Zoobooks

I was talking to a friend about paleoart a couple weeks ago. We were talking about how the first thing you absorb about something is generally what establishes your head canon and makes it hard to change. I realized that a good portion of mine came from two-page spreads in Zoobooks like this one:

This one credited to Michael Woods.

If you aren’t familiar with Zoobooks (most everyone is, right?) that really is a shame because they were, for the lack of a better word: awesome.  My original set was from 1988 or 89 and looked like these:

Being so far from a public library were the heaviest influences on wildlife information outside of my grandfather’s set of encyclopedias which still had Eisnhower as president. He often complained that he never received the yearly updated issued “yearbooks” that were to come with it, but it never bothered him enough to follow up on it. The Zoobooks were so great that my mother decided that it was worth another year’s subscription. What we got was the “new” first runs. So I had basically the same issues but with different title arrangements and colors, and it looks like they’ve changed a few more times since then:

Clockwise from top left: 1994, 1996, 2000, 2005

About six years ago they came up again and I started tracking them down online. There are several series now covering species from endangered animals to animal wonders. I wanted to get some good scans of the ones I remembered so vividly–Wild Horses, Elephants, and Rhinos, to hang in our nursery.

Wild Horses spread by Michael Hallet

When I started digging through the many ebay lots I had accumulated I realized I had several years of one issue, but was still missing the Wild Horses, which is currently shipped and due in the end of the week.

Elephant families by Barbara Hoopes

Doing what any historian would do, I pulled the 90s and 2000s copies of “Elephants” to see if anything had really changed besides the covers. Artwork remains the same, some text changes and is rearranged on the page, along with the inclusion of an “activity sheet” in the post-Zoobooks-I-had years. Oddly enough as the years progressed the tone of the text seemed to change from a more matter of fact to a more “can you find… in this” sort of thing. It is also interesting as layouts change that the 2005 edition more closely resembles the 1994 text on this particular spread.

Text changes through time. Moving from the top back: 1994, 1996, 2000, 2005.

Many of these wonderful pieces were painted by San Diego Barbara Hoopes. You can learn more about her at her website Barbaraambler.com. Outside, or, rather inside the special family spread the art also captured the skeletal and musculature of the animals as they moved, fought, or ran. That was probably what I remembered first, with the full herds being a close second.

The elephant one in particular stood out for me because I haver never forgotten the tie to the cyclops story and the images that were used in my issue of Zoobooks years before I would ever read Adrienne Mayor’s The First Fossil Hunters that idea that real things could have influenced mythology and stories was there, and I guess I never really grew out of that because all the #PaleoPopCulture I spew around on twitter and the Paleo Porch facebook page is basically a modern version of that. 

I imagine that there are similar subtle changes across the issues, but the only other one I have multiple copies of are the dinosaur issues.

clockwise from top left: 1985, 1992, 1999, 2004

Not only was this particular issue set on providing a foundation for all things dinosaur the issue I had, and luckily one of the ones here, include the “new” theory about the impact event leading to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Which I suppose will be my version of the “when I was in elementary school they taught continental drift as a theory” story that my mentor prof always tells.

1985 and 2004 text versions of a theory.

The Dinosaur editions had a huge four-page pull out, with two, three-page on the backsides:

The Dinosaur issues lead into a complete separate series called “Prehistoric Life.” it was a series of 10 books with a Family Activity Book inside a hard plastic slip case.

The Family Activity Book has issues 2-9 on the cover for a nice grid. “Book One” was “Life Begins”  and spans through to “Book 10” “Mammals Part 2.”

I don’t know who Bishop was, or what they taught, but I can tell you someone absconded with their class copy of “Book Ten” because I don’t have a complete set. I have also tracked one of those down to complete that set. The activity guide is a mixed bag, that utilizes a lot of metal coat hangers. There were some pipe cleaner dinosaurs, some quasi-potatoman-mammals, and a pterosaur kite.

I will eventually do an entire post dedicated solely to the Prehistoric Zoobooks but it was the originals that had the gorgeous wild horses, extinct elephants and rhinos that really sent me to digging out the box and going back through these.

