Thursday, September 20, 2012

Interview with Paleoartist: Larry Felder

Fellow artist and friend of mine, Larry Felder, is probably most well known for illustrating and co-writing the popular dinosaur book, In the Presence of Dinosaurs.  As an artist, Larry combines his skill and sensitivity as a wildlife artist with the keen eye and vivid perspective of a dedicated wildlife photographer to create images of long extinct creatures that appear almost real.  It is because of this distinct life in his paintings that cause Larry's art to stand out amongst the best of them.  

In addition to being a fantastic painter, Larry is also a very nice guy.  He and his family attended my lecture, "The Real Dinosaurs", twice!   Today I am going to share with you his interview for Jersey Boys Hunt Dinosaurs!

Larry Felder
Larry's book, In the Presence of Dinosaurs

Question 1: How long have you been interested in paleontology? Who did you admire
growing up?

LF:   I've been interested in Paleontology pretty much since I first became aware of the subject as a kid.  I kind of subscribe to the adage that all kids are into dinosaurs, it's just the lucky or sane ones that never outgrow it.  And since I'll be 54 in September (ouch), that either makes me an old kid or a young middle-ager.  So, I've been into paleo for about 50 years.  

 I remember reading about Roy Chapman Andrews and his forays to the Gobi, and since I was a visual person from the start (I've been drawing just as long), I was interested in the works of Charles Knight and Zdenek Burian.  I've since become very good friends with Charles Knight's granddaughter Rhoda Kalt, which has a nice sense of symmetry.

Tylosaurus by Larry Felder

 Question 2: At what age did you get inspired to pursue a career in paleontology?

LF:  For me, it wasn't so much a decision to actively pursue a career in paleo.  I've been painting and drawing since I could first hold a pencil and a paintbrush.  It is so second-nature to me, like breathing, that it's not something I "pursued" so much as fell back into, when I realized there wasn't anything else that gave me the same kind of fire-in-the-belly feeling.  And since I was into fossils and dinosaurs just as much as I was painting, it was a very small next step to put the two together and try and make something of it.  It's been going on 25 years since I decided to do that.  

 Question 3:
What was your favorite dinosaur growing up? What dinosaur is your favorite now?

LF:  I'm not sure I ever had a 'favorite' dinosaur; it's more that I have a thing for a few groups.  But if I had to pick one, it's Parasaurolophus.  I like the hadrosaurs as a group, and the hypsilophodonts as well.  I also like the smaller theropods.  Part of my interest in them is my fascination with the life of Mesozoic Antarctica and Australia.  The cool, temperate climate that had pronounced periods of daylight and dark is something unknown in contemporary ecosystems, and the adaptations of dinosaurs to those conditions is something I think is amazing.  Hypsilophodonts and smaller theropods made up a decent part of those ecosystems, and it would have been just a blast to have watched them.

Parasaurolophus nesting by Larry Felder

Question 4: Paleontology is such a diverse field these days involving many disciplines from science all the way to art, like yourself. What advice would you give to an aspiring paleontologist today?

LF:  (This is a tough one!).  It's like asking what is your formula for success.  Paleontology is a unique discipline.  I don't know of any other field that is as popular with the public that has so little actual funding in it.  It is one of the stark realities of the field, so you can't go into it unless the fire is in your belly.  But if it's there, I think you have to also have a sense of yourself, in so far as being able to draw attention to yourself in a positive manner, as well as having at least somewhat of a sense of business.  This is also true for paleoartists as well (and artists in general).  Maybe in the years to come, financing will become less of a pressing issue in the field, but it is an acute reality today, and you have to be able to think outside the box and consider the practical, financial realities of the field.  I kind of liken it to major league baseball at the turn of the 20th Century, or Hollywood studios in the 30s and 40s.  With both of these, the people who actually did the work were the ones who were compensated the least for it, because of the power structures of the time.  

Today, paleontologists must compete for pennies on the dollar, while those on the peripheries of the field make more than those in it.  For instance, Steven Spielberg and MIchael Chrichton probably made more on Jurassic Park than the entire field of paleontology has generated internally since the Great Dinosaur Bone Rush of the 1880s and 1890s.  I'm not passing judgment on this; it's just the current reality, and anyone coming into the field needs a sense of being able to go outside the box and attract funding if they are going to be a success. 

