UW Today

This is an archived article.

December 10, 2009

Art and science play well together in new Burke exhibit ‘Cruising the Fossil Freeway’

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Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson are the artist and writer behind the Burke Museum’s colorful and innovative new exhibit, Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway.


But really, they’re just a pair of overgrown dinosaur-loving kids — self-described “paleonerds” bringing the message that art and science can and do play well together.


“Science and art are twin sisters or brothers,” Troll said on the phone from his home near Ketchikan, Alaska. “They’re different ways of looking at the world but they are great partners in the sense of adventure, engagement and curiosity about the natural world.”


Johnson said, “Science and paleontology are very serious things, but also tremendously fun. People love it.” And fossils are virtually everywhere, he said. “They have such amazing stories. Fossils are messages from the past. They tell us about evolution and extinction and climate change and geologic time and asteroid impacts — and you can just walk down the beach and find them.”


Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway is a museum exhibit based partly on a book of the same name published in 2007 by Troll and Johnson after the two took a 5,000-mile road trip throughout the West looking for fossils and the stories behind them. After its initial run at the Burke, from Dec. 19 through May 31, 2010, the exhibit will go on tour to other museums. The exhibit itself was handsomely designed by Andrew Whiteman.


But Fossil Freeway is more than just a celebration of the book; that’s already been done. The exhibit also features real fossils from the Burke’s collection of about 2.5 million specimens — dinosaurs, saber-tooth tigers, killer pigs, ammonites, trilobites, 50-million-year-old leaves and 30-million-year-old dolphin skulls, and more.


“We’re trying to use the book as a jumping off point to portray the fossil collections we have in the museum, and the fossils we have in Washington state,” said Elizabeth Nesbitt, who is curator in the Burke’s invertebrate paleontology division and an associate professor of Earth and space sciences. She worked with Troll and Johnson throughout the process and chose the fossils on display. She added, “It’s a wonderful opportunity to bring out some of the stuff people haven’t seen before.”


For Kirk Johnson, having the exhibit start its journey at the Burke was only natural. He’s got a doctorate in geology from Yale University and is chief curator for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, but he got his start as a boy rockhound with the Burke. “I have a long history with that place,” he said.


Johnson said he was only 12 when his mother’s volunteer gig at the Henry Art Museum brought him into contact with Wes Wehr, the Burke’s well-respected volunteer paleontology curator, who was, among many things, also an excellent artist. “From a young age I started hanging around the Burke and with Wes,” Johnson said by phone from Denver the other day. He said together, the two found Stonerose, the fossil-rich site in Republic, Wash.


“I went to college and ended up becoming a paleobotanist because of that, and ended up working with artists, too.”


Troll, who also lived in Seattle for a while, said he was “a dinosaur-obsessed kid. That was my gateway drug.” His art began early, too. “The first thing I remember was drawing, when I was 4 years old, and 51 years later I’m still doing the same stuff.”


And what extraordinary stuff it is — richly colorful and detailed, Troll’s images of prehistoric marine life and dinosaurs fairly leap from the page. He said that after much sketching and research, he starts many of his drawings in pencil, then inks them in and colors the images in Photoshop. Though one could use a computer throughout, he said, “It’s the hand-made line, pen on paper — when I’m doing line work I just like the blobbiness of the ink.” Troll added, though, that he changes media frequently and that the exhibit also will include several acrylic on board paintings “and a very large mixed-media drawing using neocolor crayon called ‘Saber Toothed Everything.’”


People of a certain age might be a little reminded of the work of the extraordinary illustrator R. Crumb, who helped graphically define the 1960s. Troll doesn’t deny it. “My influences are on my sleeve,” he said. He also said he studied with artist Gaylen Hansen at Washington State University and calls him “a big influence.” There will be a video about Troll’s artistic process included in the exhibit. You can learn more about Troll and his work at his own Web site, here.


The two met at the Burke in 1993 at a reception for paleontologists, but it was in 1999 that they decided to do a book together. The Fossil Freeway book featured an elaborate map illustrated by Troll showing with fine-line illustrations all the sites where fossils had been found — but it concentrated on the Rocky Mountain states and only included half of Washington.


“When the Burke was interested, we were all kind of embarrassed that Washington was chopped in half,” Johnson said. Troll said they decided “obviously we must right this wrong.”


And so they hit the road again for about a week last summer, visiting fossil sites and people interested in fossils, and Troll completed the Washington state portion of the map. Johnson calls it “a visual tour de force.” The map is for sale at the Burke and online separate from the book. You can also view it online here.


This also may be the first exhibit at the Burke to come complete with its own soundtrack. Troll said he and musician friend Russell Wodehouse wrote, performed and recorded several light-hearted songs just for the occasion as the Ratfish Brothers. CDs will be for sale at the Burke, and you can learn more about the music online here. “It’s got a lot of metaphors turned into music,” Troll said.


Continuing in the multimedia vein, Burke staff have posted several videos of Troll and Johnson at YouTube. They’re a little silly, in a good way, and each one has a teaching moment about science and paleontology. You can view them on the Burke’s YouTube channel, here

With Fossil Freeway up and running, it looks like the team of Troll and Johnson will ride again for another book — this one about the entire west coast. Troll said the working title so far is Cruising the Eternal Coastline: Further Fossil Adventures from California to Alaska.


The two are proud that their book, and the exhibit, are for “ages 1 to 100,” as Johnson said.


Troll said, “My mantra in this whole thing — in fact we’ve even written songs about it — is that paleonerds should be proud of the fact that they are grown men who still love dinosaurs.”


And for all the fossils discovered and dug up over the years, Johnson said, “It’s only been a couple of hundred years. The reality is that much of the story remains untold. The best stuff is still in the ground.”


For more information about Cruising the Fossil Freeway and other programs and exhibits at the Burke, visit online at www.burkemuseum.org.