It seemed especially fitting that on the same day I visited "Dinotopia: The Fantastical Art of James Gurney" at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, I also stumbled upon the 1993 movie Jurassic Park while channel-surfing. I've seen the Steven Spielberg screen version of Michael Crichton's best-selling 1990 novel several times, but here was a chance to compare that dark fable with a dramatically different take on what might happen if dinosaurs and humans were to coexist.
If you're among the few who have neither read Jurassic Park nor seen the film adaptation of it, here's a quick recap: Man builds theme park populated by dinosaurs made possible by the marvels of cloning. Things go very, very wrong. People and dinosaurs die; bitter lessons are learned; a healthy respect for nature is reaffirmed.
Author and artist James Gurney takes quite a different approach to bringing humans and dinosaurs together. In his series of illustrated Dinotopia bestsellers — A Land Apart From Time (1992), The World Beneath (1995), First Flight (1999), and Journey to Chandara (2007) — Gurney posits a lost island where shipwrecked humans and dinosaurs lived harmoniously side by side.
Gurney goes even further and fabricates a story about how he discovered the existence of Dinotopia. He was "tracking down some information about the spice trade in China" when he found an old leather-bound sketchbook from 1860. It details when "biologist and explorer Arthur Denison and his young son Will set out from Boston, Massachusetts, on a voyage of adventure and discovery." They wash up on the shores of Dinotopia and record their findings in the notebook Gurney pretends to have found. Gurney wonders, "Had I stumbled upon the only surviving record of a lost civilization?"
By setting his fantasy in the mid-19th century, Gurney smartly takes advantage of not only the relative paucity of accurate, in-depth scientific knowledge about the world at that time but also the sense of curiosity about the world that characterized such inquiring minds as Arthur and Will Denison. In other words, he builds what he needs to tell the tale into the tale itself. The ever-resourceful Gurney then re-creates his imaginary world in astonishing detail, much the same way J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy spins out the culture and history of Middle Earth.
The 60 or so illustrations and related materials that make up the Dinotopia exhibit are part of the documentation that "proves" the existence of this lost world. The Norton gets into the spirit of the exercise from the start with a trio of cast dinosaur artifacts, on loan from the Broward College Graves Museum Collection. There's a cast of an allosaurus claw, one of a skeleton of a coelophysis, and one of a skull of an anatotitan.
The transition from reality to fantasy is made all but seamlessly, as Gurney provides a map to the island of Dinotopia as well as Arthur Denison's actual journal, rendered in mixed media. Can we doubt a world so meticulously thought out? Thus primed, we are ready to buy into Gurney's vision, and what a vision it is: Humans ride on willing dinosaurs as if they were horses or camels or fly through the air mounted on enormous "skybax" inspired by the winged Quetzalcoatlus found in the fossil record. Birthdays — those of both humans and dinosaurs — are observed by parading dressed-up dinosaurs through the streets.
It's a far cry from Jurassic Park, although Gurney does provide dramatic tension by including the voracious tyrannosaurus among his otherwise peace-loving vegetarian dinosaurs, sequestered in its own territory on a remote part of the island. He even speculates that dinosaurs communicated among themselves and also with humans by vocalized language along with an alphabet formed by their footprints.
Aside from this last bit, Gurney's fanciful world is mostly grounded in science. Having had an abiding interest in dinosaurs since childhood, he keeps up with the latest developments in the field and studies such things as dinosaur locomotion by working with detailed models. Gurney's background combines the scientific and the artistic: He has a degree in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley and also studied illustration at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design.
It is entirely possible to be impressed by the lengths to which Gurney has gone to flesh out his fantasy and simultaneously to feel as if there's something ultimately trivial about his enterprise. His renderings of the island's center of learning, Waterfall City, for example, suggest an eye for composition that far outstrips his subject matter. And although he has clearly incorporated the influences of such artists as N.C. Wyeth, Howard Pyle, Maxfield Parrish, and Norman Rockwell into his work, I found myself longing to see what else he might be able to do with such enormous talent at his disposal.
Then again, if you're looking for something to take the kids to this summer and they've already experienced the Lego art of Nathan Sawaya at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, "Dinotopia" is just your ticket.