The Paleontology of Chris Wildrick Is Overrated, series of work, 2001-present
The Paleontology of Chris Wildrick Is Overrated is a series of projects that document Chris' continuing attempt to become a self-taught professional paleontologist.
Why a paleontologist? Some years ago, Chris was at a bit of a career crossroads. He thought that art might not have been the thing for him after all. So if not art, what? Certainly nothing that involved another graduate program--too long and expensive. So it would have to be self-taught.
Paleontology seemed to offer all the good things that one associates with art, and perhaps a few others in addition. As a pursuit, it's intellectual, creative, even adventuresome--just like Indiana Jones, running around having adventures in the desert, right? Plus, everyone likes dinosaurs and not everyone likes art. (Or so Chris thought; it turns out that not everyone does like dinosaurs, amazingly.) On a more serious note, one of the great things about paleontology, like astronomy, is that amateurs still make important contributions to the field, so it is not a totally ridiculous idea for an artist to decide to up and become a paleontologist as an adult.
Anyway, after just a short time, Chris got back in the saddle when it came to art after all, and decided he could have both art and paleontology in his life.
At the beginning, Chris' entire body of paleontological knowledge was pretty much the same as it had been when he was 10. (And not even all of that was correct--he spelled "Tyrannosaurus" wrong for at least another 5 years!) So he hit the books and museums trying to build up a base level of understanding of the field. As he did so, he realized something that perhaps should have been more obvious--paleontology is really hard. It's not just memorizing a bunch of dinosaur names: it's anatomy, microbiology, climatology, geology, statistics, chemistry, physics, engineering, astronomy! Chris hadn't just set out to learn one science, he had accidentally set out to learn all sciences!
He needed a focus. Eventually, he decided to study what he calls Dinosaur Aesthetics, or why we think dinosaurs looked the way we think they did. He decided to focus on this particular topic partly because it was really interesting, and partly because it lay within his capabilities.
The whole point of Dinosaur Aesthetics is that we don't really know what dinosaurs looked like on the outside. We have guesses, but there's not much we know for sure. We don't know what colors they were, what patterns they had. We know what kind of skin coverings some of them had (bumpy, feathery), but not all. We don't know for sure how they moved, or what they sounded like. And yet, in every single image or video we have ever seen of a dinosaur, we see them with colors and textures, moving and making noises. Simply put, if you want to draw the outside of an animal, it has to look like something. And so artists, in collaboration with scientists, have theorized and imagined and reconceived a whole continuum of ideas of what dinosaurs might have looked like on the outside.
This process of creation by artists and scientists, and its reverberation and adaption in the minds of the public on an individual and a mass scale, is what Chris calls Dinosaur Aesthetics--the artificial creation of an visual and behavioral aesthetic based on a particular group of animals that we have a particularly interesting epistemological relationship with (to be just slightly art-speak-y), in that it is based on a whole series of absences, both physical and informational. We have found, and will only ever find, fossils of a small percentage of the dinosaurs that ever existed. Of the ones we have found, many have been only partial skeletons, and even the best skeletons don't preserve the entire animal, only the hardest parts. Scientists make their hypotheses based on this first-hand physical evidence, then artists make more suppositions and more creative leaps based on what the scientists say.
As these images are created and disseminated, they seep farther and farther from the idealistic enclave of paleontologist and scientific illustrator, out to popular science books, children's books, toys, TV shows, food packaging, movies of all stripes. The artists become less and less interested in scientific evidence and more and more influenced by what has gone before; it has almost a classic-to-baroque cycle of influence. Artists become influenced by existing imagery, not the first-order source material. People may actually recognize a cartoon dinosaur more easily than a real fossil dinosaur because the cartoon dinosaur has filtered out all the extraneous details, leaving us with our pure idea of "what a dinosaur is supposed to look like"--at least, in the popular mind.
So, what is the current state of Dinosaur Aesthetics? Why have we focused on certain kinds of dinosaur imagery rather than others? Why do we even care about dinosaurs anyway? Why is it that evey kid knows Tyrannosaurus rex, to the extent that you can buy chicken nuggets in its shape, but almost no one has heard of a Titanothere? (Don't hold your breath for Titanothere chicken!) What is it about dinosaurs that makes them somehow resonate with our human psychological archetypes, our literary stereotypes, so that they seem like natural story-telling protagonists and antagonists?
The Paleontology of Chris Wildrick Is Overrated is a project in which Chris attempts to answer these questions through a series of interactive projects that he does with the public--surveys, contests, activities, creative projects. Instead of searching for answers in his own mind, he is plumbing the minds of others. By analyzing the results of all these projects, Chris hopes to learn more about what we think we know about dinosaurs and why we care about them, which in turn may tell us a little bit about ourselves as well.
For even lengthier descriptions, please see these PDFs, which were designed as explanatory posters for Chris' shows at the Redhouse and the Museum of the Earth:
One question Chris gets asked a lot is, how will he know when he is a professional paleontologist? The answer is that Chris has a long list of achievements he would like to tick off, each of which is a small step along the way. He has just achieved one of his major goals, having an exhibition in a paleontology museum. There is probably no one single thing that makes someone a professional paleontologist (any more than there is one thing that makes someone a professional artist), but he can at least say for certain that he is now a lot further along the path than he was when he started in 2001!
Chris' projects follow several main research themes, such as what people think dinosaurs looked/acted/sounded like, what other facts people know about dinosaurs (such as their names), the links between dinosaurs and popular culture, the role of dinosaurs in human psychology, and the relationship between artists and scientists. The projects are arranged by theme below (whereas on the website general Project Archive page, they are arranged chronologically by start date). Of course, many projects could be listed under more than one heading.
What dinosaurs looked/acted/sounded like:
A Day in the Life of a Dino
Tooth & Claw
Skin & Bones I
Skin & Bones II
Skin & Bones III
A Picture is Worth 1000 Words
Tracks and Translations
Walk the Walk
Talk the Talk
What people know about dinosaurs:
Dry Facts, Dry Bones
Eenie Meenie Miny Moe
D.I.Y. Paraves Cladogram!
D.I.Y. Dinosaur Tangrams!
Preternatural Paleontological Palmistry
Psychic Dinosaurs from the Future!
Dinosaur High School
Surveys of the Variance in Dinosaur Name Pronunciations
Dinosaurs and human psychology:
The Dinosaur Mating Game
The relationship between scientists and artists:
Dinosaurs On Our Minds
Collected paleontology books
Fooling the Future (an old, pre-Dinosaur Aesthetics project)
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