Fusing Art And Science Through Paleontological Illustration

Below is Thomas Thurman’s story of how An Alliance of Art and Science came about.  The images from Georgia’s fossil record were created as a class project by artists of the Georgia Southwestern State University Visual Arts Department in support of Georgia’s Earth Science Education.

Photo provided by Thomas Thurman.

Ever heard of Georgiacetus; the Georgia whale? As a high school graduate of the Georgia public school system I hadn’t either until about six years ago. I first encountered the fossil while trying to round out my knowledge of evolution as an non degreed amateur paleontologist. Georgiacetus is the last known fluke-less whale, it lived about 40 million years ago.  Early in 2012 I re-wrote the Wikipedia entry on Georgiacetus, the previous entry was a stub. My expansion has been reviewed and added to since then, but my core text remains. A few months later the director of a university museum in East Georgia suggested that I submit a similar piece to the New Georgia Encyclopedia (NGE). I queried NGE and soon had an invitation from one of their editors to submit; she explained that they were in the process of revising the whole website my piece would be included.

So, how did I go from an amateur completely ignorant of Georgiacetus to writing scholarly pieces on an important scientific discovery? Here’s the simple answer; the Georgia whale is an evolutionary transition fossil linking early, non-fluked whales to modern fluked whales. The evidence suggests a straight line (or clade) of evolution from Georgiacetus to modern whales. Aren’t whales among the most popular creatures on Earth? I wondered why this wasn’t being taught in our schools, I wasn’t alone.

The last general review of Georgia’s vertebrate paleontology was published in 1957 by the Georgia Geologic Survey. The once superb Georgia Geologic Survey was abolished in 2004. In 2008 and 2009 I began contacting the various professors of paleontology at multiple universities around Georgia asking if they’d support an amateur project aimed at an educational book manuscript over Georgia’s vertebrates. I was pleased when several professors started sending me their published papers; Dr. Burt Carter at Georgia Southwestern in Americus and Dr. David Schwimmer at Columbus State University where especially helpful. A book manuscript emerged. It soon became painfully clear that the manuscript suffered from a lack of imagery.

Dr. Carter addressed this problem. As I got the story, the ultimate source for these images was a very casual conversation, in passing, between Burt Carter and Professor Laurel Robinson, Chair of the Visual Arts Department, at Georgia Southwestern. They’re co-workers.

Dr. Carter knew that Professor Robinson had personal experience in both paleontology and scientific illustration. When Professor Robinson and I exchanged emails, she explained that this would be a good opportunity for her students to do some commercial art, and since it was to be scientific illustrations, it would also be a good opportunity for them “to be wrong”.

Paleontological illustration is exacting work, there is room for the artist to express themselves, but the “facts” of the fossils must be strictly adhered to. She presented to concept to her class and they embraced it. It was agreed that the style was to be the currently popular graphic-novel type of artwork. This style would best communicate with students. Soon my inbox was full of pen and ink first drafts. Sometimes the students asked questions I couldn’t answer; the Georgia College Natural History Musem and Planetarium became involved, as did the Georgia Southern Museum. Queries were sent further afield; we even had researchers and artists at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History reviewing and commenting on the artwork.

The end result was a series of wonderful color illustrations. The feedback from national experts was very positive. With these in hand, I started contacting book publishers and presenting the manuscript’s first draft. Just before Christmas in 2011 I got an unexpected present. The director of Mercer University Press sent an “Intent to Publish” email. By early 2012 Professor Robinson was looking at repeating the commercial art class and asked if I’d be interested. Of Course! As it turned out, many of the students returned, wanting to do more. A few students expressed interest in scientific illustration as a career.

Unfortunately, in March 2012 I received word that a $10,000.00 subvention would be required to publish the manuscript in color, that I couldn’t pay this myself but the funding would have to come from an outside, preferably institutional, source. Discouraged, I contacted the University of Georgia Press. They also reviewed the material but replied with similar conditions. These are the current facts of educational funding. The book wasn’t going to happen. The various institutions had their own funding issues, a project headed by an un-degreed amateur isn’t something they’re in a position to pursue.

Thus was born Georgia Earth and Sky, a tiny web store geared towards science education support. Here teachers can find the artwork assembled as a self-guided power point presentation entitled An Alliance of Art and Science. It is available as a free presentation below.

An Alliance Of Art And Science

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One Comment

    Patty Crumrine says:

    Wonderful piece written by Thomas Thurman!

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