How one ‘paleo-artist’ turns skull fragments into a creature with a soul
John Gurche/Courtesy Yale University Press
The work of John Gurche unfolds right at the intersection of art and science. Over the past three decades, Gurche has made a career of using fossil specimens to create renderings of prehistoric creatures. He started out producing dinosaur paintings, good enough to earn him a consultant’s role on the movie “Jurassic Park.” But it’s his hauntingly lifelike sculptures of our human forebears that have made him a go-to guy for paleontologists.
An artist-in-residence at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, N.Y., Gurche is one of a select few people whom museums and journals turn to when they want to bring a 3 million-year-old skull or femur to life. What is notable about his figures—each of which can take up to a year to create—is that each seems to possess a kind of vital spark, or what he calls a “soul.” Rather than merely showing us what these creatures would have looked like, Gurche wants us to sense what they would have thought and felt, too.
This month, Gurche publishes “Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins,” an account of the 15 sculptures he created for the Smithsonian Institution’s Hall of Human Origins, which opened in 2010 to a combination of fanfare and controversy. In fact, much of Gurche’s new book is devoted to the second-guessing that inevitably arises in his field. Paleo-art may have moved on from the stooped, club-wielding cavemen of the 1950s, but it is still an unusually subjective offshoot of the natural sciences.
While each of Gurche’s figures is the result of painstaking research and craftsmanship, his work relies as much on intuition as it does hard evidence. For every paleo-artist who decides to depict an Australopithecus afarensis contentedly eking out a ground-based existence, there is another who would rather see that creature gazing longingly back towards the trees. “There is a lot of uncertainty on every issue,” he says. “People look at this with different eyes.”
Gurche spoke to Ideas by phone from his home in Trumansburg, N.Y.
IDEAS: How does someone become a paleo-artist?
GURCHE: I was interested in dinosaurs as a kid, and from there it spread into every area of my life. I spent several years in junior high trying to draw up a family tree of all animal life, which was an impossible task. I was also interested in art. I remember in fourth grade, I made an evolutionary series of heads out of clay. I suppose the simplest explanation of what I do today is that I never stopped.
IDEAS: How many people in the world do what you do?
GURCHE: Well, there are a number of us. You could go all the way down to people who do this but never publish or show their work. I’d guess there are about five of us who get into museums a lot.
IDEAS: How do you go from looking at a pile of bones to creating a rendition of their former owners?
GURCHE: Bones, contrary to widespread opinion, are not static things. If you know what to look for, you can read a skeleton and get information about the placement and development of muscles. And there are other clues about soft tissue contained in a skeleton as well: The bony area around the nose gives you information about the degree of nasal projection. To support the reconstruction work, I’ve done many dissections over the years, and this includes males and females of all living species of great ape, including humans.
IDEAS: What about the actual process?
GURCHE: Physically, I build a face in clay over a cast of a skull. Then the reconstruction is molded and cast in skin-like silicone. Artificial eyes are added and hair is implanted, one at a time, with a modified needle. I make my own eyes, which is a process replete with headaches, but worth the aggravation because I can control qualities that give “soul” to them.
IDEAS: There’s something quite creepy about that.
GURCHE: You have to get the feeling that someone is home, that there is somebody in there. If not, I haven’t succeeded—I’ve created a dead anatomical model. This can lead to odd moments—I’ll be sitting there taking notes, then look up and this thing is watching me.
IDEAS: Your figures are very lifelike, but how accurate are they? If you were working on Brad Pitt’s skull, would someone look at the final product and say, “That’s Brad Pitt!”
GURCHE: I think you can rule that out. Even the most modern forensic techniques, working with a species that’s still alive, would have trouble getting it exactly right. You can get very close to the shape of the face, but there are a lot of little things, like the expression of the eyes, the shape of the lips. There’s no reliable way to predict those things.
IDEAS: Do you have an idea of what a face is going to look like when you get started on a project?
GURCHE: I can see it coming as I go along, but I never know what the final face is going to look like before I get there. There are hundreds of individual decisions to be made along that way. The result is often a surprise to me.
IDEAS: Do you ever look at a figure after you’re finished and have a niggling doubt that you haven’t gotten it quite right?
GURCHE: Oh yes. One of the statues I did for the Smithsonian, Homo heidelbergensis, he’s offering food, leaning in, caught in the act of giving, and he’s got this almost obsequious tilt to his head, like he’s honoring you. This was the idea I had in mind when I built him, but when I was finished, I didn’t trust the pleasantness. There seemed to be something there that wasn’t quite honest.
IDEAS: Is it frustrating to know you’ll go to your grave never really knowing how close to the truth you’ve gotten?
GURCHE: Yes, of course. I’d love to be able to see these things living and breathing. But that’s wishful thinking. I’m coming as close to that as I can. I wish I could come closer, but I’m stuck with the methods I have.
IDEAS: How does what you do further human knowledge, other than satisfying our curiosity?
GURCHE: It’s important for us to be able to connect with our ancestors. It enriches our lives in a way that religion has in the past. It makes us feel connected.
IDEAS: You endow your figures with facial expressions, body language. In a way, you’re not just showing us the outside, but suggesting what’s happening on the inside, too.
GURCHE: I want to see them as living, breathing beings, to create something so lifelike you expect it to blink. I do try to give them inner lives, through facial expressions and poses. For example, the Neanderthal head I did for the Smithsonian has a wistful, pensive, contemplative expression. I wanted to convey to people that this was a being with a complex inner life that included levels of symbolic thinking.
IDEAS: I remember going to the Harvard Museum of Natural History and seeing this snarling little hedgehog from Madagascar, which dated back to the early 20th century, as I recall. This seemed to reflect the sensibilities of the age rather than the animal’s character. How do you avoid this trap?
GURCHE: I am human, and my mind is a product of human culture, so I don’t know if I can ever be completely free of this kind of thing. But I try. For instance, the Smithsonian team and I decided on a female for the Homo erectus figure carrying an animal carcass. If we had used a Flintstones model for division of labor, it might have been a male bringing home the bacon. But we all recognized that this would be imposing modern ways on an ancient species, and there is no evidence that this would be valid.
IDEAS: Do you get emotionally attached to your creations? Do you talk to them and give them names?
GURCHE: I do get attached. I don’t talk to them, and I think the reason for this is that I understand that human language is not their mode of communication. I don’t name them—attaching a silly nickname would be too flip, too lightweight for the connection I feel. I’m surprised by my emotional reactions sometimes.
IDEAS: Has your work changed you as a person?
GURCHE: Yes. It’s easier for me now to view our present moment as an arbitrary point in a long stretch of time, to view my own life in the context of this great evolutionary stream. It’s a powerful thing. Traditionally, the institution that fosters a connection with the cosmos is religion, but science can fulfill that role, and this branch has even more potential. Here we are, but what is the larger story? When I look into the sky now, this is the question the stars whisper to me.
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