Wanted: artists willing to dig

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Stenciled on the facade of The Cooper Union, a venerable private college in New York's East Village, is an intriguing phrase: "For the Advancement of Science and Art."

It's an understandable motto for Cooper, which educates artists, engineers, and architects. But the pairing of science and art is incongruous for most of the world.

Talk to the scientists, curators, and exhibit designers at New York's American Museum of Natural History, however, and a symbiotic relationship between the two fields emerges. The museum has a long history of pairing illustrators and photographers with paleontologists and biologists, using one discipline to illuminate the other.

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"For every exhibit, there is a collaborative process between artists and scientists," says Steve Quinn, a senior designer of exhibitions at the museum. "Typically, the artists have to learn from the scientists and immerse themselves in the subject matter, bringing both fact and theory to the public. So it's important for the artist to be as familiar with the science as the scientist."

For close to a century, the American Museum of Natural History has been a leader in this unique form of art.

In 1921, American taxidermist William Akley crossed the Atlantic with a host of illustrators and painters to collect materials for a diorama on the recently discovered lowland gorilla.

Painstakingly, the group documented the scenery on the exact site where Dr. Akley collected three gorilla specimens. Leaves were removed and plaster casts made, while drawings of the foreground and paintings of the background captured the greens, reds, and yellows of the African forest.

When they returned to New York, the team spent eight months recreating an exact replica of the site in Africa. The gorillas were stuffed and placed in natural poses, and vegetation was formed out of beeswax or paper. The work was so detailed and time-consuming that some criticized the group for the cost. The price of recreating one blueberry bush, for instance: $2,000.

"While [most] museums in Europe focused more on rows of cabinets displaying different specimens, dioramas took off in United States and in Scandinavia," says Mr. Quinn. "People in ... these countries had a frontier mentality and were trying to document the disappearing wilderness."

Artists have also recreated scenes that no modern man could have witnessed. The museum's Hall of Advanced Mammals displays several paintings by Charles Knight, such as "Woolly Mammoths of the Pleistocene" (oil on canvas, 1916).

While they have a somewhat dated look, Mr. Knight's canvases were probably the first attempt by an artist to reconstruct extinct animals, a tradition that Quinn continues with his mural of a flying Archaeopteryx in the new dinosaur hall.

To determine how the dinosaur would have flown, Quinn worked with a skeletal reconstruction and filled in the muscles. He then drew a flight sequence based upon ideas from paleontologist Mark Norell. Finally, he consulted orni-thologists to determine possible feather patterns and colors. "Essentially, we brought this animal back to life," he says.

"This is the popular side of scientific art," says Dr. Norell, chairman of the Division of Paleontology at the museum. "We have to do this when we are trying to translate something to the public, but paleontology is a very visual field and the artists do some very technical work."

Digital photographers, for instance, document digs and fossils and all the visual aspects of an excavation. For the past 11 years, Norell has taken his personal artist with him on his digs to participate in research projects.

"People come at this from different angles," says Mick Ellison, principal artist and scientific assistant at the museum. "Many of them started out in science and then moved into the art."

Mr. Ellison, on the other hand, went to art school and was illustrating children's books and medical texts until the day he ran across a newspaper ad for science illustrators at the American Museum of Natural History. What caught his eye was one sentence: "Must be willing to dig in exotic locations."

Most of Ellison's work involves photos and drawings for technical journals. "With artistic skills you can enhance what you see, making it accurate and scientific, but without all the visual distractions so that people can focus.... You eliminate the unnecessary."

He occasionally recreates extinct animals from ancient fossils as well. One such drawing involved a fossil of a bird-like dinosaur that lived 140 million years ago in China. Ellison's photos of the fossil became part of a paper in the journal Nature, and he later made an illustration of the animal.

To achieve this, he looked at the fossil under a microscope, where he could see details of the feathers and even a filmy surface where the eyeball used to be. The worn-down claws told him the animal walked on the ground, but long arms caused some confusion.

"The arms are incredibly long and you can't tell because they're bent. But when you measure them, you realize they must have been hanging to the ground. It was a real problem for me, so I just tucked them back in for the drawing."

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