Art Apart From Time
James Gurney, author and illustrator of the “Dinotopia” book series, has often played coy when it comes to the reality of his creation.
The original book “Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time,” published in 1992, begins with Gurney’s account of finding main character Arthur Denison’s journal in a used book store. The rest of the book is written as if it were Denison’s journal, telling the story of Denison and his son Will’s adventures after being shipwrecked on a utopian island where dinosaurs and humans live together in harmony.
He’s kept the act up over the years. One of the pieces found in the exhibition “Dinotopia: The Fantastical Art of James Gurney,” on display at The Arkell Museum at Canajoharie through Feb. 9, is a mockup of Denison’s journal.
“I made that one for the Smithsonian,” Gurney said recently from his home in Rhinebeck. “They had a glass case, and they asked me if there was anything I wanted to put in it. I said, ‘I’ll make something for you to put in it.’ … I asked them, ‘Can you put a label on it – can you label it as Arthur Denison’s original journal?’ They said, ‘We’re the Smithsonian; we can only go so far with this.’ They ended up labeling it James Gurney’s model of Arthur Denison’s journal.”
For Gurney, this question of reality is a big part of why he writes and paints.
“I do get letters from kids all the time asking me, ‘Is this real, or is this made up? My brother and I are having an argument,'” Gurney said. “And that’s at the heart of what it means to be a novelist, a fiction writer. I have to tell them that I haven’t actually been there, but there really are things that are real to us that we haven’t seen or touched. In a very real way, the stories we read and see are very powerful. So I tell them, ‘Go figure; you’re both right.'”
Gurney has published three other “Dinotopia” books since the first, with the most recent, “Dinotopia: Journey to Chandara,” arriving in 2007. The franchise has also expanded beyond Gurney’s books with novels by science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster, a series of 16 shorter novels written for children, a 2002 TV miniseries and subsequent show, and a 2005 animated film.
The exhibit at the Arkell, which opened Oct. 27, features original paintings as well as behind-the-scenes props and models from three of Gurney’s “Dinotopia” books: Paintings from “A Land Apart From Time,” its 1995 sequel “Dinotopia: The World Beneath” and “Journey to Chandara.” Work from “Dinotopia: First Flight,” a 1999 prequel to the other books in the series, is not included in this exhibit. The exhibit was curated by Stephanie Plunkett at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., and has been traveling around the country since 2006.
“I’m particularly excited that it’s in Canajoharie; I’ve been to the museum library and admired their ‘Night Watch’ replica and their [Winslow] Homers and [John Singer] Sargents,” Gurney said. “One of the things that I’m especially excited about is that in their collection, they have a painting by a little known artist named Jehan-Georges Vibert, a painting of Gulliver on the ground in Lilliput. It’s an extravagant painting of imagination, beautifully realized with models in exotic costumes. … He was one of my inspirations for how to develop realistic paintings, so having that Vibert next to my own paintings is a real thrill.”
Gurney’s long career as an artist and illustrator has often combined realism and plein air painting with fantasy, from the creatures in his “Dinotopia” paintings to his recreations of ancient civilizations for National Geographic magazine.
Born in California in 1958, Gurney taught himself to draw through books on Norman Rockwell and Howard Pyle, according to his website www.gurneyjourney.com. He studied archaeology and anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, and in 1982 he co-authored his first instructional art book, “The Artist’s Guide to Sketching,” with Thomas Kinkade.
His illustration work for National Geographic and others helped to inspire the first “Dinotopia”-related paintings, “Dinosaur Parade” and “Waterfall City.” Both of these appear in “A Land Apart From Time.”
“At the time I did those, I had a loose idea of lost empires, a general idea of Atlantis or El Dorado, these classic lost empires or lost cities that have occupied people’s imaginations,” Gurney said. “I did those paintings while I was still working for National Geographic as an archeological illustrator, doing paintings reconstructing lost cities with archeology. That led me to thinking about lost worlds, and once I did ‘Dinosaur Parade,’ I started thinking about how to tie together all these paintings. The original ‘Waterfall City’ didn’t have any dinosaurs in it.
“From there I started thinking about a map of the island and how to tell a story through the point of view of an explorer who had just arrived on the island,” Gurney continued. “So the story became Arthur Denison’s quest into the world, documented with a faux journal.”
The subsequent “Dinotopia” books have been written and illustrated in tandem, with Gurney fleshing out the various paintings and story ideas on story boards similar to those used on animated films.
“One influences the other; it’s hard for me to develop the story completely in a visual vacuum,” Gurney said. “For the story, I’ll write out a short synopsis, a one-paragraph summary of the story, as well as a longer story synopsis of about 15 pages. At the same time I’m working on sketches for dinosaurs, vehicles, costumes and other scenic pieces that are not only part of the story, but can stand outside the story. In the case of ‘Dinotopia,’ it’s important to do some images for readers to look at even if they’re not in the middle of the story, that can appear as an art print and let people step out of the narrative.”
Gurney builds miniature dinosaur and vehicle models, or maquettes, to help him visualize his paintings. He also uses models in costume – family members, neighbors and even himself – to illustrate the humans in the story.
“I have a lot of old theater costumes that I got in New York [City] years ago when a theater company was selling all their old opera and dance costumes,” Gurney said. “I have red velvet capes, gowns, all kinds of different theater costumes; the only problem is that the opera costumes tend to be very large, and the ballet costumes are very petite, so it’s hard to find just the right size for average people. The costumes are very difficult to make up convincingly; you really have to see what happens with the folds and the quality of the fabric.”
For more information on “Dinotopia: The Fantastical Art of James Gurney,” call The Arkell Museum at 673-2314 or visit www.arkellmuseum.org.