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Extinct Possibilities

The other Staabs are in the restaurant business. Twenty-nine-year-old Gary likes his critters much older--and colder. He is a paleo-reconstructionist, which means, in extremely introductory terms, that he builds big models of dinosaurs, using real bones and fossils to guide him. There are others who do this type of work, but very few who check their voice mail and find messages from the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum of Natural History, the Disney people (who are planning a movie that will make Jurassic Park look dinky), and Mom. Mom, in this case, is Rosemary Staab of Grand Island, Nebraska.

"I am rather proud of Gary," Rosemary admits. "I still don't know how it happened, exactly. He got a mail-order taxidermy kit when he was young, but he wasn't all that into art as a child. It's pretty cute when he comes home and some of his friends get to talking about how bored they are at their jobs. 'I don't know, Mom,' he says, 'maybe I just got lucky.'"

There is little scientific evidence, however, to suggest that Gary Staab has ever been bored. Maybe long ago, when he was a Little League catcher, during a slow game. But probably not, since those games were played on the Nebraska prairie, which crawls with bugs.

"I like bugs," Staab says. "I collect bugs. In Borneo, I got these wonderful beetles. I have a real affinity for beetles."

Staab has a real affinity for a lot of "weird critters." The basement of the house he built on the west side of Lookout Mountain is full of them.

"Here is my monitor lizard," he says, stopping before a glass case containing a huge, contemplative, craggy reptile. "He's a real tail-whipper. We handle him only with welding gloves. Here's a male Burmese python. Here's a female Burmese python. If there's one passion I have, it's herps."

Staab does not watch prime-time TV. Instead, he sits down here in front of the glass cages, watching his reptiles, wondering how their skin relates to that of ancient dinosaurs, noting the play of their muscles beneath that skin and then looking up the subject of how muscles attach to bones in some arcane book.

The pythons and lizards in Staab's basement are very much alive. But he gives equal time to weird, dead critters. "What about these?" he asks, holding out what look to be two tiny hooves with no legs attached. "I found them in the pellet of a Komodo dragon, in Indonesia. Oh. Here you go. Here's a mold I made of an alligator leg."

He hands it over. It is hefty, made of rubber, but otherwise seems realistic. On a nearby wall are pinned drawings and posters of orangutans--another species for which Staab has an affinity and may some day end up sculpting. "I got to go to Santa Cruz to dissect an orangutan face," he says. "Wonderful. Another wonderful thing I have is another big lizard who eats chicken eggs."

He approaches another wall, this one covered with pictures of vampire bats and Greco-Roman statuary, "which is basically the recipe for gargoyles," Staab says. His roommate, Lissi Wendorf, makes the gargoyles for sale as garden sculpture. That was just one of their brilliant, mutual ideas. Staab and Wendorf also make holds for indoor climbing walls. Some are shaped like human hands; some look like tiny gargoyles. There are many of these holds around the basement. To use them up, Staab and Wendorf are planning to construct the largest privately owned indoor climbing wall in the state.

To see it take shape, you have to leave Staab's house--and his three fat Labradors collapsed on their own couch--and walk ten feet to his studio, with its vaulted, concave ceiling that is not yet a rock-climbing roof. In fact, the drywall mud is barely dry. Beneath it, though, one half of a life-sized allosaurus--about eight feet tall and three feet wide--is emerging, eyeballs and all. "I make my eyeballs," Staab says. "Not too hard."

Before the allosaurus, Staab made a life-sized model of a camarasaurus for the Gunma Natural History Museum in Okayama, Japan. Not the whole dinosaur, though --just its back leg, "to scale," he explains, "with skin on one side, and on the other it peels back and you see the muscle down to the bone." This model took him two months to build. First, working from scientific drawings, real bone and fossil material, Staab sculpted the leg in oil-based clay. Then he made a mold in silicone and cast it in urethane, painting in the extensive details with dry-brushed oil paint. After that, he went outside and built a fifteen-by-seven-foot crate to hold the enormous leg. From there, it was up to a trucking company to negotiate the rut-filled dirt roads that lead to Staab's studio, load up the dinosaur leg and pack it off to Japan.

 

"I don't know what I'll do with this allosaur," Staab says, perching on a stepladder to get a better look at its eyeball. "There's a guy in Chicago who might buy it."

"I want that allosaurus he's working on," confirms John Lanzendorf, the guy from Chicago. Lanzendorf, acknowledged to have the world's largest amateur collection of paintings and sculptures of dinosaurs ("paleo-art," as it's called), says he stands ready to buy anything by Staab. "I already own two paintings of his and one bronze," he says. "I paid between $800 and $5,000 for these pieces, and as far as I'm concerned, all three have appreciated in value since I bought them."

