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Jurassic Art

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­Standing on the northeast corner of 30th and Illinois streets, you can watch wide-eyed kids pressing their faces against their windows in passing cars. They're staring at the life-size Alamosaurussanjuanensis family exploding out of the building behind you. The statue is the most prominent example of the Children's Museum's world-class paleoart collection. It's a fitting advertisement for the museum's latest display of paleoart: Big, Bad & Bizarre.

Dallas Evans is the curator of Big, Bad & Bizarre.
  • Dallas Evans is the curator of Big, Bad & Bizarre.

Curator Dallas Evans helped select the pieces for Big, Bad & Bizarre from the museum's Lanzendorf Collection. The art was acquired by the museum in a mix of purchases and donations from an unlikely source: a Chicago hairstylist. Inspired by a Paleozoic spread in Life magazine, John Lanzendorf accrued the massive collection over the years.

"He's really a great individual," says Evans. "I love the photos of his house, because every square inch of space is covered in dinosaurs. He got started in the '80s; he bankrolled a lot of paleoartists. [That] helped to get the ball rolling."

Lanzendorf donated more than 300 works of art to the museum, which the museum occasionally adds to with independent acquisitions. After Sept. 11th, Lanzendorf feared storing his collection in a Chicago high-rise, so he contacted the museum.

Big, Bad & Bizarre occupies the upper floor of the Children's Museum's Dinosphere. While there is artwork in the dioramas on the bottom floor, the works in the gallery upstairs fit the traditional definition a bit more. Composition and color are weighed equally with accuracy and science--you'll see no sauropods rumbling around with parrot-like plumage. Spanish-Mexican artist Luis V. Rey's work, currently featured, has particularly vivid colors mixed into striking prehistoric compositions.

Artwork by Luis V. Rey is currently featured at the Dinosphere Gallery..
  • Artwork by Luis V. Rey is currently featured at the Dinosphere Gallery..

It's a fine balancing act, realistically portraying the animals while preserving the artistic merit of the work. Some artists take more license than others--there's little modern precedent for brightly colored predators--but Evans has worked hard to keep the gallery as accurate as possible while still wowing visitors. The collection spans decades, and visitors can see the changes in science reflected in the art. For example, at the gallery's entrance stand two bronzes, both labeled as Tyrannosaurus. One looks modeled straight from the 1933 King Kong movie, complete with dragging tail and too many fingers. The other bears the straight-tailed posture (and correct number of digits) that reflect a more modern understanding of the world's most famous dinosaur.

John Lanzendorf is the owner of one of the largest collections of paleoart in the world.
  • John Lanzendorf is the owner of one of the largest collections of paleoart in the world.

As powerful as the art is, Evans knows that children are rarely content to just look at artwork. That's why sprinkled throughout the gallery are stations for children to engage in art themselves. At one, children use light boxes to trace and color dinosaurs, while at another children sculpt with putty over bronzes of dinosaur skulls.

"We have a station here with the drawing boards, where people can do still lives of our Dracorexhogwartsia skull," says Evans. The real skull is on display to the side, donated by the species' discoverer. A children's museum is a fitting place for a dinosaur named after the wizarding school in Harry Potter.

Roughly once a month, the museum invites local artists to come and make paleoart in the gallery, an event that it announces ahead of time on the Dinosphere website. The museum faces the same challenge that its more paleoart-specialized peers do: How do you bring to life something that's (at least) 65 million years dead?

The answer is sprinkled throughout the displays in the gallery: You compare them to living creatures. An exhibit highlighting the banana-length teeth of the biggest theropods (meat-eating bipedal dinosaurs with small forearms, like T-Rex) also includes the skull of a modern wolf to highlight the similarities between predators. 

"We realized downstairs, with the skeletons, they looked fantastic," says Evans. "But it's hard to correlate those with a living creature. That's what [the gallery] is for."

The Children's Museum works to blend creative and realistic interpretations of dinosaurs in their art collection.
  • The Children's Museum works to blend creative and realistic interpretations of dinosaurs in their art collection.

In a way, Big, Bad & Bizarre was guaranteed to succeed. Its primary audience, children, are all too eager to see dinosaurs in any way they can. But paired with the dioramas downstairs, the gallery does something more. Between the two of them, Lanzendorf and Evans have brought dinosaurs back to life for viewers of all ages. The kids gawking at the dinosaurs on the ride in never lose that wide-eyed expression. Often as not, neither do their parents.

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