Zoobooks is still around in this .com world, now part of Ranger Rick’s National Wildlife Federation, and branched into a couple age groups (Zoobies, Zootles, and Zoobooks) and a dinosaur specific run. Available in print and e-subscriptions.

They even have a regularly updated wildlife blog easily accessed through the site. If you want to get your kids, nephews, nieces, grandkids, friends’ kids, or anyone a gift they will really enjoy, a subscription here will keep on giving all year long.

There are some things coming I will come back and add to this later from the Wild Horses and the Prehistoric Book Ten, when I try to focus solely on the Prehistoric Zoobooks for a future post, until then I will close with a sampling of the 9 books that I have in hand and just clicked off at random with my phone while going through them at the kitchen table. The art is amazing, and the setups are clever, look for the scuba diver avoiding the dunkleosteus and the woman wearing (and crashing) the hang-glider with the pterosaurs. You know, I’ll probably end up getting myself a subscription to the ZooDinos now, just to see if it expands on the Dinosaurs issue or the Prehistoric Life series.

Summer at the Museum

I was originally just going to throw some fun screen grabs from these early time machine  Phineas and Ferb episodes up on the Paleo Porch facebook page and be done. While going through the episodes for the shots though I noticed there was more to say and show about the museum than just the “back-in-time-with-dinosaurs” trope.

Backing up a bit, if you haven’t watched Phineas and Ferb before, or in a while, you should add it to your queue because it is well written , clever, and even the angular animation style is less offensive than its contemporaries.

The time machine arc here actually spans two episodes across two seasons. The first one, episode 21 “Out of Time” aired over 10 years ago now (!) has them fixing the time machine in the museum and going back in time.  The establishing shots and setup are great though:

Gags, and chronologically challenged fossils aside, the backgrounds and the animation inside this museum are great. They really capture the essence of the Natural History Museum as it exists in our collective consciousness. Who wouldn’t love to see a hall of gadgets through the ages permanent exhibit?

Once they get the time machine working and end up in the past, chaos ensues in the predictable manner, what is brilliant is the continued cuts to the modern ichnology display at the museum as it changes from alterations (altercations) in the past/it’s present.

Now, if you are into your dinosaurs you are thinking that a T-rex really gives away the geography of the show, but I am going out on a limb here and considering that this T-rex is actually called a “Tri-State rex.”

Once Phineas recognizing the track, their problems are all but solved. Taking a stick he quickly draws out a message to the others at the museum. Be thankful that there is a time travel section in the Fireside Girls Handbook. 

Isabella and the troop arrive to save the day, only the Tri-State Rex comes back too. This is a longer clip as it wraps everything up, and if you aren’t familiar with the series the talkshow/secret agent cut will be a little confusing, but just roll with it, because “Fossils. *da, duh, dahn.*”

Again, just taking a few seconds to stop in on the interior of the museum as it rolls under a chase scene, and it is a great collection, even if the fish, pteranodon, and protoceratops thing (and the coprolite?) are a threepeat run sequence.

One of the best things about this show was how well the writing meshed across its entirety. Not just within an episode but across episodes and even seasons. It was built as a coherent universe and the obvious and subtle running gags really play in to reward the viewer. The “It’s About Time” episode arcs all the way into early season two  when the time machine comes back into play plot and in “Quantum Boogaloo” we  see the museum and the Tri-State area 20 years in the future.

Something quietly reassuring that the museum of the future, which we are halfway to now is pretty much the same.

In the end, not only was this a fun museum/dinosaur/time travel episode. It was one of the best written time-travel stories written for any medium. It doesn’t complicate itself with 473 different paradoxes, it plays out well in the 22 minutes the episode was given, and ties in pretty seamlessly with itself the following year and a half later when the second episode aired.

Zdeněk Burian: Paleoartist and illustrator

There will not be any more information here than you can learn on Zdeněk Burian’s wikipedia page, but what I have done is compile as many of the loose plate copies from his works that they are selling on ebay and dropping them into a giant album of varying resolution. I have also ordered a couple of his books that haven’t been translated and was going to wait until the arrived to post, but they haven’t even shipped yet.

