Artist Ray Troll brings to life long-extinct creatures at the Anchorage Museum

A kid’s interest in dinosaurs typically fizzles out eventually, but for artist Ray Troll, his love of prehistoric creatures seems to only have intensified over time.

The Ketchikan-based artist teamed up with his long-time co-conspirator, paleontologist and director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Kirk Johnson, on a new exhibit at the Anchorage Museum that tells a visual story of Alaska fossils in a way only Troll can.

“Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” and its soon-to-be-released companion book document the pair’s adventures and findings as they travelled thousands of miles along North America’s west coast hunting fossils, examining collections and hanging out with researchers.

“I want people to feel that science is accessible, that science is fun — and it is fun,” Troll said. “I want them to think they can be a citizen scientist too.”

Known well beyond Southeast for his lighthearted, often punny or irreverent takes on Alaska wildlife and culture, Troll brings a childlike sense of gusto to the topic with a playfulness that might resurrect one’s long-extinct interest in prehistoric creatures or be the spark that ignites a kid’s lifelong passion.

From full-size sculptures and fossil specimens to paintings and maps, the exhibit makes it easy to visualize spans of time, regional scope and creatures’ anatomy in a scientifically accurate way, while being uniquely Trollian.

Visitors can hang out on what Troll assumes to be the world’s only trilobite couch while gazing at ammonite wallpaper and listening to songs about fossils.

It would be easy to lose track of time taking a close look at Troll’s excruciatingly detailed maps showing where notable prehistoric animals have been found in Alaska — with a few jokes sprinkled here and there. Not one to be restrained exclusively to the subject matter, Troll includes symbolic tributes to his family — his sister’s dog Yoda for example — and, if you look closely, you might see where he’s had some memorable cheeseburgers.

“I came to [paleontology] as an artist, and I’m not a trained scientist by any means. I’m a trained artist, but I think people should not be held back by the lines between disciplines,” Troll said. “I like to break down those barriers.”

Talking with Troll, one could be excused for assuming he is a full stack expert in the fossil record and not an artist with a taste for whimsy.

While Johnson handled the science, Troll is no slouch when it comes to paleontology. He rattles off terms like “paleocene-eocene thermal maximum” with the ease of a man ordering a burger and fries.

Artist Ray Troll and paleontologist Kirk Johnson teamed up to tell the story of Alaskan fossils in their new exhibit, “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline” at the Anchorage Museum. Photo credit: Ammon Swenson

He wishes people knew their geologic periods as well as they know their ABCs and tries to make the textbook-like information fun, because he thinks it’s essential to understand what’s happening to the planet right now.

By knowing the geological history of Earth, he hopes people can have a better idea of what effects humans have on the planet.

“In order to have an informed discussion, you need to know this stuff. I think it’s important,” Troll said.

For Troll, the “big wows” of the exhibit are the life-size sculptures of prehistoric animals done by accomplished paleoartist Gary Staab. There’s a Pachyrhinosaurus, similar to a triceratops, smashing through the wall, a human-sized prehistoric bird Troll nicknamed “The Chickaloon Chicken From Hell” and the upper portion of an Ounalashkastylus tomidai, a member of the Desmostylus genus which resembles a tusked hippopotamus.

“We’re so excited to raise Desmo consciousness,” Troll said before pointing out a painting where he depicted what it might be like to surf alongside the huge animals.

He’s done enough work raising Desmo consciousness that researchers now call groups of the animals Trolls.

While the Desmo and Pachyrhinosaurus are only partial depictions, Troll doesn’t think an entire sculpture is always necessary to show the scale of an animal. Not to mention the cost and space requirements.

“You got the economy version, and it looks badass-cool,” Troll said.

Throughout the exhibit there are displays of fossils, most of which were provided by the Museum of the North at UAF, which Troll presented like a proud kid showing off his dinosaur toys.

“It was like a childhood dream come true to dig up dinosaurs,” Troll said. “I mean, I’ve been dreaming about it since age four — drawing dinos all my life.”

Patrick Druckenmiller, professor of geology at UAF and the Earth sciences curator at the Museum of the North, assisted Troll and Johnson in their fossil selection and has had them out on past digs.

Alaska is unique when it comes to paleontology compared to heavily studied areas like Montana, according to Druckenmiller. The huge size, difficult access to dig sites and resulting costs has left much of the state unexplored.

“We are — in Alaska — where say, parts of the American West were maybe 100 years ago,” Druckenmiller said. “And so when you go to new places, it’s not really surprising that you’re finding new things that have never been seen before. So we have this really kind of important place in the big picture of paleontology.”

Since paleontologists don’t always have the complete remains of a specimen, he said working with artists can be essential to helping the scientific work come to life.

“They’re the ones who make our ideas tangible to the public,” Druckenmiller said.

Hoping to share his love of art and science, Troll wanted to reinvigorate a childlike sense of wonder in visitors. He even made sure to include a drawing table in the exhibition — possibly inspiring the next generation of paleoartists.

“It all started for me as a kid picking up a crayon,” Troll said.

“Cruisin’ the Fossil Coatline” will be on display at the Anchorage Museum from now until Sept. 1, 2018.