21 December 2019
One of the big milestones in paleontology this year was the reopening of the Smithsonian's fossil halls. It goes without saying that the National Museum of Natural History is one of the most visited and most influential paleontology museums in the world, and a big reason for its popularity and impact are the murals of Jay Matternes depicting different regions of the US through time. Matternes' murals of Cenozoic landscapes are particularly impactful, inspiring a generation of paleoartists and setting the gold standard for depictions of extinct mammals. From a scientific standpoint, these murals have aged extremely well (which, as we've seen is not always the case with paleoart; I was actually a bit shocked to learn that these were painted in the '60s, as they seem much more modern that that) and still routinely find their way into lecture slides and presentations of those of us that study mammal paleontology. Another reason for this is that they're gorgeous, as perhaps best exemplified by his reconstruction of the landscape of Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho. If you've ever spent a summer evening along one of the West's riparian oases, this mural feels immediately familiar (give or take a ground sloth and mastodon or two). I love the play of shadow on the trees and water lilies and how the greenery contrasts with the bare hillsides in the background. The imminent demise of a beaver at the paws of a saber-toothed cat notwithstanding, it conveys the feeling of a calm evening along a three-and-a-half million year riverbank spectacularly well, making it a great testament to Matternes' skill.
Want to see more? From what I understand, Matternes' murals were too fragile to make it into the new exhibits, which is a shame (though I understand the Smithsonian did install recreations of some of them). Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument has a large-scale reproduction of this particular mural, and for reasons that are still not 100% clear to me, his famous depiction of Wyoming in the Eocene seems to have made its way to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science. If you're not up for traveling to DC, Idaho, or Albuquerque, a new book on Matternes' work has just been published, and you can see some of his most famous works in an article just published in Smithsonian Magazine.
20 December 2019
There is nothing more emblematic of the Northwest than salmon, and appropriately our fossil record is rich in these fish (including the oldest known member of the family). The most impressive of these has been known by several names: the saber-toothed salmon, the spike-toothed salmon (the second of these being more appropriate given that its enlarged canines were more tusk- than saber-like), Smilodonichthys, and Onchorhynchus rastrosus (this last, correct name reflecting the fact that it's more closely related to sockeye salmon than sockeye are to any other species). Regardless of what you call it, it was an impressively enormous animal, and no one has devoted as much canvas to it as Ray Troll. The species was originally decsribed from a site near Madras, Oregon, and the best-preserved specimens are still found in the area, so it was only appropriate that when the University of Oregon opened their new fossil hall in 2014 that O. rastrosus should be the centerpiece, and the collaboration between Troll and Staab resulted in the best tribute out there to this most magnificent of fish.
Want to see more? The UO Museum of Natural & Cultural History is well worth a visit for several reasons, this mural and sculpture chief among them (and I'm not at all biased because I spent so many hours working for and in the museum as a grad student).
