Paleoart: Steve Hutchens

Steve and Suzan Hutchens
Steve and Suzan Hutchens; photo credit FLMNH

I am delighted that we are featuring Steve Hutchens for the Paleoart article. I have known Steve for more than 25 years. Steve is an extraordinarily talented sculptor, preparator, and avid fossil collector. More than a decade ago, when we were building the Hall of Florida Fossils at the FLMNH, many of the vertebrate skeletons now on display there were fabricated by Steve, with assistance from his wife Suzan. I am also humbled by Steve’s ability to find fossils in the field that professionals like me cannot see, as well as being grateful that he has donated those of scientific importance to our museum. Previously from Florida, Steve and Suzan–who is also an avid and skilled fossil collector herself–now live outside Chadron, Nebraska, where on numerous occasions they have welcomed us to their farm and shown us wonderful examples of Steve’s artwork. Bruce J. MacFadden

by Shari Ellis

Steve traces his interest in prehistoric animals back to his childhood growing up near Boca Ciega Bay outside of St. Petersburg, Florida. It was easy to find horse and shark teeth nearby, and his parents encouraged his interest. In terms of his artistic knowledge and skill, Steve learned much from his father who was a custom woodworker and sculptor in his own right. Steve spent his life doing woodworking and carving and, for many years, had a business in St. Petersburg carving wooden birds for homes and restaurants.

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Steve at work. Photo credit FLMNH

Steve and Suzan became involved with the Florida Museum of Natural History in the mid-1990s when they started to volunteer in the Vertebrate Paleontology prep lab—which they tried to do as much as they could, at least once a week. Around that time, the museum needed an Equus mount and—with the encouragement of Bruce MacFadden—the couple bid on the project.

Steve and Suzan were then asked to create displays for the new exhibit “Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land.” When asked which of the 18 or so mounts they created for the exhibit he was most proud of, Steve had a hard time picking one. When pressed, he selected the “beaked dolphin” (Pomatodelphis inaequalis) because that one required that he reconstruct the skull from small fragments along with casts of other pieces they had in the collections; the rest of the body, flippers and all, is a metal sculpture.

 

Model of Pomatodelphis inaequalis created for the FLMNH Fossil Hall exhibit. Photo credit FLMNH.
Model of Pomatodelphis inaequalis created for the FLMNH Fossil Hall exhibit. Photo credit FLMNH.

Steve had an easier time identifying which of the mounts he found most challenging—the giant armadillo! All of the osteoderms arrived in bags and boxes with no directions whatsoever. As he worked with the material, Steve came to recognize the “rhyme and reason” where each piece fit. Reflecting back on the experience, Steve chuckled and said,  “Now I know how they go together if I ever had to do it again.” Steve also reconstructed a baleen whale skull found in the Bradenton, Florida, area. He re-built the many significant parts that were missing, then made a mold and a replica now housed at the Smithsonian Institution.

Steve recently completed a Titanis walleri (terror bird) sculpture for the South Florida Museum that took him over two years to complete—longer than any other project he has undertaken. This project started without any fossil bones to work from; instead, Suzan gathered research papers from which they created drawings, then moved on to wood carvings covered with epoxy clay. As with other projects, this piece involved a good deal of metalwork as there is an internal metal armature supporting the structure and the whole thing can be disassembled—which proved to be critical when it came time to ship the seven foot tall sculpture.

Now based in Nebraska, Steve stays busy working on his ranch and sculpting. Some of his most recent projects started as large blocks of Styrofoam that were to be thrown away.

Steve in his Nebraska studio
Steve in his Nebraska studio
Some of his most recent sculptures
Some of his most recent sculptures

He also spends much of his time preparing fossils for people collecting in the Badlands, including teachers who participate in a summer program run through the South Florida Museum supported by the museum’s board member Jim Toomey.

We asked Steve to reflect on what is required to be a good preparator, and also for any advice he would give youth interested in a career in paleoart. He said that, while he had just a high school degree, he had been a craftsman all of his life. Also important is a willingness to learn anatomy, because an artist cannot produce realistic depictions without an understanding of form and function. In his words, “you need some sense of how a skeleton works, how teeth work, how the bones work together, so when you look at something you have some understanding of what makes it tick…and patience!”

His advice for youth was very encouraging—“Never give up! Follow your interest and if you have enough interest it will keep you going. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Volunteer at your local museum; it will provide huge opportunities to learn things and people get to meet you and see what you’re all about. Always do your very best no matter whether you are getting paid for it or not. That’s beside the point. Always do the very best you can. And that applies to everything.”

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