Seeing the triceratops for the trees
Kirk Johnson combines science and art to create an ancient landscape
Name Kirk Johnson
Job Chief curator and vice president of research and collections, Denver Museum of Nature and Science
Fossil sites visited 1,600-plus across 24 countries and every continent over 30 years of research
Why so many plant fossils are incomplete “Think about a cat: It’s not shedding its leg every day or dropping its head. (But) plants fall apart as they live, so you might find a (single) flower not attached to a plant.”
On science versus art
“At the end of the day, you realize that both art and science rely on creativity and imagination.”
When paleontologist Kirk Johnson approaches the information desk at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, the receptionists have no idea they're being tested. With his collared shirt and glasses, Johnson could pass for a well-dressed tourist or art critic. Feigning total ignorance, he asks for the pamphlets on ancient Colorado.
"They're landscape paintings," Johnson clarifies. Ten of them, depicting Colorado's geologic past. "BIG." He doesn't mention that he was one of the people who helped create them.
"Oh, you mean the dinosaur art!" A drawer opens and out come the pamphlets.
Johnson grins at the irony. Moments later, standing before the canvases, he points to the only one with an animal of any size: a spiky stegosaurus surrounded by leafy bushes. The others harbor creatures like the ones in the children's game, "I Spy": a lion half-covered by prairie grass, two triceratops lurking behind a tree. They are nothing like typical prehistoric images, which tend to place battling dinosaurs front and center while dozens more prowl ominously in the background. Eight years ago, when Johnson teamed up with artist Jan Vriesen to craft the Ancient Colorado exhibit, they deliberately shifted the focus away from animals.
"I wanted to capture the feeling of a place," Johnson explains. "Animals are pretty rare in landscapes. If you go for a hike today, you're pretty excited when you see a big animal of any kind, and in general they're off in the distance. That's what these paintings are like." He steps up to the nearest one, instantly dwarfed by the 8-by-10-foot canvas. Each is a snapshot of what Colorado would have looked like in the distant past, 60, 150, 250 million years ago. "It is time travel. You're reconstructing a landscape no one's ever seen."
They look more alien than historic. The tufty-headed trees in Pole Forest resemble something out of a drawing by Dr. Seuss. Slimy Shoreline is even weirder -- clumps of mud-congealed bacteria and algae (what scientists call "stromatolites") dotting a coastline where the arid Red Rocks Park stands today, in the foothills west of Denver. "People don't think the Earth changes very much," says Johnson. "Climate is changing, continents are drifting, plants and animals are both evolving and going extinct ... and a place like Colorado can actually be many different kinds of places over geologic time."
All the images are rooted in meticulous research, every leaf, flower and shrub based on the fossil species found at 10 sites (one for each painting) in Colorado. A paleobotanist by training, Johnson conducts his research with rock hammer in hand, hiking dusty hillsides in boots and a straw hat. The fossils he unearths reveal slender ferns and broad leaves the color of old woodcuts.
Johnson's fondness for plants dates back to his childhood in Seattle, where he found plenty of petrified wood and fossil leaves, but few animals. At age 12, he started working with Wes Wehr, an artist, paleobotanist and volunteer curator at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Johnson's dual interests continued in college; he pursued a double major in geology and art before switching to full-time science after graduation. "I didn't have command of the (artistic) media ... but I realized you can always hire a great artist."
Enter Jan Vriesen. Science provides the backbone of the paintings, but as Johnson points out, "You still have to build it. You have to take the artistic leap from what you know from the data to what you think it might have looked like." Take Triceratops Swamp: The painting shows a 68-million-year-old fern-filled forest with two dinosaurs in the far distance. For inspiration, Johnson and Vriesen traveled to Alabama's Mobile Delta Swamp, a modern-day version of the ancient forest. There, Vriesen could observe the way sunlight hits the floor of a swamp and note the spacing of trees and bushes, while Johnson pointed out which plants he could paint, and which ones he would need to replace with the fossils found in Colorado.
After that, it's time to step back. "I don't want to micromanage," says Johnson. The composition of each painting, the particular shades of color, the lighting -- all of that is left up to Vriesen, so that later, when Johnson sees the paintings for the first time, "It's a surprise for me. ... You walk in, and it's just like going there."