For that matter, the whole paleo-art field is exploding. "It's going to be what wildlife art was twenty years ago," Lanzendorf insists. That he happens to own a lot of it is more luck than forethought. "When I was a kid, I was fascinated with dinosaurs," he recalls. "I'm fifty now, and it's a good thing I saved all my toys. I can't tell you how many of those two- and three-buck baby-boomer toys are worth two or three hundred dollars now."

Lately, emissaries from Harvard and Southern Methodist University have been nosing around Lanzendorf's collection--which currently numbers seventy original paintings and over one hundred bronzes and sculptures. And he's delighted to have been invited to the annual convention of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists, to be held in New York City later this month.

"We have so much in common," Lanzendorf says. "We'll get up at 5:30 a.m. and go to bed at 2 a.m. It's exhausting. I'm basically so lucky to fit in with these people."

An unlikely science groupie, Lanzendorf finances his absorbing passion, he says, by working as "the most expensive hairdresser in Chicago." Whatever it takes. Next year's vertebrate paleontology convention will be in Chicago, and Lanzendorf plans to take all 1,500 scientists through his condo to see his collection--eight at a time, so the carpets won't be mussed. "And there is a possibility," he hints, "that I may be developing a career that will allow me to spend the rest of my life with dinosaurs. I can't say more; I don't want to jinx it."

In the meantime, Lanzendorf will be buying plenty of Gary Staab. "I went crazy when I saw his work," he says. "He is so polite and pleasant. I know another brilliant paleo-artist--I won't say his name--who is almost as talented but has no personality. None at all. Gary is not that way. Of the forty top paleo-artists in the world, he is easily in the top ten--at his age. He could easily be the top one before too long. I'm just waiting to find out."

"I always liked natural history and critters," Gary Staab recalls, "but even in college, I didn't really have a clue what I wanted."

Hastings, Nebraska, home of his alma mater, Hastings College, had a natural history museum. "I decided to go over there, for lack of anything better to do," Staab says. "I said I'd love to learn exhibitry, and I did."

This was his introduction to the sundry skills of mounting fossils in glass cases, painting artificial skin to look real, and the study of "a very real phenomenon called museum fatigue," Staab says. "Some of the old halls don't even have benches. We now know people need to sit down."

After three months at the Hastings museum, Staab designed his own degree in museum studies, had it accepted by the college and began wondering how to further his knowledge. "There were several good museums in the world," he says. "One was the Smithsonian. I thought it couldn't hurt to ask." Many, many letters later, Staab was granted an internship at the Smithsonian's model-making shop.

He spent the next year working on countless human figures and serving as a model for one--"a guard on the roof of a Japanese-American internment camp"--before heading off for further study at the British Museum of Natural History in London. There he was immediately caught up in a bug exhibit of grandiose proportions.

"Three of us worked on an Emperor scorpion," Staab remembers. "It was displayed on a pressure pad, so when you stepped in front of it, it reared back and went into defense mode. I did the main pincers," he adds modestly.

Despite an offer of employment from the Smithsonian--which still stands, Staab says--he chose to take his first real job from the Denver Museum of Natural History. Staab began working there in 1989, as an assistant taxidermist. "Socially, it was wonderful," he says. "Like a small village of about three hundred people."

 

Staab stood out from the crowd without even trying.
"I was a designer, doing graphic murals for the Prehistoric Journey exhibit," remembers Chuck Parson, now chairman of the sculpture and drawing department at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. "I was walking around the department, and I saw this guy with a sculpture of a snake. He had a real snake in his other hand, and he was trying to match the colors. That was Gary."

Parson became friends with Staab and asked him to play guitar for Spot Weld and the C Clamps, a rock band made up mostly of artists and paleontology types. "He can be shy," Parsons says, "but only until his first guitar solo. I even talked him into doing Elvis--and I mean an obese Elvis throwing doughnuts to the crowd. It took about 38 seconds of arm-twisting."

Having watched Staab go from a taxidermist's assistant to a nationally known dinosaur sculptor in a single bound, Parson says he's impressed that "he's not an asshole. He's not even cocky. Meanwhile, I'm sitting here with a message from someone at Disney saying, 'Call us about Staab.'"

"It was pretty clear right away that he was one of the best prehistoric sculptors around," says Dave Burdikan, who supervised Staab's work on the Prehistoric Journey exhibit. Burdikan still wonders sometimes how Staab could have learned so much and gotten so good so quickly. "In my opinion," he decides, "it's something you're born with."

