Paleoart: Jurassic Art Class at the North Dakota Heritage Center and State Museum

Advertising for Jurassic Art ClassEditor’s Note: This issue we interview Jessica Rockeman, State Historical Society of North Dakota, and Becky Barnes, North Dakota Geological Survey, who offered a summer class in Jurassic art for young teens.

What are your backgrounds in art and paleontology?

JR: Paleontology is exactly like my art hobby. It’s an entirely enthusiastic, self-driven education.

It is probably an odd sort of hubris to go about drawing dinosaurs and other extinct things, but I’ve met some of the most amazing people doing it. Bringing a creature back to life is part of it, but the real magic for me happens when people connect with a piece. I think you can tell when an artist or author genuinely likes people. They may not know it, but they are stimulating new thoughts that others can share. Do you remember when you made someone laugh because of something you drew or used a word you shouldn’t have in class? Moments like that are potent. They taught me valuable lessons. That words and pictures have power. I never forgot that.

BB: I have my Master’s degree in paleontology, and a Minor in art. When I was younger I had to make a decision on which field I wanted for my career, and which for my sanity. For a long time I studied both, but paleontology eventually won out as my primary path. While I do a lot of art for work, it’s not my main focus. For art, I do a lot of drawing and illustrating, but I’m actually a big fan of woodworking, sculpting, and carving. It makes for a good balance.

What inspired you to offer the classes?

JR: Becky and I were gambling that the universe had more than two art-crazy kids. We came up with a series of classes that included molding, sculpting, puppets, and drawing and we couldn’t have asked for better students. The chance to get your hands on real art supplies and talk to a real paleontologist is rather rare. It’s been a terrific opportunity to be able to do a program like this, free for students, and we’re looking forward to next summer at the Museum.

BB: Jessica came up to me and said, “We should do this! Want to do this?” and I said “Sure!” Paleo is always looking for ways to bring fossils to the public, and this was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. We just had to figure out what activities we could do in a short amount of time.

How many kids participated and their ages?

Jurassic art clay tile
Jurassic art clay tile

JR: We cap the classes at 20 students and we advise a range of 11-16 because the classes are two hours. When you are trying to wrangle art supplies, explanation, and have time for a student to create a great project, two hours is not a lot of time.

BB: I’d say our average was around 12-13 year olds. It’s hard finding big chunks of time in the summer, so two-hour class times were about the maximum we could do.

Why is it important to connect the disciplines of paleontology and art for kids?

JR: Paleontology and art are intriguing connections for any age group. Sometimes you can perfectly accrue the information and problem solving you need, but more often, your precious hours may be spent managing surprises no one expected. Most people are already curious about dinosaurs and saber toothed cats, they just need the support for their scientific curiosity. And sometimes the process of learning might look like puppets and comics. It’s about having fun and making that connection

jurassic-art-clay-tileWhether you’re a kid going through a phase or an adult with a half hidden passion for paleontology, art makes that connection where science meets creative license. There are scores of internet dwellers ready to pounce the moment you get something wrong about their pet interest — some polite, some not so much — fix what you can and give yourself permission to reach for better than what you had the day before.

BB: A lot of people think that paleo-art stems from the field of science. There are times, however, that artistic license and imagination has provoked scientific questions. Maybe one artist draws a dinosaur with a feathery headcrest instead of scales. Did the animal actually have a feathery headcrest? Maybe a fossil found in the future will tell us – but this give us questions to ask! Blending science and art is a great way to make things stick. I study a lot of bones and skeletons in my field – but they don’t really *stick* in my brain unless I draw them. So… I do a lot of drawing.

To continue what Jessica said above, when you do artwork, FINISH a project. I don’t care if you think it’s terrible – finish it, and put it aside. Start again. Finish another. With every piece you do (drawing, painting, carving, whatever), you’ll learn new things. You are your own worst critic – it took me a long time to learn that.

To learn more:

Read Becky’s blog