- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 27, 2002

James Gurney dreamed of dinosaurs when he was a child. Mr. Gurney, the illustrator and author of the "Dinotopia" books, says that at a young age his parents took him to a museum to learn about the extinct, often gigantic creatures. He was fascinated by them and wondered what it would have been like to walk among them. Many years later, he made his fantasies come true by creating a fictional world in which humans live alongside dinosaurs.

"I want to encourage children not just to see dinosaurs as monsters but as complex and interesting creatures," Mr. Gurney says. "I used to think of them as dimwitted reptiles."

The Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History this week opened the exhibition "Dinotopia," which features original artwork from Mr. Gurney's best-selling series of books. The show, which will run through Sept. 2, coincides with the 10th anniversary of the publication of "Dinotopia: A Land Apart From Time," the first in Mr. Gurney's series.

The exhibit premieres before the airing from May 12 to 14 of a six-hour television miniseries by Hallmark Entertainment inspired by the "Dinotopia" books. The materials on display in the museum contain videos and models from the show.

Mr. Gurney, 43, who lives in the Hudson Valley of New York, has more than 30 oil paintings at the museum. As a student at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., he was inspired by artists such as Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle. His undergraduate degree in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley helped him with the science when creating the artwork.

"Kids take naturally to fantasy," says Mr. Gurney, who attended a press conference for the show with his wife, Jeanette. "Imagination is at the core of science."

Many of his paintings reflect various geographic landscapes, such as "Waterfall City: Afternoon Light," which re-creates hill towns of Italy and the cascades of Niagara Falls. Pilots on giant pterosaurs, also known as flying reptiles, race around the city, which can be reached only by water or air.

"Waterfall City" also features the library, which is the biggest building in Dinotopia. Since dinosaurs have a hard time turning pages, they read books written on scrolls. Mr. Gurney says that finishing the work took him about 2½ months, with the hardest part figuring out where to place the shadows.

Another painting in the exhibit is "The Egg Hatchery." Females aided by human assistants travel there to lay eggs in indoor nests. Inside the hatchery, there's a pipe organ to keep dinosaurs happy while they lay eggs.

Occasionally, Mr. Gurney receives fan letters written in the footprint alphabet used in Dinotopia. Sometimes, children ask the latitude and longitude of the island.

"I tell them it's a lost world that's out there that we haven't found yet," Mr. Gurney says. "I say there are things that are real, but we can't touch them with our senses."

Mrs. Gurney calls the display of her husband's artwork by the Smithsonian a great honor. "This is very thrilling," Mrs. Gurney says. "This is a chance to see all the paintings hanging up at the same time."

The Gurneys have two sons, Franklin, 12, and Dan, 14, who often pose as models for their father's work.

Michael Brett-Surman, a Smithsonian museum specialist, aided Mr. Gurney when he had questions about how to make the paintings scientifically accurate. Every creature in the paintings existed at one point in history. Mr. Gurney also tried to create scenes with the dinosaurs doing realistic activities. For instance, dinosaurs were unable to lay on their sides because the position would have inhibited their breathing.

"It's great to work with someone who is willing to adapt the story to the dinosaurs," Mr. Brett-Surman says. "The more believable the story, the more entertaining it is."

Robert Sullivan, associate director for public programs at the National Museum of Natural History, says art and science converge in the "Dinotopia" exhibit in special ways. He is excited about what the element of fantasy brings to learning.

"They work hand in hand," Mr. Sullivan says. "They are welcome partners."


WHAT: "Dinotopia"

WHERE: National Museum of Natural History, 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. Summer hours, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily, take effect May 24.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/357-2700

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