I came across the podcast Palaeocast through Episode 30: Palaeoart which featured an interview with Julius Csotonyi, two-time winner of the Lanzendorf-National Geographic PaleoArt Prize, awarded by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. I listened to that and a few other episodes in a similar vein: Episode 80: Paleocreations, which featured an interview with paleoartist Robert Nicholls, and Episode 93: The History of Palaeontological Outreach, with Dr. Chris Manias, a historian of paleontology from King’s College London. Palaeocast was created by Dave Marshall, a part-time PhD student at the School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol. Marshall was unhappy with common depictions of dinosaurs and paleontology and created Palaeocast to better represent the science of paleontology for a diverse audience.
The interviews with both Csotonyi and Nicholls focused a lot on their background and how they became paleoartists. Interestingly (although perhaps not too surprisingly), the highly regarded two artists have had very different paths. Csotonyi has a PhD in microbiology and focused much of his research on extremophiles. Nicholls explains that due to dyslexia, he didn’t do well in math and science courses, but “fortunately, I was good at drawing.” Rather than go into science, Nicholls earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree in illustration. He explains that he has “no science training at all, I’m just a pro geek.” Although he also notes that he feels like he belongs to the paleontological community more than to the art community. This is an interesting point, especially when we consider that the motivations behind their work seems to be an important commonality between the two artists.
Csotonyi explains that he has always been interested in science and the natural world, and especially the “weird and wonderful” of life on earth. Both as a scientist and an artist, he’s interested in things that we can’t see, either because they’re too small or too far away or too far back in time. In a similar vein, Nicholls explains that while he likes the “big vertebrates,” he enjoys drawing or creating almost anything “so long as it’s a fossil.” Nicholls says he’s not so interested in illustrating extant animals which someone could photograph, he goes on to say, “I enjoy the challenge of going out and reconstructing something that you can’t see anymore. It’s so dead it’s turned to stone. And I want to show people what it might have looked like in life.” Similarly, Csotonyi explains that he feels very strongly about scientific outreach, and that he finds it “very enjoyable to help spread word about how fascinating our world is and what scientists are doing to open it up.”
A more recent episode featured Dr. Chris Manias, who describes himself as a historian of paleontology. In 2016, Manias launched Popularizing Palaeontology, a professional network and workshop series which seeks to link trends in the humanities and sciences in both the history and current context of paleontology. Participants have including scientists, scholars in the humanities and social sciences, artists, museum professionals, historians of science, science journalists, and others. Marshall asks how the study of paleontological engagement in the past could be useful today, and Manias explains that he has a more negative point and a more positive point. On the more negative side, the persistent stereotype of paleontology as the study of dinosaurs exclusively and of paleontologists as this kind of hyper-masculine straight white male who ventures out into the Badlands with his cowboy hat and his gun to have adventures has historical roots in the late 19th and early 20th Century (Brian Noble explores this history in detail in Articulating Dinosaurs, but that’s for another post!). However, understanding this history may help us diversify contemporary public perceptions of paleontology. Manias also notes that on the more positive side, the history of paleontology is one where science and public ideas have been intertwined, and this shows that the subject is inseparable from wider cultural ideas and debates.