I would be lying if I told you I walked into the Everything Prehistoric gift shop that first day of Work in Hill City, SD filled with confidence and poise, introduced myself and was welcomed immediately to begin my Work on the Dinosaur Journeys Artist’s Journal. To put it bluntly I was just short of terrified, especially whilst explaining to the manager who I was and why I was there. I had spoken to her only once before, nearly eight months previous in Tucson AZ, and it was my chin tattoo that jogged her memory as I negotiated to be able to move some chairs around to begin drawing in the Museum portion of the facility. I didn’t know it then, but the person who would end up being my guide and mentor the rest of the trip was also in that day, taking his children through the Museum. The following day, when it came time to negotiate for access to the collections not on display, he would remember me as well. But first I had to explain, for the first time, to a paleontologist, what it was I was actually doing and why it as important to me to spend time in hands-on proximity with fossils and first generation replicas.
Bob Farrar, one of the founders of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, listened to me patiently, with a mixture of what looked like concern and intrigue, before kindly suggesting that Matt Larson might be a better person to take charge of where I was to be allowed to work and what was permitted and expected of me. When Matt arrived upstairs to introduce himself, he was already a bit familiar with what I was going to be doing, having seen me working the day before in the Museum. With no real idea of what to expect, I left it up to him as to what to show me, having given him the same cursory description I had given to Bob, and with that he led the way into the surprisingly large and labyrinthine space below and behind the Museum.
I have had the privilege of going behind the “staff only” doors at museums before, the Mutter in Philadelphia being the most notable, but I was woefully unprepared for the acute wonder I experienced each time Matt opened a flat file, pulled plastic sheeting off a specimen being prepped, or pointed to bone fragments being put together to form metatarsals. I have long maintained that there are shamanic origins for the dinosaur phase all children seem to experience, and I was personally experiencing it all over again with each item I was shown. It was difficult not to feel overwhelmed and filled to bursting with sheer joy, and also difficult to keep from chattering enthusiastically about it. Matt was patiently amused, it seemed to me, but I could tell that he also understood, in a way that only people who live and work with dinosaurs can. Everyone there, in short order, understood. I didn’t have to justify or explain myself from then on. I was a shamanic artist amongst scientists, but far from mocking or rejecting the whys and hows of what I was doing, they were calmly open and accepting of it, understanding that this was my way of relating to the dinosaurs that were our common bond.
Each day when I arrived I waited for Matt and we determined where I would be working that day, and on what. And there I would stay, with a break every now and again for water, coffee and fellowship whenever he or other staffers came to check on me. Amidst drawing and note taking, I was given a crash course on scales, shown how molds were made, how replicas were finished and painted, and given the opportunity to check many of my perceptions with people who knew dinosaurs in the practical reality of excavating them up out of the ground. Mostly, though, I was given the gifts of space and time one-on-one with the fossil material. I drew. And I listened.