Despite its importance to outreach, paleoart doesn’t often have a formal place at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting. Still, there have been dedicated people who have organized art shows to coincide with the meeting over the years, and that tradition continued this year with Picturing the Past at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, an exhibition of 85 pieces of contemporary paleoart by artists from around the world on display until January 4.
Today, we welcome exhibit organizer Matt Celeskey to the blog. We recently discussed how Picturing the Past came together, his own paleoart practice (since he’s a damn fine paleoartist in his own right), and the value of paleoart to the scientific community and the public.
When did you first have the idea to organize Picturing the Past? What inspired it?
In late 2016, I heard that the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology was planning on having its 2018 Annual Meeting in Albuquerque, and started thinking about how to create some opportunity for paleoartists to showcase their work. These meetings bring together paleontologists and students from all over the world, and there are always a handful of paleoartists who attend to meet with their colleagues and pick up the latest information in the field. Over the last decade, there have been several ‘unofficial’ paleoart events and meetups during SVP organized by artists and supporters like Dr. Michael Habib and April I. Neander, and at the 2017 meeting in Calgary, Dr. Susanne Cote organized a paleoart exhibition as part of the meeting itself. So I thought that 2018 would be a great opportunity to do something with the momentum that had been buiding in previous years.
But perhaps the most direct inspiration came from a paleoart exhibit organized at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in 2004. This was organized by artists Gary Staab and Mark Klingler. It featured an open call for entries with works selected by a jury of artists and scientists. I was lucky enough to have a piece selected for that exhibition, and traveled up to Denver for the opening. It was a phenomenal experience to meet so many artists whose work I had studied and admired for many years—folks like John Gurche, Mark Hallett, and Donna Braginetz, as well as a whole roster of artists who I’d never heard of before but whose work was every bit as impressive. I hoped that I could pull off something similar, so I contacted Gary Staab when I first started planning Picturing the Past, and he was very generous with sharing his time, experience, and documentation from the Denver exhibition.
With this in hand, I put together a proposal for the SVP Host Committee at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science. I had worked on exhibits at that museum from 1998 through 2013, so I had a pretty good sense of what they could pull together. I crafted a pitch that played to their strengths and made sure to incorporate the most important words for any museum proposal, “This will barely cost you a thing.” Once the museum was on board, I was able to pull together jurors and start crafting the call for entries and the fun really began when artists started submitting their work over the summer of 2018.
How has the exhibition been received by the paleontology community as well as visitors to the museum?
The response has been amazingly positive at every level—the first people to see it were the museum staff and volunteers, and a lot of them were amazed at the variety and quality of paleoart that is included in the show. Several of the museum docents I spoke with during the first weeks of the exhibit had no idea that ‘paleoart’ was a distinct genre, but they really took to the exhibition and are great advocates for it now. The formal opening for the exhibit took place during the Welcome Reception at the SVP Annual Meeting, which was absolutely phenomenal. There were over 1500 paleontology professionals and enthusiasts who attended the meeting this year, so it was a great opportunity for the artists to showcase their work to one of the best audiences that could possibly be assembled to appreciate it. Several paleontologists have remarked about the range of the show — I think everyone expected drawings and paintings of dinosaurs in an exhibition like this, but everyone was surprised by works as diverse as Sally William’s paleoichthyological quilts, and Mike Keesey’s Paleocene comic spreads, and the Ice Age panoramas by Beth Zaiken, to name a few.
One of the best parts of the show came from Margie Marino, the Executive Director of the NMMNHS, who suggested that we offer the works for sale through the Museum’s gift store. The store manager tells me they’ve sold 1-2 pieces per week over the run of the exhibition so far, currently 18 pieces that will go to new homes when the exhibition closes and over $4000 that will get back to the artists. And the show is still up for another two weeks!
What was the path that brought you to paleoart, and then to focus on Permian and Triassic life?
I’ve enjoyed drawing for as long as I can remember, and, like many, I had an strong childhood fascination with dinosaurs. When I was 11, I remember telling a teacher that I wanted to be a paleontologist, and he looked me square in the eye and asked me, “How do you think you would feel after spending all day digging in the hot sun, and what if you didn’t find anything?” The intensity of the question made that outcome feel so disappointing that I put all thoughts of paleontology aside and focused on art for the rest of my school career, where at least I could see palpable results from the efforts I put into it.
Eventually went to art school in Pittsburgh, right down the street from the Carnegie Museum, and the old dinosaur halls there reignited that childhood interest. I picked up Norman’s Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs from the gift shop, and checked out Paul’s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World from the library, and got back into studying and drawing dinosaurs with a vengeance. I also started working as an intern in the Exhibits Department of the Pittsburgh Zoo, and really enjoyed the process of creating exhibits, where specialists of all stripes—artists and researchers and educators and tradesworkers—all come together to create an experience that people would go out of their way to see.
