Maverick Life

Maverick Life

Looking on the past: The artistry and science of John Gurche

J. BROOKS SPECTOR spent time with paleo-artist John Gurche for a conversation that ranged from depictions of evolution in popular film to the tricks of imbuing a clay and fur model of an ancient hominin with a sense that there was life inside that artist’s creation.

In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is, therefore, probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s nearest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere.

– Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Let’s get this on the table right away: to spend time with John Gurche is a delight – his pleasure with and enthusiasm for his life’s work is infectious. Gurche is in South Africa to deliver the Standard Bank/Paleontological Scientific Trust’s (PAST) annual lecture at the Wits University Great Hall on Thursday, 16 October. (PAST supports paleontological research in South Africa as well as a broad agenda of public education on evolution.)

Gurche is clearly a man totally in love with his work – or with his deeply rewarding hobby. Actually, it seems as if he sees them as one and the same. Specifically, the particular focus of his work is the creation of aesthetically beautiful, but scientifically accurate reconstructions of early hominins (our common ancestors, our origins) – as well as work on reconstructing the occasional dinosaur or two, whenever that comes along.

Asked about his own origins, he says he studied paleontology and anthropology up through the MA level at the University of Kansas, but, surprisingly, he never studied art beyond middle school art classes. Nevertheless, even while he was going the straight science route, he kept scratching away at his artistic side so as “to express the wonder [he] felt about this thing”. He admits, however, that his early drawings almost certainly would have convinced everyone who came in contact with them that he would never make it as an artist.

And then, back in 1979, he bid on a project at the Smithsonian Institution, packed up everything he owned into a wheezing Volkswagen, and moved to Washington, on “spec”, just in case he actually got the contract. He did, eventually, get that job and – thereafter – the work just kept coming. Eventually, despite his lack of formal arts training, he became a widely recognised illustrator of dinosaurs for books, periodicals and museum exhibitions. But working in the Mesozoic Era was like an exotic vacation. “My heart was always with the hominins,” he acknowledges. All those muscles and details are just so “beautiful” he says, as his face lights up.

Years later, he has come to be associated with the Museum of the Earth in Trumansburg, New York, a small town located near Ithaca. Gurche says his community is one of those unusual places where people still naturally come together to build community projects, almost like a nostalgic story of small town life – with modern tools and connectivity.

We take a brief detour to talk about the old decrepit cars we have owned and the disasters they became – but from the endless search for parts for such vehicles it seems just an easy segue to his growing anxiety about being able to find continuing supplies of the precise clay mixture he prefers to use for his modelling projects.

And about the difference between what those anatomical police forensic reconstructionists do – and what he does? Gurche says that, paradoxically, his work is actually easier in some ways. Contemporary humans are a global species that now have more adiposity to their facial features than prehistoric hominins did – and so for the police expert the issue becomes one of just how fat the person in question was who is being reconstructed so as to make it recognisable. The forensic reconstructionist is, after all, trying to reconstruct a real individual’s unique features so that someone, somewhere will recognise the reconstructed individual. Rather, Gurche’s, task of one of giving “life” to an entire species through his individual models. He says he tries avoid using the tail-end outliers of any range of specimens, as he selects which skulls and bones to work with, although he admits that it is sometimes a guess, an intelligent guess, maybe, but still a guess. Maybe that is where the art starts to creep into his reconstructions.

Do museums sometimes have a kind of “Grand Prix of reconstructionists”, giving a skull to several different people to see how closely the resulting reconstructions resemble each other, he is asked. Yes, sometimes, it seems. Of his own efforts, Gurche says, “I hope that knowing about the anatomy doesn’t mean I am not dealing with the aesthetics too… If one gave the same skull to several anatomically constrained reconstructionists, I think we would end up coming pretty close, closer than two average humans.” It’s an art that is also a science.

But what about those new advances in computer assisted modelling being used by some specialists? Why doesn’t Gurche do that for his works? He says that for him there are not yet ways that are sufficiently interactive to duplicate the hands-on squeezing of that clay to create the final result. And he admits to feeling the same way about books, versus e-books – it’s the tactile thing for Gurche.

He recalls that when he worked on the famous Alpine “Ice Man” (that frozen hunter found in a European glacier a few years back), Gurche found that contrary to his initial impression it would be rather pedestrian to work on a modern human reconstruction, it turned out that even here there were fascinating issues to be decided upon. The man had a very round skull and a broad forehead, and a big gap between his front teeth. As a result, it became a unique individual that came out of the process of Gurche’s final reconstruction work on him.

