We usually think of scientists as a pretty dry and serious bunch. But a new exhibit at the Denver Museum of Natural History, Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway, based on Alaskan artist Ray Troll's slightly weird vision of evolution, proves that even paleontologists--folks who spend their lives digging up and labeling old bones--can have a sense of humor about what they do.
"He's playing the hairline edge between art and science," museum paleontology curator Kirk Johnson says of Troll's work for the show, and the evidence is everywhere: An incredibly dense illustrated walk through time, Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway is designed to appeal to every sort of museum visitor, from the slightly amused exhibit skimmer to the ten-year-old fossil nut who wants to drink up every last drop of Troll's primordial soup. "Dense I can deal with," says Troll, gesturing toward walls plastered with meticulously cross-hatched, tongue-in-cheek creations. "You can breeze through and find it enjoyable, or you can spend hours being drawn in by the details."
The enjoyable part is no problem--it's hard not to have fun with a science exhibit dominated by such goofy inventions as the Fossil Bed (a bunk bed layered and labeled to signify the earth's strata) and the Evolvo, an actual Volvo station wagon painted with Trollisms and sporting a trilobite hood ornament. "That's Charles Darwin driving, complete with fuzzy dice, and his friend the lobe-fin fish is in the passenger seat," Troll points out. There's even a cheeseburger on the dash--"because to survive, you either need to get a meal or reproduce..."
Though Troll--perhaps best-known to the public for his pun-infested fish T-shirts and book Shocking Fish Tales--got into zoological pre-history by way of an unnatural interest in fish and is admittedly no scientist, he traces the course of early evolution with plenty of backup from the real McCoy: He has friends like Johnson at museums across the country, who've all pitched in to make sure his scrupulous depictions are 100 percent scientifically correct. "Every creature you see here actually existed," he attests. And in spite of the deluge of puns and oddball humor apparent throughout the exhibit, the incorporation of actual museum fossil specimens, paired with Troll's persnickety attention to detail, makes his statement perfectly believable. "They sound like bad jokes, but if you look closely, you'll see there is a little thought behind it," he contends.
It's all the product of Troll's own journey as an artist: "I was trained as a fine artist. But then the fish started swimming into my work." That led to his fish book, co-authored by Brad Matsen, a former fisherman and editor of a fishing publication, after the two were set up together by their publisher. "Essentially, it was a blind date," says Troll. "But it was a happy accident. We collided while going in two different directions, but we had a parallel fascination with fish."
Next came their second book, Planet Ocean: A Story of Life, the Sea and Dancing to the Fossil Record, what Troll calls a "history of life on the planet, with a fishy bias." Troll and Matsen, amused by the simple supposition that "we are fish," took it from there, going on the road together and traveling from one fossil hot spot to another, gathering images, information and scientific expertise. That finally led to Troll's first museum show at the Burke Museum in Seattle. The Denver show is the exhibit's sixth and most comprehensive stopover since then.
Like its subject matter, Troll notes, the exhibit has evolved--"First came the book, then the museum show," he says, "and it even has a soundtrack." The music for Dancing to the Fossil Record, composed by a friend in Ketchikan and interspersed with snippets of scientist quotes, plays in the background as museum-goers travel through the show. "It's all been conceived in joy--shrinking, getting bigger and getting smaller again, just like a living organism," Troll notes.
Johnson's input as installation curator here in Denver happily split the creative collaboration three ways. "Each of us has different skills," Johnson says. "The results of the collaboration exceed our individual efforts. We went for accuracy, but with plenty of visual punch." Johnson admits the coalition turned into kind of a buddy thing. When Troll joined Johnson and a crew last summer for an expedition to Kremmling to dig giant ammonite fossils, he even brought along his wife and kids. The trip is vividly recalled in the exhibit by a trove of spiraled fossils from the site backed by Troll's huge, eerie green-on-black mural of floating ammonites created chiefly for the Denver show.
Walking out of Fossil Freeway, the viewer might have a hard time imagining Troll and Matsen managing to evolve again after already creating such an all-inclusive wonderland from the seed of a personal vision. But don't underestimate this duo. "We never stop dreaming," Troll says. "We'd like to maybe do another traveling museum show about fish--I have bales and bales of stuff in boxes." Adds Matsen: "Our dream is to do a Michael Moore kind of thing--maybe actually even drive around in an Evolvo and go "door-to-door for Darwin" with a film crew, just like Moore did." But it all depends on timing--survival of the fittest idea. And Troll would have to agree: "Sometimes you eat the fish," he says, "and sometimes the fish eats you."
Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway, through July 5, Denver Museum of Natural History, 2001 Colorado Boulevard, 303-322-7009.