Gary Staab: The Second Coolest Job in the World

The Kearney-based paleosculptor makes dinosaurs, mummies and mammoths for museums worldwide.

He calls himself a “paleosculptor.”

Gary Staab brings the wow factor to natural history and science museums, recreating ancient fossils and skeletal remains in mesmerizing detail and at mammoth scale.

Staab spends his days (and sometimes nights) engrossed in his work in his Kearney, Mo. barn-studio. But when he sleeps, his dreams might surprise you. They are not filled with grossly deformed mummies and curses, or dinosaurs with razor-sharp claws chasing him à la Jurassic Park. No, like most business people, his nightmares are about meeting deadlines.

And, there are a lot of deadlines. The demand for his work has not let up since he started his studio business in 1996.

Staab and full-time assistants Jeff Compton and Meg Schwend have created prehistoric sensations for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and other prestigious institutions around the world. His productions include life-sized dinosaurs as big as a house, a 2-1/2 ton mammoth, a replica of King Tut’s mummified body for a National Geographic exhibition and most recently, reproductions of Europe’s oldest known natural human mummy, the Iceman.

“I feel very lucky to be in this line of work,” Staab said in a recent interview, surrounded by clay and bronze casts and broken molds of past and future projects. “An astronaut (Clay Anderson) came up to me after a talk I gave and told me that I had the second coolest job in the world.”

These days he keeps so busy that he’s turning down work. “I still get emails that ask how much it would cost to do something for a backyard,” Staab said.

But there are some clients you just can’t say “no” to — like the Public Broadcasting Service’s acclaimed documentary arm, NOVA. Staab was just featured on NOVA’s Iceman Reborn episode, about his work with Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old mummy found well preserved in 1991 in an ice glacier in the Otztal Alps.

Staab was commissioned by the Dolan DNA Learning Center to make three replicas of “Ötzi the Iceman,” a project which has given him the thrill of his career. He’s one of the few individuals on earth who has had an opportunity to see Ötzi outside his frozen crypt in the South Tyrol Museum in Italy.

Covered from head to hand to foot in surgical scrubs, Staab also was allowed to touch him. “The scientists lined us all up and one said, ‘No one touches the mummy,’” Staab related. “And, I thought, ‘of course.’  But then he points a finger at me and says, ‘Except you.’”

Gently touching the dehydrated flesh of Ötzi’s grisly face was “thrilling,” he added.

Ötzi is safely stored in a climate-controlled vault in Italy so he doesn’t degenerate. Staab used a combination of 3-D printing mode, medical CAT scans and his own photographs to make three Ötzi doppelgangers that will be displayed at the Dolan DNA Learning Center in Cold Spring Harbor, New York, the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in northern Italy, and a third for an undisclosed exhibition forthcoming in New York.

[block pos=”right”] “I often think that what we learn from the bones of creatures and human beings who lived millions of years ago might unlock some secret to mankind’s future survival.”
— Gary Staab [/block]

The process for making many of these models is similar. The team starts with many hours of research, studying scientific papers, looking at fossils and other models of the beasts (or humans) they’re modeling. Then, they create smaller versions, usually out of clay. These smaller renditions of mammoths, dinosaurs and crocodiles perch on shelves in his workshop, like broken pieces from a child’s toy chest. After that, the team moves to a larger warehouse on site and construction begins, with foam, metal wiring and clay coming together to make a convincing animal cast.

When he thinks about the tools he uses, Staab can wax philosophical about the irony of his work. “I do recognize a few practical ironies about what I do. I got into the business because I love nature but find myself constantly working with solvents, synthetics and plastics. And, the plastics I use are in part made from fossil fuels. So I am using the derivatives of fossils to recreate fossil animals for museums,” Staab says.

Of mammoths and dinosaurs, tortoises and chickens
The kid who always liked to look under rocks and logs for insects (“I still do,” Staab says), was raised in Grand Island, Nebraska, and always liked drawing and working with his hands. While attending Hastings College, one day on a field trip to a museum he had an epiphany of sorts. “I thought the animals and bird models I was looking at had to be made by someone, right? So why not me?” he asked.

He graduated from Hastings, which put together a custom art and biology degree program for him. Soon, the museum selected him to build his own exhibit for the Hastings Museum.

Internships followed at the Smithsonian and at what was then known as the British Museum of Natural History. He later spent six years as a sculptor and model maker for the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Since the late ‘90s, Staab has been in business for himself, accepting commissions on a freelance basis as Staab Studios.