That job led to a position at the Rio Grande Zoo, which was expanding to become the Albuquerque BioPark in the mid 1990s. During that time, a friend and I set up a website based on an imaginary institution I created in art school, The Hairy Museum of Natural History. Every week for a few years we highlighted a different Goofy Dinosaur, I would praise or condemn different bits of dinosaur culture from the Paleo-Pop Pulpit and I made some of my first connections to the nascent online paleontology community. A few years later I got a job as a designer/illustrator in the Exhibits Department at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science where I had the chance to create illustrations for labels, design and install museum exhibits, and work with paleontologists to illustrate their publications. I worked there for 15 years and illustrated all sorts of natural history subjects from the Cambrian through the present day. But that was where I really got hooked on Permian & Triassic fauna—there are world-class exposures from the Early Permian and Late Triassic in several parts of the New Mexico and I had the opportunity to create exhibits about their fossils and help out in fieldwork at several amazing and important sites.
About 5 years ago I left that museum take on a role as an Exhibition Designer for the Museums of New Mexico in Santa Fe—where I have the benefit of working with top-tier teams at 4 different art, culture, and history-based museums. But outside of my day job I’ve become a Research Associate at the NMMNHS, which allows me to work with their researchers and collections and stay tapped into the paleontological community in New Mexico. It was in this capacity that I worked with my old colleagues in the Exhibits Department to install Picturing the Past.
What gets you excited about doing paleoart? Any particular type of animal or environment?
I find myself repeatedly drawn to Permian and Triassic subjects, in large part because these were dynamic times in vertebrate evolution—there are countless groups that evolved during this time that didn’t leave any living descendants, but it is also a time of big stories—the assembly of Pangaea, major extinctions and recoveries, the rise of modern terrestrial ecosystems and the development of advanced sensory and locomotor adaptations. It’s a fascinating time, and there are still amazing discoveries being made. I was lucky enough to be part of the team that just described one of these discoveries—a new sailback pelycosaur that had big, gnawing, chisel-like incisors like a modern rabbit but almost 100 million years before the first mammals evolved.
I’m excited by the range of possibilities inherent in paleoart. As a genre, it is often treated like a very specialized and narrow field. But viewed another way, paleoart is one of the most broad and expansive possible sources of inspiration. Think about the entire range of subjects for art based on the human experience—all the landscapes and portraits, vignettes and studies and epic compositions that draw from a few thousand years of our history as a species. Then multiply that by a few hundred million times to get a sense of the artistic possibilities that can be drawn from the fossil record. I can’t think of a grander or more noble subject for an artist to tackle.
Clearly, you value a stylistic diversity in paleoart. And it’s certainly been a hot topic among paleoartists for years. Based on your experience with this exhibition, do you think that scientists are accepting of it?
I do think that, in general, scientists are more appreciative of diverse styles in paleoart today than they were 20 or even 10 years ago. On the other hand, if you were to look solely at paleoart that paleontologists have commissioned, I suspect you’d still see strong a trend toward a more limited stylistic range dominated by a traditional ‘realistic illustration’ style, although there would be exceptions.
I think the biggest challenge to accepting diverse paleoart styles is in convincing publishers and art directors and museum exhibit designers that all paleoart doesn’t have to look the same. I understand that they work under tight deadlines and that the art has to be a useful shorthand for the main story they are trying to present. But if all the art for paleontology articles or books or exhibits is all in the same style, then for most of the audience it says, “Here’s some more stuff about dinosaurs,” and you’ve missed the opportunity to use the art to say, “Here’s a new way of looking at the world.”
Do you have any in-the-works projects you can tease for us?
I’ve got a couple of projects going on that I’m pretty excited about—as a Research Associate at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, I’m helping to describe and illustrate a new little Permian reptile from northern New Mexico—we’re not entirely sure exactly what it is yet, but we’ve got a good part of the skeleton and a bit of the jaw, so hopefully we’ll be able to share more of that in the next year or so. And I’m working hard to finish up illustrations for a book that Dr. Hendrik Klein and Dr. Andrew Heckert are writing on Chirotheres—the hand-shaped tracks made by croc-line archosaurs like rauisuchians and aetosaurs. These tracks are found in Triassic rocks all over the world, and by looking at their tracks and trackways over time you can see shifts in posture and locomotion during this critical time in archosaur history. So stay tuned!
Big thanks to Matt for answering my questions, but also for working so hard to make the exhibition happen. If you can’t make it to New Mexico but would like to peruse the exhibition yourself, a free electronic exhibit catalog is available from Studio 252MYA.
Now that you’ve read this, I’m sure you’re primed to support Matt’s work, and you’re in luck! His art is available for purchase at Studio 252MYA, and you can follow him on Twitter and heap praise on him there.