 Question 5: Going to college these days and then on to grad school has become a daunting task. Many people are unaware of how long it takes to make it to the finish line. The rewards are great, but what would you say to someone pursuing professional studies after college?

LF:  On this issue, there's a lot that paleontology has in common with other disciplines.  We live in a push button/instant gratification society, where information is conveyed in sound bites, and if you can't explain it in 14 seconds or less, not only is it not important, it's not important to me whether I find out if it's important.  Which means that in a way, we're getting what we expect, and unfortunately, deserve.  All you have to do is watch JayWalking on the Tonight Show to find out.  Show a person a picture of the Vice President or their own Senator and their jaws drop in confusion, but show them a picture of Justin Bieber, and they're off to the races.  So it is with any field that requires more than the channel surfing level of commitment we've come to expect and demand out of education and life. 
Bottom line, we need to reinforce to young people today that some things take time, and that just because you put grape juice in a bottle, don't expect it to become wine in a week.  If Jersey Shore is going to be your intellectual high ground, like it's said, get used to asking "Would you like fries with that order?" as a career query, because that's all you're going to wind up with.  Paleontology is near the top of the list of endeavors that require time, because when you think of it, we're studying things that are hundreds of millions of years old. 
Many years ago, when Princeton used to have a Paleontology Department, I used to bring fossil footprints down to Dr. Donald Baird for him to identify (there was a lab assistant working there also at the time, a guy no one ever heard of, John Horner).  On the door to the paleontology lab was a cartoon, a picture of a paleontology lab, with bones around.  A paleontologist was standing there rubbing his chin, muttering to himself, "Now where did I put that bone?  I only had it at my fingertips twelve years ago."  Nothing describes paleontology better - it takes time to study things that are immersed in time, and you need to accept that reality from the start.  If you don't, there are a lot of other things you could do.  But if you understand that, it offers rewards that few other fields can match.  So, I'd drill into young people today that you've been sold a false set of goods.  They've been told or have been conditioned to expect things quick.  I think this is an artifact of the advance in technology that we enjoy; people, especially young people, think that if we can push a button and get on line in an instant, my career shouldn't take so long.  They're wrong, but there's a lot of them that think that way, and if they as individuals and we as a society are to grow, that thinking has to be acknowledged and challenged.  There is a level of satisfaction that comes from working hard and long for some things that cannot be described, only experienced, and on top of that list is the study of ancient life.  Also, paleontology is among the most democratic of fields.  If you have good ideas and are not afraid to work hard, the field will embrace you, no matter who you are or where you come from.  Bottom line; good things sometimes take time, and also, good things come to those who wait.

Hesperornis by Larry Felder

Question 6: What was or is your favorite project? What are some of your current projects?

LF:  My favorite project up until now was my 2000 book, "In the Presence of Dinosaurs."  I co-wrote it with my high school bio teacher, John Colagrande, and did all the illustrations.  It was kind of a labor of love; we grew up with dinosaur books and both had our own collection, but wanted to do a book that we wanted to see, something that hadn't been done before, a general audience, dinosaur wildlife book.  The chapters are based on ecosystems, not time periods, and the text is animal behavior, environmental and ecological considerations.  The illustrations are dinosaur versions of contemporary wildlife photography.  I had a great time writing and painting for it, and it was the only Time/Life book ever awarded a Starred Review in "Publisher's Weekly."
One aside; because it was a first of its kind, at the time, we encountered a lot of resistance from publishers, who as it turns out, are incredibly risk-averse.  So it was an effort to bring it to fruition.  One place that saw the book proposal and was very interested was the Discovery Channel.  They had it in 1995.  Four years later, they came out with Walking With Dinosaurs.  If you look at the structure of the program and the book based on it, it is pretty much a carbon copy of our volume, down to the same animals, caption and chapter titles, and even the cover.  They tweaked it just enough to cover their rears in copyright court.  Even to this day, I'm asked "Why does your book remind me of Walking With Dinosaurs?"  Well, turns out there was a good reason . . .
Right now, I'm working on a traveling exhibit of my work for museums and science centers, entitled, "Bringing Dinosaurs to Life."  It's a combination of paintings, sculptures, fossil displays, and the source materials that paleoartists use to go from the bones in the ground to a believable restoration of what the animals may have looked like, and the world in which they lived.  The question I get asked more than any other, when people see my work, is "How do you know what they really looked like?"  The exhibit is based entirely around that one question.
I haven't done much painting in the past several years; I'm also finishing up a novel, a science thriller (not sci-fi, but fiction with a strong basis in science).  I have maybe another month or two on it, then back to the easel.

Question 7: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

LF:  I grew up when the sci-fi flicks of the 50s and 60s were just making their rounds on TV as repeat viewings.  So I remember things like "The Giant Behemoth," "Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," and "The Valley of Gwangi."  The special effects were, compared to today, well, dinosaurs, but they made an impression on you at the time that you just couldn't shake, the same way "King Kong" did for those who grew up in the 30s and 40s.  Viewed today, they have a charming naivety that still holds up.

Tyrannosaurus by Larry Felder

Question 8: Do you remember the first paleontologist you ever met? Were you a nervous wreck?

LF:  The first paleontologist I ever met actually was Dr. Baird.  I really wasn't nervous that he was a paleontologist, but more nervous because I was in my late teens.  So it was more of a teen-age apprehension.  But since then, I've met many, and you have a kind of dual reaction; you're genuinely impressed and respectful of their accomplishments and stature, and also mindful of the fact that they're still human beings.  Some are great guys; some are real characters!  But they all are doing work that adds to our understanding of our world, and you know they will leave this LIfe a little better for their stay in it.  And when you think of some of the vile things that some of us who call ourselves human beings do these days, you also realize that the world would be a hell of a lot better if there were more people like them in positions of authority.  

 Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

LF:  Dinosaurs continue to fascinate us for several reasons.  First, there is a mystery to them - no matter how much we learn about them, we're still separated from them in time, and there will always be things about them that we'll never know.  And, they were living animals, and Life has an irresistable pull.  It's why people still watch Animal Planet, and still go to zoos, and even throw bread crumbs in their backyard and watch birds (dinosaurs) feed.  We are drawn to Life.  And when the animals we think about with a sense of mystery turn out to have been ten and twenty times bigger than anything living today, the issue of scale asserts itself.  It's said that dinosaurs are Nature's Special Effects, and they were.  If no one knew they existed and we had to envision animals that would push the envelope of challenging our imaginations, it wouldn't be much of a stretch to come up with what Nature had already whipped up in the Mesozoic.  They were beyond interesting and awesome.
There is one more aspect of this . Dinosaurs were for the most part incredibly elegant animals.  Most mammals today are suped up versions of small, brown, round critters that scurried around in the night, and weren't much to look at.  Think of a mouse or a rat, then think of a hippo or an elephant, or a wart hog.  And think of the mammals that lived throughout the Cenozoic before man showed up.  Many were, to say the least, not that attractive.  They were complact, squat, with ugly bosses, bones and faces, with little or no tails, and very wide (a result of a reproductive system that passes large, fully formed young live, as opposed to laying small, narrow eggs).
Dinosaurs, even on a skeletal level, were much more elegant, with long tails, narrow hips (I'm excluding the nodosaurs and ankylosaurs here), and a riot of crests, horns, sails, etc., that spoke of an aesthetic standard that mammals rarely equal.  Trust me; I'm a huge fan of the big cats, and a horse is among the most beautiful animals alive today.  But if you compare the skeletal structure of a horse to any one of a number of dinosaurs, at the very least, they're equal, and as far as the dinosaurs, speak of animals that no doubt were the equal of today's most majestic mammals insofar as their level of attractiveness, and probably exceeded it.

Pteranodon by Larry Felder

Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

LF:  I have two, the Late Triassic/Early Jurassic boundary, because the area where I live contains rocks from that era, and it was a time when the dinosaurs were first getting their act together, and the Late Cretaceous (let's say, Judith River times).  The dinosaurs then had evolved into incredibly diverse and elegant animals, occupying every ecological niche available.  It would have been something to see what they would have evolved into had some of them made it past the K/T boundary.  As for the Triassic/Jurassic time, I grew up collecting footprints from that era.  The interesting thing about footprints is that they are the fossils of living animals.  So you get running, standing, walking, tripping, slipping (animals in a rainstorm, for instance).  They can be so fresh looking that they look like they were made six hours earlier.  Bones are more spectacular, but in a subtle way, footprints are more intriguing.

That's it for this week, everybody!   If you are interested in purchasing Larry's book (I highly recommend it if you are at all interested dinosaurs) you can purchase it right here.  Join me next week as I share with you a recap of my journey down to Maryland!

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