17 December 2019
I'm getting us most of the rest of the way to Christmas by including several of the most gorgeous paleoart murals ever painted as a single item. In my defense a) it's the week after Finals Week at Gonzaga, so I've been doing nonstop grading for several days and b) these were all created as part of a single project. As such, they hearken back to one of paleontology's grandest traditions. Back before digital, "augmented reality" exhibits (and, before them, animatronic dinosaurs) one of the ways that museums were able to put flesh on the fossilized bones on display in their halls was to commission a paleoartist to paint a series of murals to display on the walls above the skeletons. We've seen a lot of Rudolph Zallinger in this series, who was part of this tradition, and probably the greatest series of paleoart murals ever painted was Charles R. Knight's project for Chicago's Field Museum. Sadly, museums-spomsored mural projects are less in evidence these days, but there are some spectacular exceptions, among them the San Diego Natural History Museum and John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Both are, collectively, among the greatest works of contemporary paleoart, but the John Day murals are especially spectacular. I'm not sure there's any other item on this list that rewards close inspection quite so much. I've visited the Thomas Condon Paleontology Center at John Day many times, and on each visit, I've been surprised by new things (the insect on the vine in the image above, for example, I'd never noticed before a visit this summer). The background of these murals is much more than a backdrop; besides depicting the flora and fauna of ancient central Oregon represented by the fossils on display nearby, they are full of details that most visitors probably breeze right by. My favorite is the enigmatic carnivore Allocyon shown as a partially decomposed carcass in the far background of the largest mural (conveniently allowing the artist to not commit to exactly what group it belongs to), but every mural in the series is packed with such gems, be they North America's last non-human primate (Ekgmowechashala, Lakota for "Little Cat Man) nestled among the branches of a tree or early dogs hunting burrowing rodents on the grasslands of the Miocene. However, the most remarkable thing about the murals is not a subtle detail, but rather such a major feature that it's easy to overlook. Just as Zallinger used seasons to illustrate climatic and environmental change through the Cenozoic, the John Day murals use the time of day. The murals depicting the Eocene are set at sunrise, and as you move on through the Oligocene and Miocene, the angle of the sun changes, culminating in the late Miocene Rattlesnake Formation in the early evening. You have to want to get there, but if you want to see a work of art that, more than any other produced in the last 20 years, really makes you feel immersed in the ancient world while at the same time visually summarizing the pioneering work on paleoecology that's been done in the area, start planning a trip to central Oregon today!
Want to see more? John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is worth a trip for the murals alone, but the Condon Paleontology Center is, as I've had cause to assert several times, one of the best site-specific museums anywhere in the world. The scenery of central Oregon is also jaw-dropping, so, seriously, start planning that trip today!
11 December 2019
You'd think the gigantic mural that is easily the most monumental reconstruction of ancient life and that revived the fresco secco style would be the most influential work by its artist, but The Road to Homo sapiens (more widely known as The March of Progress) surpasses it by far. In fact, while it may be impossible to quantify such things, it is almost certainly the most influential work of paleoart ever produced; it's certainly the most reproduced and parodied. Zallinger's intent, as described by the author of the book in which it was published, was to distill the complex story of human evolution as it was then understood into an easily understandable image. In a sense, it was a phenomenal success, as it very clearly conveys the connections and similarities between modern humans and our extinct relatives. Unfortunately, while it conveyed the connection of our species to our hominid relatives better than anyone could have predicted, it was not so effective at illustrating the complexity of the evolution of apes. Our particular corner of the primate evolutionary tree is a complex one, with numerous branches arising in the past, but with only one surviving today. Instead of glorious complexity, The Road to Homo sapiens seems to imply that human evolution was a straight line from Pliopithecus to our species. There's good reason to believe that Zallinger himself did not hold this view, but his work is often taken to imply that evolution is a linear progression towards a "more evolved" goal (in this case, us). The image is frequently used to lampoon evolutionary theory, a fact that no doubt has Zallinger spinning in his grave. It is also true, though, that the very fact anti-evolution groups set it up as a straw man is a testament to just how clearly the image depicts the concept of evolution. So, next time you see The Road to Homo sapiens doctored for a t-shirt or an advertising campaign, between eye rolls spare a thought for the Seattle-born artist that created the single most indelible image of biology's unifying theory.
Want to see more? The image was originally published in Early Man in the Life Nature Library, but if you want to get a taste of the myriad reproductions Zallinger spawned, just do a Google image search for "evolution."