Burian’s work is as iconic as anything the Charles Knight produced and includes many mass market non paleontological book illustrations such as Tarzan and Robinson Crusoe.  There was an interview published online just this past November that has some more biographical stuff about Burian. The original (where I pulled the featured image of the artist) is here, if you don’t read Czech you can work on the Mad Gab that is translated by Google here, it should be good enough to give you a broader sense of his work.

One of the things that I wanted to include here actually folds back onto my work on the paleoart of Ralph Shead. When the paintings were finally found one of them seemed out of place for Ralph’s style. In fact his great-nephew Bill was sure it wasn’t his because of it. With the name broken off now, all we had to go on was that the guys who worked with it on the break room wall was all certain it was by the same guy, and that Shead was the only museum artist. While I was pulling the images from a series of Ebay auctions selling one page at a time I stumbled across the answer: both are correct. It *was* a Shead painting, but it *wasn’t* his style. This is because it was a copy of a Zdeněk Burian piece.

Zdeněk Burian print from a book.
This scene was completely new to me, as I was never around to see it as part of the original Stovall Museum Mural. Photo by Author.
Ralph Shead’s version (left) of Burian’s ancient seas

I am hoping that one of the books that I have coming that contain colored images will have the colors of this one.

Burian’s work is prolific as well, a simple Google Image search will spread before you the breadth of his work in time, species, and publication.

Here is a nice slideshow done on youtube:

as well as an interview done in a museum which I assume is in Prague(?) You don’t have to understand Czech to enjoy the amazing pieces on display here, but if you do you will be able to get more info about Burian.

Irish Folklore in Popular Culture

There are countless instances of Irish heritage showing up in popular culture one way or another. They range in seriousness from say the clan wars in Gangs of New York to a box of marshmallow cereal. I think that there are two reasons that The Real Ghostbusters cartoon series drug so much out Irish lore: 1) They live in New York City and B) There is a lot of it. Below is just a running list of things–episodes and issues–that can make your St. Patrick’s Day a little more Ghostbuster-y. Currently (as of 3.17.18 The Real Ghostbusters is streaming on Netflix and The Extreme Ghostbusters are on HULU)

The Bird if Kilarby is a less common than your usual Irish faire, but a haunted Irish Castle that was “brought over stone by stone” and reconstructed in a lake in the park complete with pipes, drums, and 800+ ghosts is a great place to start.

Banshee Shanna has decided that one at a time misery is too old hat and that taking her destruction national is the best way to go. Mirrors reveal their true self, but her own voice may be her undoing.

It will be another 10 years before we see a banshee again.

“The Scaring of the Green” follows a bog hound rising on a full moon on St. Patrick’s Day to carry off the head of the Clan O’Malley, who just happens to be the chief of police. The family was cursed in ancient times for stealing a Leprechaun’s pot of gold. Chief O’Malley shows the guys a lock of the bog hound’s hair that his grandfather had gotten. Peter called it a family hairloom.


“Sonic Youth” see a return to Banshee-ville, although this time she has a sister. The sister is a Siren. Luring people in with her voice so her wretchedly haggard banshee sister can steal their youth.

The Extreme Ghostbusters actually face a leprechaun, not just the by product of one’s curses, hellbent on capturing the Sons of Erin and retrieving his stolen gold. By now, the curse has moved from the chief of police to the mayor.

Honorable Mention: “When Halloween was Forever” is really all about halloween, but given the fact that Samhain hails from the Emerald Isle he should at least get a spot on the list, right?

DisHonorable Mention: “Halloween II 1/2” is the sequel. It wouldn’t be bad except it is one of those “junior ghostbusters” episodes. I hated that then, and I hate it now. There was so much “tweaking” that execs pushed through because charts and research with everyone but kids said too.

When I was first thinking about this list I was just including the cartoons, then I remembered that IDW specifically ran a “Happy HorrorDays” arc in the Ghostbusters comics. In Volume 2 number 9, which I *think* is the kickoff, the Ghostbusters meet Stingy Jack.

His carved turnip lantern is ubiquitous (as a pumpkin) with Halloween, but it is another dive into Irish folklore. 