In his recently published book, Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art, and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins, this question of sentience in Gurche’s hominin models was raised right at the beginning of the book. How does he build into his models the sense that a modelled creature is looking back at the viewer – that there is “someone home” there – more than a dog, less than a dolphin, perhaps? He answers that, among other things, he makes his own eyeballs (for the models) and builds in more depth into the iris. And then the border of iris – the limbus – is ever so slightly blurred in these ultra-realistic eyeballs. And there are lots of other secret tricks, he says, as he smiles.

Gurche explains that he takes the archaeological evidence on board as well as he builds his models. For example, when doing a particular model, he asks if that period of hominins had the quality of “inventiveness, or did they make the same tools over and over for a million years,” he says. In the case of those rather robust but ancient hominins, Paranthropus boisei, he went for a placid, bovine sense of contentment – “And in doing this I’m telling a little bit of a story. In this case you’ve got somebody with really specialised anatomy suitable for really tough or hard foods that required a lot of repetitive chewing with its monstrous jaws and muscles, and molars four or five times as large as ours.”

And as far as his artistic reference points go, besides Charles M Knight (famous for his dinosaur murals in American museums painted many years earlier), he looks back to artists like Albrecht Durer and Leonardo da Vinci, of course, for their careful depictions of human anatomy. But there is also the influence of filmmakers Steven Spielberg (with whom he worked on some of the director’s films) and Stanley Kubrick. In fact, Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey, with its astonishing opening sequences of those early hominins in Africa was what made Gurche tell himself, “I’ve got to study human origins!” Then there were also Caravaggio’s paintings – all that marvellous cross-lighting and that beautifully rendered musculature – those works do it for him too. And then he adds the works of Rodin, the sculptor, were important to him as well. Somewhat surprisingly, he insists that if Auguste Rodin were alive today, he’d be depicting Neanderthals too, what with all those beautifully articulated muscles in his sculptures.

What would Gurche like to do outside his current love, if he had the time? How about a vast fictional work speaking to human evolution or perhaps a film on such a topic, he says. Gurche says that he felt that some of the sequences in the film Contact give a sense of the vast scale of evolution. While that film tackles the contestation between science and religion, Gurche says the film chickens somewhat out at the end. By contrast, in Carl Sagan’s original novel, the final chapter describes the evidence for a deity buried in the number pi.

And why does he do this work? He wants to help people connect to their human ancestry. When they look at a hand, they should be able to look at that hand and see back to a fin, so many millions of years ago. Does that mean he has a kind of fundamental opposition to those religiously driven theories of intelligent design or the divine watchmaker? He says, that, ultimately as far as religion as concerned, we simply don’t know enough when we go back at the very beginning of things, although none of that should in any way obviate an full appreciation and acceptance of evolution as a fundamental guiding principle in biology. Or, as he says about such religiously motivated critics of evolution: “Evolution – it’s just a theory? Ok, like gravity…. In scientific language there really is no such thing as a ‘fact’, just better and better explanations.”

And if Gurche had a time machine, where would he go? He says would love to be able to stand on Earth four and a half million years ago to see the early stages of human evolution, the beginnings of bipedalism, for example. But he would love to be able stop along the way to see how things were progressing, “I want to watch the movie!” And it would be superb to have him as the guide for such a trip, too.

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John Gurche will give the 10th Standard Bank/PAST keynote lecture on Thursday, 16 October 2014 at 18:30 at The Wits Great Hall. His lecture is entitled, “The Ancestral Connection: Portraits of our Prehistoric Human Family.” For additional information, go to, or contact PAST CEO Andrea Leenen at: [email protected].

Leenen says John Gurche was selected for this year’s lecture because “his artistic depictions bring our ancestors to life in a way that fossil bones cannot”. PAST Chief Scientist Prof Rob Blumenschine adds that Gurche’s depictions, “while based on a thorough understanding of the underlying skeletal anatomy, allow one to establish an almost personal connection with our ancestors”.

This year’s keynote address is also the third Phillip Tobias memorial lecture. PAST is now gearing up to kick off its “99.9% aLIKE” global campaign to celebrate the common humanity and shared African roots of all people. Leenen says of this upcoming campaign, “For the public to appreciate these ancient African roots, it helps to see how hauntingly similar our ancestors’ appearances are to ourselves, and Gurche is a master at this.” DM


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