During a 1958 benchmarking trip to a number of North American natural history museums, Smithsonian exhibits specialist Ann Karras wrote to Assistant Secretary Remington Kellogg about the state of artwork in paleontology displays. She noted with some frustration that since the paleontological community’s early 20th century love affair with Charles Knight, very little had been accomplished in this field. Everywhere she went, Karras saw reproductions of the same decades-old Knight paintings, supplemented by only the most tentative attempts at original artwork. As Karras postulated, “reverence for [Knight’s] work on the part of paleontologists may have thwarted any ambitions in that area of illustration for some years.” The sole outlier was the Peabody Museum of Natural History, home of the 1947 Age of Reptiles mural by Rudolph Zallinger. Impressed by the scale and quality of this 110-foot fresco, Karras suggested that the Smithsonian invest in a similarly monumental piece of up-to-date paleoart at some point in the future.
Karras’s wish was finally realized in 1990, with the debut of Eleanor Kish’s epic Life in the Ancient Seas mural in the exhibit of the same name. Sixteen feet high and 130 feet long (with a sixteen by twenty foot supplement on the opposite wall), this mural is even larger than Zallinger’s better-known magnum opus. It also covers more of Earth’s history, spanning 541 years of deep time across the entire Phanerozoic Eon. But while The Age of Reptiles charts the progression of life on land, Life in the Ancient Seas follows the denizens of the undersea realm. From the explosion of invertebrate diversity in the Cambrian to the proliferation of aquatic mammals in the recent past, the mural demonstrates that the history of life is most thoroughly documented by marine fossils.
The idea to include a mural in the Life in the Ancient Seas exhibit came relatively late. There was no mention of the artwork in the 1987 briefing document for potential donors, and as late as June of that year curator Nicholas Hotton was writing in hopeful terms about the inclusion of a full-color illustration of Dolichorhynchops. Eventually, however, the exhibit team got the go-ahead to start looking for an artist. Content Specialist Linda Deck started by assembling a list of three dozen prominent paleoartists. She sent each of them a letter of invitation, describing the project and emphasizing the immense scale of the desired product. Half of the artists responded with resumes and portfolio samples, and from these the exhibit team narrowed the field to six candidates*.
The short-list candidates were then given a $1000 stipend to paint a small sample piece. Each artist was provided with the scenario (a group of ammonites releasing a cloud of ink upon being attacked by a mosasaur), an assortment of fossil reference photos, and encouragement to get in touch with NMNH curators as needed. Of the five artists who completed this challenge, the exhibit team agreed unanimously that Kish’s work was the best fit for the project. Not only did she demonstrate the ability to accurately render the animals with anatomical precision, her bold color palate would work well as the backdrop for the entire exhibit.
Eleanor (or Ely) Kish was born in 1924 to a family of artists. Growing up in New Jersey, she became a naturalized Canadian citizen in 1972. While Kish was a professional artist for most of her adult life, her career in paleontological illustration kicked off in the 1970s, at Ottawa’s Canadian Museum of Nature. It was there that she worked with paleontologist Dale Russell on some of the earliest Renaissance-era dinosaur reconstructions (an assortment of paintings from Russel’s An Odessey of Time: The Dinosaurs of North America can be seen here). Tales of dinosaur art from this era often focus on Gregory Paul, John Sibbick, and their imitators, but Kish’s work was similarly prominent in books and magazines of the day.
Kish’s art is instantly recognizable for its portrayal of active, highly expressive dinosaurs in breathtakingly realized landscapes. The worlds she created – particularly the skies – have an almost poetic beauty, while the plants and animals that inhabit them drip with dew and pulsate with life. Kish’s work is often overlooked today because her dinosaurs are shrink-wrapped in the extreme, sometimes appearing emaciated or even ghoulish. The skeletal look is very much out of vogue (modern paleontologists prefer their dinosaurs appropriately bulked out with muscle, fat, and feathers), but as Christian Kammerer pointed out on twitter, it’s important to consider Kish’s art in context. Her carefully-researched work was a powerful counterpoint to the rotund, shapeless dinosaurs that had dominated paleoart in preceding decades, and a critical step on the road to the reconstructions we know today.
