Fossils, Freeways and a Great Story to Tell

At the moment, you can imagine one of them in a suit, presiding over a board meeting at the Smithsonian, in his capacity as director of the National Museum of Natural Art, in Washington, D.C., while the other is in a t-shirt, drawing fish or manning his seafood kiosk in Ketchikan, Alaska.

These two wrote a book together?

The two wrote a book together.

“Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-mile Paleo Road Trio,” is exactly that – a book about a journey across the American West to explore the fossil record.

Kirk Johnson
Kirk Johnson

And it’s not just any book – it’s an award-winning book, because the two authors, Kirk Johnson (he’s the suit guy) and Ray Troll (he’s painting fish) will receive the AAPG Geosciences in the Media Award at this year’s AAPG Annual Convention and Exhibition in Pittsburgh.

“Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” – it’s not just the name of the painting, it’s also the title of a book that earned Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll this year’s AAPG Geosciences in the Media Award.
“Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” – it’s not just the name of the painting, it’s also the title of a book that earned Kirk Johnson and Ray Troll this year’s AAPG Geosciences in the Media Award.

The award is presented for notable journalistic achievement in any medium that contributes to public understanding of geology, energy resources or the technology of oil and gas exploration.

“Ray and I first met in the early ’90s,” Johnson said. “I loved his art and he loved the fact that I was a paleontologist who liked art. We started collaborating in the mid-1990s and eventually tumbled to the idea of a road trip book.

“Ray had drawn a picture of an old Volvo and morphed it into an Evolvo,” Johnson continued. “We first thought about taking the road trip in a tricked-out Volvo, but soon realized that my big blue museum truck was the right vehicle.”

Blending Art and Science

As to that business of understanding, Johnson says it’s relatively easy to reach readers.

“I find that people learn much faster if they are laughing,” says the man recently named to head the 70-person research and collections division (including curators, registrars, librarians, archivists, conservators, technicians, administrators and assistants) at the Smithsonian and its $3.5 million annual budget.

“Plus, there is a lot of funny stuff out there.”

Which is where Troll comes in.

Their book consists of 19-framed color prints by the artist, and five large-scale murals.

Some are whimsical, some are stark, some are hysterical. All are informative.

But the book, like the artist himself, doesn’t take itself all that seriously.

If you needed further evidence of the former, note Troll’s website, where he poses next to a sign that reads, “Danger … Unstable.” Even better, he also has had a ratfish named after him (a New Zealand species called Hydrolagus trolli).

“We’re still getting email from people who have read the book and have decided to take their own tours across the fossil west,” Johnson said.

Why did it resonate so much?

Well, to hear Simon Winchester, author of “The Professor and the Madman” and “The Map that Changed the World,” tell it, the authors have a knack for story telling.

“The two describe Jurassic better than Spielberg,” Winchester said.

Johnson, ever modest, gives the credit to his partner.

“The secret to the book is the amazing art of Alaskan artist Ray Troll,” he says.

“Ray and I collaborated throughout the project. I wrote and photographed. Ray did all of the art and much of the photography as well. His art affects what I write and what I write affects his art,” he said. “The collaboration is really fun.”

Troll, who earned an MFA in studio arts from Washington State University in 1981 and was awarded a gold medal for “distinction in the natural history arts” by the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, is known for his mastery at blending art and science. This synergy, if you will, culminated in his traveling exhibit, called “Dancing to the Fossil Record,” a show that opened at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Join Together With the Band

For his part, Johnson, who has a master’s degree in geology and paleobotany from the University of Pennsylvania and a doctorate in geology and paleobotany from Yale University, seems genuinely pleased – both with the book’s reach, its success and its recognition.

“Both Ray and I are honored to receive the award,” Johnson said.

When I ask Troll for a comment, he replied:

“Looks like Dr. J has covered most of the bases nicely.”

He does, however, point me to iTunes, where I could find his band.

“Look for Ratfish Wranglers’ ‘Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway.’ Yes there’s a musical CD!”

And the man who is featured on his site between two jars of lumpfish with the caption wishing everyone to “do a good deed for a spiny lumpsucker,” the man who runs a Soho Coho gallery in Ketchikan, situated in an old historic house of ill repute located on a salmon spawning stream, adds:

“Everyone should be in a band regardless of talent or ambition.”

Who wouldn’t want to take a trip with these guys?

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Emphasis: Annual Convention