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Big Bone Lick and the Birth of Extinction

At Big Bone Lick State Park looking at Bison

At Big Bone Lick State Park looking at Bison

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology

Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology

Did you know the concept of extinction was born in Kentucky? Before unearthing these huge mysterious fossils of unnamed mammals, no westerner had seriously contemplated the idea of extinction. The concept did not jive well with the deist views of our founding fathers–Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and others imagined the universe as kind of a large clock or watch set in motion by God. That this same god would create a creature and then allow ever single member of that particular species to die seemed strange and even unbelievable. This was an America before dinosaur bones had been discovered, before the endangered species list, and just before my ancestors began shooting buffalo from westbound trains for fun.

Letters from Jefferson and others reveal a deep personal interest in these bones from Kentucky, bones which eventually turned out to be new species like the Mastodon, Wolly Mammoth and Jefferson Sloth.  These discoveries turned the world of science upside down and gave rise to paleontology, the science of prehistoric life. That these early Americans were forced to accept evidence over ideology (a skill that seems to be lost on many contemporary thinkers) makes for a great narrative. To read these letters and get a first hand account of this story, including some great Native American myths about where the bones came from, I highly recommend the book Big Bone Lick, by Stanley Heeden.

How did Kentucky go from the birthplace of American paleontology to a hotbed of fundamentalism?  Now there is even a theme park devoted to debunking hundreds of years of science in the name of religion.  It seems to me like Kentucky could benefit from a 1600 square foot mural about natural history!

Last weekend, after a long week of painting mastodon bones as part of an outdoor mural in Covington, KY, I took my girlfriend to the state park to see the site of these discoveries.  It’s a great park with some great hiking trails.  And as you might expect, yes they do have some big bones on display!  These bones below are from bison.  The mastodon skull was simply too cool to be captured in a photograph.  You’ll have to visit yourself!

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The Artist as Collector

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636

A corner of a cabinet, painted by Frans II Francken in 1636

In the Renaissance, before the borders of art and science were so rigidly defined, the cabinet of curiosity or cabinet of wonder (Wunderkammern in German) was a place where peculiar objects were gathered (for a most fun and succinct recollection of this history, see Weschler, Lawrence. Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder. New York: Vintage, 1996. Print.).  These cabinets of wonder included natural objects like shells and bones, as well as human-made art objects such as oil paintings and sculptures.  Today we might understand these groupings of art and science as naive, but those collections were precursors to our modern museums.  Put positively, museums are now cultural expressions of shared understanding, places of wonder and appreciation.  Seen more critically, museums are promotors of ruling class propaganda–institutions where knowledge is created, stored and maintained by governments and wealthy individuals, opened periodically to the public, often for a fee.

The Artist in His Museum, (self-portrait, 1822), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

The Artist in His Museum, C.W. Peale (self-portrait, 1822), Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

Did you know that one of the first well-known American natural history museums was established by an Artist?  Artists are natural collectors, attracted to unusual forms and phenomena.  It is no surprise then that Charles Wilson Peale, a well known American portrait painter, was among the first to offer his collection to the public as a museum.  Peale also was progressive in that he adopted a system of scientific taxonomy, organizing his birds and bones by groups and classes rather than presenting them as random curiosities.  I always loved this painting, especially the grid of shelves, implying modernism, stability, structure and organization.

Peale, along with Thomas Jefferson and other early American figures, had a particular interest in the Mastodon, a then-emerging symbol of American power.  First called the “American Incognitum”, the Mastodon was thought to have been a powerful carnivorous beast.  One of the first complete skeletons to be unearthed was displayed in Peale’s museum.  Here is a magnificent drawing of the skeleton as it was displays in Peale’s museum from a book, Voyage to North America, and the West Indies, in 1817, published in 1821 and written by Édouard de Montulé.  It would have been incredible sight for early Americans.  but they put the tusks on backwards.  oops!

Skeleton in C.W. Peale's museum, drawing illustration by Édouard de Montulé in his book A voyage to North America, and the West Indies in 1817, published 1821

Mastodon Skeleton in C.W. Peale’s museum

A Wunderkammern aesthetic can be found in my own art, in that my work consists of gathering together seemingly disparate objects under the banner of art but often employs the visual language of science.  I treat natural and human artifacts as equals.  I am interested in the formal effects of visual organization but rather like early cabinets of wonder, my goal is not to deliver answers but to raise questions and inspire.

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