Tag Archives: Brian Switek

1.21 Gigawatts: Artist Spotlight – John Conway, Bringing Dinosaurs Back

 

-Sarah Keartes

London-based artist John Conway spends his time in many walks of life—prehistoric life, that is.

Conway focuses on two genres of art: “paleontological reconstruction and, well, everything else,” a combination which allows for breathtaking imaginative overlap.

“John’s art melds illustrative skill and a variety of approaches with scientific detail and imagination,” science writer Brian Switek, who specializes in evolution, paleontology, and natural history, told Flux in an interview.

The path to creating accurate representations of prehistoric flora and fauna is riddled with challenges—the biggest perhaps being the initial research.

“Things are particularly difficult for artists here, even the most scientifically minded of us,” Conway said. “Scientific literature simply isn’t written with the problems of artists in mind; the crucial information on the appearance of fossil animals and environments can be spread across hundreds of papers, and even then there are huge gaps.”

Reconstructing plant life is particularly difficult as a decent-sized painting might have dozens of species, and gathering information on each is a daunting task.

“I’ve been putting a lot of effort into this over the last couple of years, and I’m still nowhere near where I’d like to be,” he said.

Conway’s fascination with paleontology began during childhood. Sparked by Bob Baker’s book The Dinosaur Heresies, his love for dinosaurs quickly intertwined with his passion for art.

“Certainly by the time I was fifteen, I was very into painting—especially nineteenth century landscape painters, and some modernists, as well as the paleontological artists,” he said.

It didn’t take long for Conway to dive into his own paleo-art career. At seventeen, he went to work for a museum in his hometown of Canberra, Australia, where he painted life-sized murals behind the dinosaur skeletons. Six years later, it was time for bigger and better.

“I grew up in a very dull city,” he said. “I left [Canberra] at age 23, while halfway through a philosophy/biology degree, to take up a very glamorous job working in Hall Train Studios making pterosaurs and dinosaurs.”

Hall Train, located in Ontario, Canada, is one of the leaders in the design and creation of exhibit paleo-environments, which are featured in natural history museums, science centers, and theme parks around the world, as well as one of the world’s foremost suppliers of dinosaur animation for television.

Credit: John Conway
“A year later, I moved to London and have been freelancing successfully (and mostly unsuccessfully) ever since…the money is terrible” Conway said.

On occasion Conway is challenged with completely reconstructing animals from the fossils, up. To do this, he must first draw all of the individual bones and assemble the skeleton, then comes the challenge of reconstructing muscles and other soft tissue using relatives through phylogenetic bracketing.

Greg Paul and, more recently, Scott Hartman have done an amazing job recreating dinosaur skeletons—I use those where available,” he said.

Conway’s non-paleo-art spans a vast variety of subjects, from alien life forms, to abstract representations of lyrics and mythologies, to beautifully obscure portraits of musical instruments.

“I’m very jealous of music and its apparently privileged connection to emotion in our brains. I have the rhythm of a drunken caffeinated turkey,” he said jokingly. “It has recently dawned on me that I will not live long enough to become a composer, an architect, a city planner, a singer-songwriter, an academic philosopher, a filmmaker, a paleontologist, a novelist, an engineer, a rock-star programmer, a shipbuilder, and a Lego-set designer.”

Though there is a distinct separation between Conway’s paleontological art and the rest, all of his work shares a similar aesthetic. He has an incredible ability to create life and motion is his computer-native art, much of which is still life recreation.

“He does far more than try to get the dinosaurs right: he gives them a kind of vitality that is sometimes lost in attempts where technical details trump the goal of trying to restore the animals as they once lived,” science writer Switek said. “People want to know what these animals looked like, and so it warms the cockles of my petrified heart to see John and other artists really do their homework while pushing the boundaries of what we can imagine about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals… Their work helps bring new science out to the public, and I am very thankful for that.”

Conway’s art has been featured worldwide, in countless blogs, publications, and in documentaries for National Geographic, BBC, and the Discovery Channel. Most exciting was the internet response to his book, All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals.

“In 2012 I decided to pursue a direct-to-people strategy of selling my work… All Yesterdays seemed like the most complete, and best suited of our various projects,” Conway said.

