Artist incorporates fossils, faith into new creation
For more fossil fun…
Mary Anning might not exactly be a household name, but she is considered a trailblazer in the world of fossil-hunting – and not just because she was a woman.
Anning, who lived in England from 1799 to 1847, discovered several iconic fossils. She also played a role in a debate that emerged in Britain over the relationship between religion and science.
Her life has been brought to the stage in a one-woman play, “Blue Lias, or the Fish Lizard’s Whore,” written and performed by Claudia Stevens. Stevens, who is an associate professor of music at the College of William and Mary, will perform the play at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Kansas University’s Spooner Hall.
The event is free and open to the public. It is sponsored by the Commons at KU, a partnership of the Biodiversity Institute, the Spencer Art Museum and the Hall Center for the Humanities.
Jesus is lying on a slab of stone, holes through his hands, resting peacefully before his resurrection.
It’s a familiar scene for Christians everywhere – until one sees the curled-up dinosaur at his feet.
One part artist’s interpretation, one part historical matter, this 6-foot-4 Jesus is something else, and not just because he’s got a friendly, gold-eyed mosasaur skeleton resting with him. Jesus’ body is made, its creator Alan Detrich says, of Tyrannosaurus rex fossil fragments.
“No one has ever taken something that is 65 billion years old and made religious icons out of it,” says Detrich, a local artist with a studio near Overbrook. “It’s something really new. It’s something I don’t believe anybody is really doing.”
The work, titled “Resurrection,” is scheduled to be on display at the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York, fittingly, at Easter time.
But for those interested in seeing religious artwork made of dinosaur bone closer to home, some of Detrich’s other works went on display Friday at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt., and will be there until Feb. 28.
Dinosaur-bone religious sculptures at a municipal building may seem like an odd fit, but Detrich believes his display can bring attention to a need for private donations to build a new public library.
“If we can generate some interest with the children, then it’ll trickle down to the people that understand how important a library is in the community,” says Detrich, who plans to give away bone fragments in conjunction with the show. “I hope some people would come forward and rather than the taxpayer having to pick up the pieces all the time and build things, maybe some private entrepreneurs and business people would like to involved in this project to build a new library.”
But he also wouldn’t mind if the display of his pieces also brings some library-goers into a conversation with God. Detrich is a deeply religious man who thinks that without belief in a creator, nonbelievers have nothing to live for.
“If people say we’re bringing God into a public arena, I think that’s a good thing. I’d think he’d like that,” he says. “But, more than anything else, I think it’s going to (get people to) ask more questions about our origins rather than answering to a lot of people who are nonbelievers. They might just accidentally come to the conclusion that life would be better if they believed in a super being, in a creator, rather than life would be better if your actions didn’t matter.”
For the future
Detrich has great faith in reaching out to children. As he believes their interest in his art and free dinosaur bone fragments can spur donors into action, he also believes children can cause societal change if they find God early. He has spoken about running for a place on the Kansas Board of Education and believes God has a spot in public schools.
“I’ve been working diligently to find out if I would have an audience in that,” he says in seeking a school board position. “I would be interested in talking to people who are interested in talking about bringing God back into the classroom rather than having him waiting in the principal’s office.”
He advocates teaching about God right along with reading and writing to fix what he calls a “broken” education system.
“If we’re going to teach them about sex, we should teach about how it all began,” he says of schoolchildren. “Did God create all things, or did we crawl out of a primordial soup?”
As far as his personal beliefs, Detrich believes it is easy to reconcile his beliefs in creationism and his beliefs that the Earth is millions of years old.
“God didn’t wear a Timex watch. Time is such a small, insignificant thing in terms of what creation is,” he says. “If God blinks an eye, he could change time or anything he wants to change. The fact that this dinosaur material is so ancient, I thought it would be an appropriate material to build religious icons from. I mean, what better thing to build spiritual figures from than a material of living creatures that lived 65 million years ago … from living creatures that God first created?”
The ‘netherworld’ of art
Right now he has yet to officially decide if he’s running for the school board, instead preferring to focus on his fossilized art. Art, which, despite its nature and where it is being displayed, doesn’t really ruffle any feathers at the Douglas County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“Art is in that kind of netherworld,” says Phil Minkin, the chapter’s president. “Even in a public place, I think it’s probably held apart for a religious ceremony or rite. I don’t think the ACLU would have a problem with that.”
Even Henry Bernberg, president of the Society of Atheists and Open-Minded Agnostics at Kansas University, isn’t concerned with the art’s focus. Instead, he’s worried about what’s going into the art.
“The biggest concern that I have since he uses fossils in his art, there’s always a concern that something of scientific value could be used when it needs to be studied. The average fossil might not necessarily be important, but it could be something that could never have been found before,” says Bernberg, adding,”Professional paleontology relies a lot on amateur fossil hunters, so I don’t think he’s doing anything bad in that regard.”
Detrich, who has fossil-hunted for more than 20 years, says in his defense that he has enough experience to know what is valuable scientifically and monetarily.
“I’ve been hunting fossils over 20 years and if a fossil is valuable – because I’ve sold them for millions of dollars – I would recognize it as something rare and new. I’ve identified these as common, fragmented bone,” Detrich says. “The scientific community doesn’t even recognize it as a scientific specimen if it’s not over 20 percent. If you find less than that, it’s not considered a scientific specimen anyhow. If I find something over 20 percent, I usually sell it or give it to the scientific community.”
He believes that by using fragmented bone, he’s making all fossils valuable, not just to bigger ones he can sell or give to research. And he thinks the art gives him a chance to say something about his beliefs all the while invoking questions.
“Within my art, I’m not answering any questions, I’m asking more questions than I’m answering,” Detrich says. “If it’s a public arena, everyone has a say and I’m kind of having mine. If somebody else wants to rebut it, what I understand about life is that it’s always better to be on the side of good than on the side of bad.”