"I don't think so," argues John Gurche, a world-renowned paleo-artist and authority on early man who moved to Denver in 1991. "I think Gary is driven, not just talented. And all talent is, is love translated by drive. You have to have that initial love--and Gary has an incredible love for reptiles."

By the time Staab met Gurche, he had worked on a dozen reptiles, models of critters both living and extinct. But the pre-history superstars--T. rex, brontosaurus--never appealed to him as much as the lesser-known dinosaurs, Staab says, particularly some of the discoveries that were too new to have names. "I was surrounded by hot new science," he recalls. "I loved it."

In what little spare time he had, Staab chose to be surrounded by Gurche and his work with rare remains of early man. "Because of him, I'm intimidated by that hominid stuff," Staab says. "I've been offered hominid work, but I won't do it. John's too good." He decided this after working with Gurche three years ago on the reconstruction of the "Ice Man," a 5,300-year-old frozen corpse found by hikers in the Tyrolean Alps.

"I was helping him bring this guy to life," Staab recalls. "I try to get the skin right--pigments that glow. I mean, look at your hand. There are a thousand different colors there. And there's a translucency on top of it. Skin color is a very challenging thing."

(From Gurche, Staab picked up the habit of staring hard at any skin with which he happens to associate. His friends and loved ones have lost patience with this. "They say, 'Quit it, you're anatomizing me. You're looking at me for my facial muscles, not for love,'" Staab says, laughing.)

The finished Ice Man, several portraits of which were published in National Geographic in June 1993, is an astoundingly lifelike model, complete with enlarged pores on his cheekbones and a scraggly black beard.

"We actually put an ad in the Post that said, 'We will buy your beard, $80,'" Staab recalls. "We talked to a lot of guys before we found the right one. We put masking tape on his face and dry-shaved the hair so it would register exactly right on Ice Man. After that," he adds, "the Ice Man had a spirit, if that's not too psychedelic for you."

Working with Gurche, who is eighteen years Staab's senior, remains the high point of Staab's admittedly short career. "We got to be friends," he says. "He's in the band, too. He's a drummer, a good drummer. And he encouraged me to try painting. Right now he's doing a poster for National Geographic with all these versions of early man. It's incredible. He hasn't seen anyone in weeks."

Gurche is just one of a remarkable concentration of world-famous paleontology people who have gravitated to Denver and the West. This migration is partly because of the large number of fossils to be found close by, but also because, even if you are an eminent scientist, you still get to the age where a pleasant place to raise kids is at least as important as a big city museum and its amenities. Staab, who moved here for the Denver Museum of Natural History job, has seen no reason to leave--and so far, the dinosaur world has had little trouble seeking him out.

 

Staab's illustrations--action portraits of obscure dinosaurs as they might have been--made the cover of Natural History magazine in 1994. "They gave me the fossilized embryo of an oviraptor and asked me to paint it defending its nest against this guy," he says, showing his painting of a Technicolor reptile brute. "I see him as sort of ancestor of the modern Gila monster."

By late last year, Staab was so busy with freelancing, his day job and the construction (alone, by hand) of his Lookout Mountain home that he landed in the hospital with acute asthma and a lung infection. This inspired him to quit the Denver Museum of Natural History job and concentrate on his own work.

"Right away I got a job from Eyewitness Books, building a fly's head and a flea," he recalls. "They gave me three weeks, which is sick. I missed Christmas, but I made a fly head and some fleas' knees." Which, now that he thinks of it, deserve their own national holiday.

"I kid you not, a flea is tiny," Staab says. "There are 2,000 different kinds, and I picked one who can jump 62 times its own height. I stared at this one specimen through a microscope and drew it, and there's a mechanical lock on its knee joint which stores up this kind of hormone. When it gets released--pow!--that flea jumps! Incredible."

This morning Staab was on a rare vacation in a remote cabin near Guanella Pass. Never one to surrender to lassitude, in the preceding 24 hours he had accomplished two major goals. First, he'd asked Wendorf, his live-in companion and business partner, to marry him, and she'd accepted. ("I insisted we have lunch on our first date, because I thought he might be weird," Wendorf says. "This has all gotten kind of romantic.") Second, as the season's first snowfall began, Staab caught a beautiful cutthroat trout.

Now it is late afternoon, and Staab is hanging out with a security guard at the Denver Museum of Natural History, admiring the plastic lizard action figure she keeps on top of her computer monitor. The monitor lizard, she calls it.

