Artist Will Sillin: On the Denizens of Deep Time, Art, & the Artist

We are fortunate to have this contribution by guest writer William Sillin. Will’s artistic interpretations of the Triassic/Jurassic can be seen at Amherst College’s Beneski Museum of Natural History and at Dinosaur State Park in Connecticut and at other sites. His commitment to accuracy in his portrayals bring vivid life to the landscapes, plants, and animals as he imagines them for us.

I paint landscapes. My best known paintings are the Mesozoic paleolandscapes I created for Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, just south of Hartford, Connecticut, and the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College in Massachusetts.

My initial ambition in art was simply to produce picturesque landscapes. It wasn’t long before I thought that by understanding the anatomy of the landscape, I could add a dimension to my paintings. I ravenously read books on geology and geomorphology, and I painted western desert and alpine motifs, the nude figures of landscape.

My first paleolandscape commission came after one of my patrons introduced me to Ed Belt, a sedimentologist at Amherst College. Professor Belt loves art. He pointed at the empty wall cases in the old Pratt Museum  and invited me to fill them with my geology paintings. The Pratt Museum soon commissioned me to do numerous paintings, including a Jurassic landscape under the direction of Professor John Hubert (University of Massachusetts – Amherst) and Professor Belt.

I then visited Dinosaur State Park with the idea of displaying my geologic landscapes in its lobby. Rich Krueger, the park geologist, took me by the arm and said, “Come with me. I want to show you something.” Just above the trackway was a blank 15 foot high, 30 foot long curving wall. “I want a Triassic landscape painted on this wall. Are you interested?” A project of that scale on a 90 degree curve was the last thing on my mind when I walked into the park. I gulped air and replied “Sure!”

The fantastic thing about painting paleolandscapes is working with the brilliant and passionate scientists who guide the pictorial reconstruction of the environment. Our understanding of deep time environments and inhabitants evolves with our investigations. In the great mural at Yale’s Peabody Museum, Rudolph Zallinger’s reconstruction of some Triassic plants are as convincing as they are inaccurate. I spent one magical day at Lamont Doherty Geological Observatory with paleobotanist Bruce Cornet and paleo-grandmaster Paul Olsen deconstructing regurgitated errors and then synthesizing the way that Cornet and Olsen envisioned every known fossil plant and animal in our valley during the late Triassic.

I’m reading books on physics. A compelling idea drawn in words by Brian Greene is that space and time make a “loaf” that can be cut at many angles, depending on where you are and your relative motion. Our Mesozoic earth, with skittering archosaurs, flickering leaves of Otozamites, and passing showers has its place in that loaf. It is as real and everlasting, and as accessible, as the seconds of space and time that have just slipped past as you’ve read this blog, or even the moments yet to come. One way to see our Mesozoic valley is to change our position and motion in relation to earth. This is not easily done. The likes of Hubert, Belt, Cornet, and Olsen, however, have a found a short-cut to the Mesozoic through close observation of the rock strata. It is exhilarating to be a survey artist on one of their trips back in time.

Let me take the opportunity of this essay to reflect on the terms “dinosaur artist” and “dinosaur art.” My library is in my studio. It is somewhat organized. Anatomy, Zoology, Geology, Paleontology, Paleobotany, Astronomy, Photography and Remote Sensing, and of course, Art. I own a small volume titled The Great Dinosaur Mural at Yale: The Age of Reptiles, authored by Yale art historian Vincent Scully, the artist Rudolph Zallinger, paleobotanist Leo Hickey and paleontologist John Ostrom, both also from Yale.

The book contains essays by all four and has a series of fascinating reproductions of  preliminary sketches,  the mural in various stages of development, and a 6 foot long superb reproduction of Zallinger’s stupefying 110 foot long masterpiece.

That little book is not in the paleontology section of my library. It’s not next to my books on dinosaurs. Zallinger and The Age of Reptiles is shelved in my art section, just after Van Gogh.

Van Gogh painted the denizens of Arles. Zallinger painted the denizens of deep time. One was an artist who painted peasants and sunflowers, the other was an artist who painted Archosaurs and Araucarites. Van Gogh is classified as an Impressionist. Zallinger is in a class of his own.

I think any artist whose subjects include dinosaurs is every bit the complete artist as one whose subjects may be allegorical, historical, psychological, contemporary, or abstract.

It’s been said by others that The Age of Reptiles is to evolution what the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling is to religion. I agree.

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