10 December 2019
Today's item is a bit of a change of pace. Nesting is not a depiction of the ancient world, but rather a drawing by a prominent Northwest artist who was inspired by the region's fossil record. Wes Wehr was a member of the somewhat loose-knit Northwest School of artists, whose most famous members were Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Unlike many of his peers, Wehr was known for his small landscapes and his imaginary figures or "monster drawings." These latter drawings are wonderfully complex and absorbing, but they become perhaps a bit less enigmatic if you know much about Wehr's biography and the fossil record of the Okanogan Highlands of Washington and BC. Several sites on both sides of the border preserve a rich Eocene flora and fauna, and if you've ever seen the dark compressions of insects, flowers, pine needles, and leaves on the light-colored rocks of the Stonerose site in Republic, WA, you can't help but see those same forms in Wehr's drawings (the feathery "wings" on the figure above are dead ringers for Metasequoia, the dawn redwood so abundant at Stonerose). This is not simply idle speculation on my part, as Wehr himself was an amateur paleontologist who played a huge role in discovering and describing the fossils of Stonerose. His name is forever connected to the site, as a new genus of plant from Republic was named Wehrwolfia in honor of Wehr and his colleague, the paleobotanist Jack Wolfe. Given his connections to one of the Northwest's most important lagerstätten and his membership in the region's most significant visual arts movement, Wehr is proof that not only are science and art not mutually exclusive pursuits, but that each excels when incorporating the other.
Want to see more? Wehr's work is featured in museums throughout the Northwest; the image above is from the Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture in Spokane. If you're interested in Wehr's story, both Jack Nisbet and Kirk Johnson have included sections on him in recent books.
09 December 2019
Hallett may be responsible for one of the most graceful depictions of a dinosaur ever produced, but if people from the general public are familiar with his work, it's likely because of his "family portrait" illustrations commissioned for the children's nature magazine Zoobooks. Particularly recognizable are his dinosaur diversity figures from the Zoobooks of my youth, but he really hit his stride with his illustrations of mammal families. His rhinos, elephants, and in particular horses really jump off the page, in large part because he reconstructs them as active, living animals. Never was this more true than with his horses, which kick, buck, and gallop chaotically across the page (while forming a pleasingly symmetrical half-circle). These portraits are especially effective at driving home the simple paleontological truth that the modern diversity of any group is just the tip of the iceberg by eschewing the chronological "march through time" so often favored by illustrators (for the best and often most frustrating of these, stay tuned!). Instead, modern zebras and onagers occupy space right next to Eocene species barely recognizable as horses, making it clear just how much of horse diversity lies in the past and showing the enormous array of forms horses have evolved through time.
Want to see more? I learned today that Zoobooks is still being published (and by Ranger Rick, another childhood favorite of mine, no less!) and Hallett's illustrations have continued to appear in recent years.
08 December 2019
The Age of Mammals is Zallinger's other major, though lesser known, mural at Yale. Like The Age of Reptiles, it is a fresco secco, painted on plaster applied directly to a wall. Like its larger counterpart, this gives it an impressive clarity and makes its colors especially vibrant. Another similarity between the two pieces is the use of trees to demarcate geological epochs. It may lack the monumentality of The Age of Reptiles, but The Age of Mammals has in many ways aged far better. Not only do the subjects remain fairly accurate today (as opposed to the plodding, swamp-bound dinosaurs of Reptiles), but the mural is one of the best visual depictions of the changing climates and environments of the last 65 million years (I'd say it was the best bar none but for a series of works that will be showing up here shortly). Zallinger drives home the cooling a drying trends that have exemplified the Cenozoic in a really clever way. At the far left, in the Paleocene and Eocene, the landscape is lush and green with tropical plants; it is, for all intents and purposes, Spring. As you move right into the Oligocene and Miocene, trees start to give way to grasslands, and the color of the foliage and angle of the light makes it clear you've moved on into Summer. As extreme cooling starts to set in in the Pliocene, the leaves on the remaining trees have started to show their Autumn colors, and at the far right of the mural, in the Pleistocene, frost and snow-capped peaks signal the arrival of Winter and the Ice Ages. The causes and ecological effects of this large-scale climatic change are one of the major areas of study in paleontology today, and Zallinger gave these changes a (nearly) unequalled visual summary over 50 years ago.
Want to see more? As with most of Zallinger's work, The Age of Mammals is on view at the Peabody Museum until renovations begin at the end of the month.