Once she received her work visa in May 1988, Kish moved to the Washington, DC area to begin Life in the Ancient Seas. She began by constructing small models of the most prominent animals that would appear in the mural. Working primarily with Sculptey, she built the animals’ skeletons first, using fossil photos as reference. Once these were approved, Kish sculpted the animals’ musculature and outer surfaces. She then used her models to paint a 16-foot small scale (1.5 inch to 1 foot) pencil sketch of the mural. This enabled her to work out the poses and behaviors of the animals, as well as the overall composition of the artwork. The next step was to produce the “color comprehensive”: a miniature painting with all the detail of the final piece. Since it would be impossible to photograph the entire mural within the narrow confines of Hall 5, this is the version that was reproduced for books, magazines, and postcards.
After fourteen months of preliminary work, Kish applied the first brushstrokes to the wall in the Spring of 1989. The museum’s graphics shop had prepared the surface well in advance, laying overlapping sheets of canvas onto drywall and carefully buffing out wrinkles and tears. Kish painted 130 feet of ocean backdrop for the main mural first, which took nearly two months. Next, Kish completed the smaller Cretaceous mural on the south side of the gallery, then moved on to the daunting task of filling in the large mural. She populated the scene chronologically, starting with the Paleozoic on the far left and moving forward through time. The exhibits department coordinated closely with Kish, so that the rest of the exhibit could be installed in her wake as each section of the mural was finished. The project took a total of two years to complete.
Life in the Ancient Seas is an absolute masterpiece. Within the exhibit, this meticulously crafted image defines the space’s layout and color palate. It visually separates concepts and themes, and even directs visitor traffic with it’s strong leftward momentum. But Life in the Ancient Seas is the rare piece that was designed for a particular space, yet still holds up as a beautiful work of art on its own terms. The three biggest animals – Dunkleosteus, Tylosaurus, and Basilosaurus – anchor the action and provide a focal point for the viewer. From there, dynamic schools of fish draw the eye back and forth across the canvas. The longer one looks at this vibrant and colorful seascape, the more details emerge.
Of course, the primary function of the mural is to bring the static fossils on display to life, and Kish does not disappoint. The canvas is filled with hundreds of animals in perpetual motion. Streams of bubbles erupting from the creatures’ mouths imbue them with breath and energy. Although plenty of animals are being eaten, Life in the Ancient Seas is not a savage struggle of life and death. In one area, an inquisitive shark gets a face full of ink from a cephalopod that has no time for its antics. In another, a school of fish is sent careening in different directions by the powerfully swishing tail of the Tylosaurus. Instead of focusing on the macabre, Kish brilliantly incorporates whimsical humor into her work without plunging into the realm of cartoonishness. It is a feat that other paleoartists might do well to emulate. Meanwhile, Kish cleverly grounds some of the stranger extinct animals by juxtaposing them with their more familiar brethren. For example, the association of Basilosaurus, which resembles a fanciful sea dragon, with comparably mundane dugongs and dolphins makes this serpentine ancestral whale seem more plausible.
Life in the Ancient Seas was the largest project Kish ever took on. As she stated in multiple interviews, the Smithsonian commission made her career. The money she earned allowed her to buy a rural home in Ontario and convert it into a studio, which allowed her to produce more work more quickly. “I always wanted a studio,” she told the Ottawa Star, “but I never had the money. The Smithsonian gave me that chunk of cash.”
Ely Kish passed away on October 12, 2014 at the age of 90. Those who knew her are quick to mention her kindness and generosity, particularly toward young artists. Past colleagues also fondly recall her impressive bouts of swearing, which would occasionally punctuate her normally soft-spoken demeanor. For the rest of us, we have Kish’s amazing artwork to remember her by. Kish created worlds we could otherwise never see, and she did it on a breathtaking scale. Although hers was a visual medium, she made the past into something we could feel and even experience. She and her talents will be missed.
Many thanks to the Smithsonian Institution Archives staff for providing access to the materials used in writing this article.
Deck, L. 1992. The Art in Creating Life in the Ancient Seas. Journal of Natural Science Illustration 1: 4: 1-12.
Marsh, D.E. 2014. From Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: An ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. http://circle.ubc.ca/handle/2429/50177