Arts News: Anatomy of a Paleo Artist

Paleo artist John Gurche, a Kansas City native and author of “Lost Anatomies: The Evolution of the Human Form,” at work sculpting a depiction of a newly discovered human ancestor.  (Linda Hall Library)

In his new art book, “Lost Anatomies: The Evolution of the Human Form,” esteemed paleo artist and Kansas City area native John Gurche presents a captivating cache of 189 images steeped in both science and imagination.

“I’ve been working on this collection for 27 years,” Gurche said. “It started out of frustration with what I couldn’t get away with in ‘National Geographic’ magazine, where you have to serve science and you can’t have psychedelic stuff going on.”

Gurche is the paleo artist most often selected to depict newly discovered human ancestors in “National Geographic,” and 15 of his evolutionary likenesses are featured in the Smithsonian Institution’s Hall of Human Origins. He also created key dinosaur designs for the blockbuster film “Jurassic Park.”

Still, it’s his artwork in “Lost Anatomies” that makes him most proud. The transfixing tome has been equally praised for its painstaking realism and transcendent insinuations.

“The human form has been the subject of intense exploration by artists for centuries,” Gurche said. “And now, with human origins science revealing the precursors of that form, we’re free to explore those forms aesthetically and take it all the way through evolution.

“I’m even hoping — and this might be pie in the sky — to awaken an interest in people who were not formerly aware of any interest in human origins. I’m hoping to reach them on an aesthetic channel.”

In September, Gurche, who lives in Trumansburg, New York, returned to Kansas City to speak about “Lost Anatomies” at the Linda Hall Library. He traces his lifelong attraction to anatomical history to childhood experiences in Prairie Village and Overland Park.

“When I was 4, I found a mouse skeleton underneath the bushes in my family’s front yard,” he said. “I was just fascinated by this intricate little structure, so tiny. It was the same thing with fossils, which are all over the Kansas City area, and it wasn’t too long before I started finding them. I was fascinated by these little organized shapes that could appear in something as random as a rock.”

Gurche went on to study paleontology, while also expressing his artistic side by “doing a lot of psychedelic posters,” he recalled. “I liked the distortions and perspectives you could do with that type of art.”

But it took being blown away by Stanley Kubrick’s epic science fiction film, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” to suddenly merge his scientific and artistic sensibilities.

“It spoke eloquently about the distance between apes and humans, and then gave you a hint of taking it that next step, that much beyond humans,” Gurche said. “I realized that there was this cognitive continuum, and that our cognitive powers are just an incredible event in the evolution of life on Earth. I left that movie knowing I had to learn more about human origins. And I also knew that I had to work as an artist.”

Many years later, Gurche was commissioned to create the original movie poster for “Jurassic Park.”

“On a Friday, I got a call from Steven Spielberg asking me to do the poster,” he remembered. “I finished the painting by Monday, but by then the marketing department had gotten control. They wanted something that was very high contrast, something they could slap on a lunchbox and it would be immediately recognizable across the room. So they went with the dinosaur skeleton that was originally on the cover of the book, ‘Jurassic Park.’”

Despite that heartbreak, Gurche harbors no Hollywood regrets, especially given his successful design of the film’s talon-wielding velociraptors. Encouraged to develop the prehistoric predators as viable “characters,” he didn’t want to do it in anything resembling a cute way.

“I’d always viewed velociraptors as these nasty, smelly chickens with switchblades,” Gurche said. “So, it was very easy to depict them in a way that might be considered sinister.”

“Lost Anatomies: The Evolution of the Human Form,” by John Gurche (Abrams, New York; $36), is available at Barnes & Noble on the Plaza, 420 W. 47th St.

CategoriesLiterary Visual
Brian McTavish

Brian McTavish is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and pop culture. He was an arts and entertainment writer for more than 20 years at The Kansas City Star. He regularly shares his “Weekend To-Do List” at KCUR-FM (89.3)/kcur.org.

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