The beautifully illustrated book, which was co-written by C.M. Kosemen and Darren Nash, helped define a new paleo-art movement and is recognized as a celebration of Mesozoic life.

“It’s been amazingly well received critically and got heaps of coverage,” Conway said. “Though we are far from the only artists to produce the kinds of reconstructions you see in the book, I think it has come at just the right time, giving articulation and focus to what many of us have been feeling about paleontological reconstruction latterly.”

For Conway, paleontological art is about more than simply science communication.

“Honestly, such a goal would bore me. I think it should also have another goal, which has to do with enriching our lives through aesthetic experiences—shifting our feelings of the world,” he said

Want to know more about John Conway and his art? Visit his website or contact him on Twitter.

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1.21 Gigawatts: “Mermaids, New Evidence” – When Faux-cumentaries Attack…Again.

-Sarah Keartes

Described as the “rotting carcass of science TV,” Mermaids: the Body Found was the most appalling piece of docu-fiction I had ever seen—until last week.

Up from the depths of the Animal Planet sludgy abyss swam a new “documentary:” a follow up to The Body Found which originally aired as part of “Monster Week” (telling).

Mermaids: The New Evidence, which set an all-time ratings record for the network (3.6 million viewers), has the internet abuzz once again as scientists around the world desperately try to expose the film for what it is—not real.

The sister films combine documentary filmmaking techniques such as narrated reenactments, interviews, and vlogs, with debunked “evidence” and “theories” to drive home the main point: mermaids are real, and they are being concealed by marine biologists and the government.

“After watching this I said to myself ‘if the videos are real then it’s not a matter of it being a theory, it’s actual fact – ‘mermaids’ DO EXIST’. But that was the big ‘if,’” one viewer said.

“Ninety percent of the ocean is unexplored and you’re telling me #mermaids don’t exist,” said another, a statement which has been retweeted more than 800 times.

Firstly, there is no debate to whether or not either faux-cumentary is fake; the disclaimer at the beginning of both films clearly states:

“None of the individuals or entities depicted in the film are affiliated or associated with it in any way, nor have approved its contents. Any similarities to actual persons living or dead are entirely coincidental.”

Most (if not all) of the scientists, government officials, and professors in both films are in fact, actors, including the returning “Dr. Paul Robertson” (played by Andre Weideman) flaunted as “a former researcher for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration” (NOAA).

After The Body Found aired in 2011, NOAA released an official statement to clear up their implied contribution to the film.

“The belief in mermaids may have arisen at the very dawn of our species…But are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found. Why, then, do they occupy the collective unconscious of nearly all seafaring peoples? That’s a question best left to historians, philosophers, and anthropologists,” they said.

NOAA was not notified that the second documentary would be aired.

“They [NOAA] handled it beautifully—with aplomb,” Animal Planet GM Marjorie Kaplan said of NOAA’s response to the first mermaid special.

She added she was “pleased to note [that] you can’t be sued by the government” even for implying that they are spending billions concealing the entire cast of The Little Mermaid.

With so much previous evidence, why then are people still being dooped?

“The fact that the mermaid shows are fiction was easy enough to miss. Animal Planet certainly played up how authentic the illusory evidence was, including faked vlogs that didn’t bother to say that they were scripted,” science writer Brian Switek said in his National Geographic blog post.

“The channel’s page about Monster Week—of which the mermaids sludge was a part—likewise touts ‘physical evidence linked to the existence of mermaids’ without saying the show is a fantasy,” he said.

Like many people who have “Mocked the Doc,” I have taken some flak for my involvement in the “#mermaids” twitter conversation.

“Just because you have no imagination, doesn’t mean you have to bring us down with you, scientists and science people have no appreciation of fantasy—it’s sad really,” one person, let’s call her “Ursula” said in an email.

Anyone who knows me well  knows that I am more into fantasy than the average Joe—hell I’m still waiting for Robb Stark to come back from the dead and swoop me up riding Falkor so that we may run off into the double Tatooine sunset together.

I do not take issue with mermaids. I do not take issue with mermaids on television. But masquerading fiction as fact using debunked information—and on a network with a reputation (or at least a former one)—is fundamentally wrong.

“It’s not satire. It’s not parody. It’s a giant middle finger to the public,” Marine biologist Andrew David Thaler said.

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Image by Pets Advisor.