Sunday, March 20, 2011

Ferns and Charles R. Knight

Hello all! The long, cold Wisconsin winter appears to be drawing to a close, which means spring, flowers, and ferns can't be far off. This past week was spring break for my university, so an escape to regions southward seemed in order. We made it as far as Chicago. This was the first time in four years of living three hours away that my husband and I have made it to the Windy City, and we had a great time. One of the highlights was definitely the Field Museum, which I've had a goal of visiting for years. Sue was wonderful, but our favorite exhibit ended up being Evolving Planet, a huge stretch of space that wanders through nearly a quarter of the upper floor of the museum, and leads you through the evolution of life on earth starting hundreds of millions of years ago. One of my favorite parts of the exhibit was a large and beautiful mural above a stretch of display cases showing ancient fossil plants, mostly lycophytes and some ferns. Here's the mural:

You may or may not be able to make out, in the bottom lefthand corner, the author's signature: Chas. R. Knight. I was admiring all the lovely tree ferns and horsetails when my husband pointed this out to me, and I was thrilled! The museum I used to work at in Ithaca, NY did a big exhibit on Knight while I was there, and his prehistoric art is phenomenal. He is perhaps singlehandedly responsible for shaping our collective vision about the prehistoric world. No other artist before him had painted as prolifically, vividly, and accurately the earth's long extinct inhabitants. Jurassic Park wouldn't have been nearly as exciting and mesmerizing if Knight hadn't implanted a fascination for prehistory in our collective unconscious. I've seen several of his smaller pieces, but it turns out that in the 1920s he was commissioned by the Field Museum to paint 20-something of these huge murals for their new fossil halls, which became the Evolving Planet exhibit that we enjoyed the other day. His murals are all gorgeous, and they add a depth to the fossils on display that allows you to picture these plants and animals still alive and roaming their native habitats. You can learn more about Knight and his work for the Field Museum here. And here are some close-ups of the ferns that first caught my attention: