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So, an artist and a paleontologist walk into a museum …
While that sounds like the setup for an erudite punchline, it’s something that really happened in a Seattle museum several years ago when Alaskan artist Ray Troll – famous for his fun-filled renditions of fish and marine mammals – and paleontologist Kirk Johnson, now the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, met at one of Troll’s exhibitions.
Their “paleo nerd” connection quickly evolved into a friendship and series of epic road trips to research fossils along the North American coastline, visiting museums, dig sites and fossil collections and putting together books and exhibitions.
Their latest is “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline,” now at the Oakland Museum of California and running through mid-March. It explores the connections between art and science through Troll’s fantastically colorful renderings and Johnson’s scientific findings.
Basically: Come for the art, stay for the science.
“I like to bring fun to science, it’s been a lifelong love of mine,” Troll said at a recent press preview, representing the duo while Johnson was traveling. “Generally, science is seen as hard to access, so it’s so fun for me to be able to translate what scientists do, helping people understand a concept in one glance with a big graphic image.”
And an occasional cheeseburger.
“Yeah, I have a fondness for cheeseburgers, so you’ll see a few in my illustrations here and there,” he said, pointing to a tiny one situated between a saber-toothed cat and a woolly mammoth in the bottom left corner of one of his paintings. “Our M.O. is basically, if it’s not fun, why do it?”
Troll’s art is indeed fun with touches of humor and almost a comic-strip quality, illustrating what was here millions of years ago by overlaying time periods on top of one another. In “L.A. Freeway,” he has giant ground sloths and mammoths plodding along beneath freeway overpasses. There’s even a sloth passenger in a bus.
It’s just fun to look at. And before you know it, you’ve learned something without even trying.
The exhibit, originally organized by the Anchorage Museum, is a perfect match for the mission of the Oakland museum, said Kelly McKinley, OMCA’s deputy director.
“This is exactly what we embrace here, the intersection of art, history and natural science,” she said. “This show invites Californians to consider the history beneath their feet.”
Indeed, curators even brought a fossilized skeleton of a giant sloth out of storage to use as a focal point in the show. The bulk of the exhibition is composed of Troll’s images, some selections from their book, also titled “Crusin’ the Fossil Coastline,” and other works created just for this show.
Some of the most engaging localized pieces are maps Johnson and Troll developed through a collaboration with museum staff.
They’re maps of “fossil finds” in the Bay Area, such as the sloth fossils unearthed when construction crews excavated for the Oakland Coliseum complex. Troll shows a sloth in a Golden State Warriors T-shirt.
He has a mammoth at a used car lot in San Ramon. And another sloth is at the SLAC Linear Accelerator Center in Menlo Park. On the California/Nevada version, there’s a tiny guitar and a giant camel at Coachella and a UFO and a trilobite at Area 51.
“He’s bringing to life the creatures that once roamed here,” said Sarah Seiter, the museum’s associate curator of natural science. “Ray’s artwork is a really exciting way to help our visitors imagine what California and the Bay Area looked like thousands of years ago.”
The Oakland Museum of California is at 1000 Oak St., Oakland. General admission is $15.95 with discounts for seniors, youth and students; www.museumca.org.