Later this year, Kansas Citians will get to see Staab’s casts of a set of life-sized dinosaur bones at the Science Museum at Union Station. And in Omaha, the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium is displaying four new Staab sculptures, including a life-size rendering of Archie, a Columbian mammoth discovered in Nebraska in the 1920s.

Staab and his team molded 4,000 pounds of clay into the image of the mammoth, which was then cast by a foundry in bronze. The hollow piece will stand about 13 ft. tall and 21 ft. long and weigh about two and a half tons.

Another project underway in the studio is the recreation of a rhino found in the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park near Royal, Neb. Staab is shaping clay around the animal’s skull and eventually will create a full-size figure that will be cast in bronze and put on display in the park’s visitor’s center. In early spring, the rhinoceros head had been molded out of wet, gray clay with glass eyes that looked slightly surprised at all the attention.

What to call Staab professionally is a subject of some discussion. “I call myself a paleosculptor,” he says. “It is art informed by science.”

From his office upstairs, where hundreds of books can be found along with a very comfortable chair and a cello, Staab enjoys a great view of his 17-acre lake. His stress relieving secret: “I try to sneak out every lunch hour to fly fish,” he says, a skill he picked up in Colorado.

Some of his stress is offset by music. Staab is teaching himself how to play the cello and he’s a cellist in a local band, “The Craftsmen,” that features a Kearney science teacher, David Miller, and neighbor Ray Weikal playing “Roots, Rock and Americana.”

Staab, a lithe man of 48, describes himself as shy, until he latches on to a topic of interest to him. One of his heroes is biologist E.O. Wilson. Staab even made a bust of the man, who humorously, but graciously, agreed to let Staab measure his head.

And, Staab has chickens, which he says are like “my own little herd of dinosaurs.” Sometimes a very old and very large African tortoise named Njaa comes lumbering into the shop. Njaa is Swahili for “hunger.”  Njaa fits right in with all of Staab’s historic models, bones and clay sculptures in his workshop.

Rather like Alfred Hitchcock’s cameo appearances in his movies, Staab exercises his sense of humor by inserting his own hair here and there on some of his models. The original Iceman actually had an eyelash on one of his eyes. So to recreate every detail, Staab pulled one of his own lashes out and inserted it onto Ötzi’s eye socket. “So I have a little of my DNA in my creations,” he laughs.

It’s hard in his line of work not to become philosophical about living on earth, which is probably why he admires E.O. Wilson so much. The Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist’s writings grapple with existential questions, examining what makes human beings supremely different from all other species. That’s the place where Staab lives.

“I often think that what we learn from the bones of creatures and human beings who lived millions of years ago might unlock some secret to mankind’s future survival,” he says. “It is possible, (that) by studying the past, we might be able to open the secrets of our present and future.”

That means being ever watchful for the canary in the coal mine. “Large tortoises are cold-blooded and cannot survive freezing temperatures, because they cannot burrow below the frost line. So when paleontologists dig up large fossil tortoises in Nebraska, for instance, it tells us that Nebraska 10 million years ago used to be a warmer place than it is today. Information like this helps scientists understand the past so they can predict future trends,” Staab says.

And Staab is even philosophical about his own extinction. “I will probably want my body donated to science,” he says.

But then, he gives voice to something that seems to be coming from a place of neither science nor art, but maybe of humanity.

“I wouldn’t want to end up like Ötzi, probed and studied for years. He is the most important find in scientific history, but one day we may very well know as much as we can know about him and humankind of that era. When that happens, I am somewhat of the mindset that he needs to be placed back from which he came — lying face down, flat against a rock in a 5,000-year-old glacier. Home to rest.”

Kathie Kerr

Kathie Kerr, a former publicist at Universal Press Syndicate/Andrews McMeel Universal, has worked with syndicated cartoonists and commentators, including Garry Trudeau and Pat Oliphant. She now owns her own public relations firm and works primarily with published book authors and animal welfare groups.

  1. Elvia Barrera says:

    Gary is one of my favorite sculptors. As an artist myself, I am envious of the job that he has. How can I get a job like that?

    1. Victoria says:

      I found Gary quite by accident in a Dorling Kindersley book, Amazing Bugs! copyrighted in 1996 where he was given credit as being one of the model makers. His model of an early human brings to mind the iconic National Geographic cover of the girl with haunting green eyes. The difference being that the girl was real and his was an interpretation with both capturing the same expression.

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