultimate Dinosaur'. Indeed Stout is either a fantasy artist and a paleo-artist, moving without difficulty between the two worlds.

His double otlook can be seen in his numerous incursions outside the 'traditional' 2D-art. For instance, he worked on over thirty feature films, including both 'Conan' and Gulliermo del Toro's 'Pan's Labyrinth'. His expertise with paleontology is witnessed by his role in the computer-animated movie 'Dinosaur' (Walt Disnet Pictures; he was the character designer).
It is worth to note that eleven Stout paintings were selected for the traveling exhibition 'Dinosaurs Past and Present', an important group show depicting the history of paleoart.
Stout is also an outdoor enthusiast.
In Antarctica he climbed Mt.Erebus, made several dives beneath the ice, camped in the dry valleys, and produced over one hundred painted studies on Antarctica's wildlife. His experiences resulted in several exhibitions: 'William Stout's Visions of Gondwana - Past and Present Life in Antarctica', 'Dinosaurs On Ice - William Stout's Antarctica', 'Dinosaurs, Penguins & Whales: William Stout's Antarctica'.

The multi-faceted interests of William Stout recall the personality of Charles Willson Peale, an American painter born in 1741. Peale had a great interest in natural history and organized the first U.S. scientific expedition in 1801.
He founded the Philadelphia Museum, later renamed the Peale museum. Notably, the museum was among the first to adopt Linnaean taxonomy. Peale's museum was among the first to display mastodon bones and the artist also illustrated a paleontological excavation of a mastodon.

Charles Willson Peale, Exhuming the First American Mastodon (1806).