"Actually, it's a Tokay gecko," Staab says. "And it's very nice."
Staab is here to revisit scenes of his past: a stuffed elk calf in a Western wildlife diorama--except "don't call it stuffed," he says. "Stuffed is a cringe word for me. It's a sculpture with a tanned skin over it, and if it's any good, you should see the softness of life in it."

This particular sculpture, done during Staab's first year at the museum, was made from a real skeleton. "You have to skeletonize the specimen," Staab says, with ill-concealed relish. "There is a room here, an incredibly nasty room, where beetles eat the flesh off bones. They make the skeleton completely clean." (Staab has a smaller version of the "incredibly nasty room" at home--two garbage cans filled with mealworms, which eat flesh in a slower, somewhat cut-rate way.)

But the elk calf was only a warmup for Staab's main oeuvre, which is all over the Prehistoric Journey exhibit--"and I'm a little tiny piece of it," he insists. "Hundreds of people worked on this." Years in the making, Prehistoric Journey was designed as a three-and-a-half-billion-year "trail through time" that begins with primordial ooze and ends with the dawn of humans, stopping at more than 500 fossils along the way. "Look at these little bronze brachiopods on the signs," Staab says lovingly. "The detail is just sick."

He heads into the exhibit.
"Young man, if you would just wait here until the video presentation begins," an elderly guard interrupts. He is perhaps the only person in the museum who does not recognize Staab.

"Sure," Staab says. "I've never sat in the video room before. This might be cool." A five-minute film explaining the beginning of time, complete with volcanoes and microbes, ensues. "I wonder what the creationists think of this," Staab murmurs, after which he pronounces the video to be cool indeed and moves on to a sign that reads: "Touch the trilobite." This is an ancient relative of the horseshoe crab, in bronze, crafted by Staab from a 530-million-year-old fossil, with input from several Front Range trilobite specialists. "There's quite a few of them," Staab says. "Around here, there are lots of nerd-like people who just can't get enough of these strange beasties."

He whips past two modern salamanders he made out of resin, complete with drips of resin water, and moves on to some "little sail-fin lizards" crawling about a prehistoric rainforest floor. "And here are some prehistoric dragonflies with two-foot wingspans," he points out. "I couldn't have made these without a lot of phone calls to a guy named Carlos at the Smithsonian."

 

A sample question from Staab to Carlos: How do the mouth parts compare to those of a modern dragonfly? And what about the coloration? Isn't that always the big question mark?

Next up is a life-sized diplocaulus, a peculiar and long-extinct "hammerhead lizard fish," as Staab puts it, that still fascinates him. "I mean, why would its head be that shape?" he asks himself. "So something can't swallow it? And what did its skin really look like? I used a collage of modern reptile/amphibian coloring. And you can't see this, but its feet are translucent.

"Oh, here's a dinosaur embryo I made," he continues. "And here's another Paleozoic dragonfly. I cast the eyes in amber and put a full-spectrum hologram behind them, because dragonfly eyes have thousands of facets. You can't see that, but it's there. I also made about fifty of these ancient cockroaches."

On he walks, past the "big rotting skull of a triceratops," a turtle sculpted from the model of a fossil he found himself, and a duckbill dinosaur skeleton. The biggest skeleton here, he says, is already out of date. "There's one called ultrasaurus," he notes, "but they recently found one even bigger. Lissi and I like to imagine what they'll come up with next. Huge-a-saurus? Most-biggest-a-saurus? But hey, wait till you see the Terminator Pig," he says, "just wait. Oh, here's what I like to call the Terror Chicken. Look at that jaw. Like a cleaver. VERY scary."

Staab, though not responsible in any way for the Terror Chicken, admires it deeply. He likes to compare it to large modern running birds: ostriches, emus and cassowaries. "There must be a clue there to living dinosaurs," he says. "I have gone a long way to retrieve a dead ostrich just so I could dissect it. Did you know a dead ostrich can weigh six hundred pounds?"

Did you know the Terminator Pig is just around the corner? This bison-sized predator, with huge, rotten stump teeth, once roamed the plains of Nebraska, which are carefully re-created in this exhibit, right down to scrubby vegetation and billowy white clouds. The pig itself was built by one of Staab's co-workers, now on assignment for the Smithsonian in Swaziland. "And most of the information for this pig came from fossilized bone," Staab says. "From a bone to something that looks alive. A bone is a powerful thing."

Almost as powerful as the nearly two-billion-year-old hand ax on display nearby. "One of the most expensive and rare things in this whole exhibit," Staab says. "Mrs. Leakey found it near Olduvai Gorge, and it was actually used. You feel the power of it when you hold it.

"And I did that," he says. "I held it in my hand.


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