Jack’s carved turnip is also the face of our new old friend Samhain. Less pumpkiny, and more concerned with names.

Later in Ghostbusters international, the guys again meet up with a banshee. The whole international arc is fantastic and I would love to see another one or three, bringing in folklore as it would work if it were real has always been my favorite part of storytelling.


This particular setup is a bit different though, the banshee brings life  to the victim to keep them alive forever as a curse.

I will add that this issue manages to make Walter Peck a sympathetic character and that the whole IDW run has managed to humanize him in a way that I really think befits the character.

Well there is a quick rundown and collection of bits and clips for a Ghostbustin’ St. Patrick’s Day. I partly wanted to put this together for my love of The Real Ghostbusters and partly for my love of myth and folklore and how it conveys messages and meanings to things humans didn’t understand. I was a kid when The Real Ghostbusters hit syndication, maybe that is partly why I am into folklore so much. I think I might be one of the only people who liked the “monster of the week” episodes of The X-Files far more than the alien conspiracy stuff.

ADDENDUM: (3.19.18) When I was putting this together I went digging around on Archive.Org’s WayBack Machine to check out the old Extreme Ghostbusters site, and ultimately didn’t link to anything since it didn’t add much to the rest of post, but after thinking about it, I want to include some of the screenshots here for posterity. There was also a specific entry in Spengler’s Spirit Guide for St. Patrick’s Day and a few paragraphs on just what leprechauns might be made of/from. Also enjoy the little slice of 1998 internet.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

 

There’s some Paleo in my Cup O’ Noodle

There is so much stuff I need to catch up on. I need to write about getting a full time position, how my dissertation work is shaping up, and how I finally wrapped up the Shead stuff.  But, a collected set of commercials came across my social media feed the other day and that pretty much has set everything else in the back seat.

The following stop-motion (I still call it clay-mation) #PaleoPopCulture brilliance is brought to you by Nissan Cup O’ Noodle. Kim Blanchette animated a series of these commercials in 1992 .

Blanchette’s CV is impressive, and has worked on just about everything recent in 3D animation from Toy Story to The PJ’s to Robot Chicken. It was these cavemen v. nature ads that gained him international acclaim according to the bio on Mandy.com Where they “won numerous awards and considered the Cinderella story at the 1992 Cannes International Advertising Festival where it won the Grand Prix Award.”

And now a word from our sponsor: all these ads follow the same format, but what is so great about the Tom and Jerry-esque takes is that the prehistoric beasts involved are beautifully rendered. Starting simple, with a mammoth.

There were technically four mammoth commercials, the last two (at least in the order I saw them) being the same animation for  the “Curry” flavored noodles.

and a little extra for the “Spicy Curry”

Another common ice age animal is the sabre-toothed tiger, it gets two spots.

 

The first clip of this series I ever saw was the one with the Megatherium. I was already thinking about a PaleoAd post before I found this treasure trove of 90s animation.

The Moa makes an appearance:

Then, as the fount of paleo animation began to runneth over, I started seeing creatures that I worked on from the Eocene.  The Brontothere (you’ll see this on youtube as a “Giant Warthog”)

and not to be outdone a Uintathere! This one is a top favorite of mine since my Paleontology studies started in the Uinta Basin in Utah.

This next one surprised the heck out of me. You almost never see this one get reconstructions. They show up in some paleoart, but I haven’t seen a mount of one yet. I think the strongest image I have of the syndyoceras antelope is from my copy of Zoobooks which, who knows, maybe that is where Kim saw it too. (You’ll find this one on Youtube as “saiga antelope.”

 

I am putting this one at the bottom, not just because it isn’t a mammal, but because it is part of that “we know it didn’t happen but it’s part of the trope” situation that is humans living with dinosaurs. I always think of Gary Larson’s intro to the collected Far Side where he says you almost feel like you should confess in the vein of “forgive me Father for I have sinned, I have drawn humans and dinosaurs together” (paraphrased).  That being said, it is still a great animation.

 

There are a couple of honorable mentions. Specifically to the theme of this post, not because they are in any way sub par animations. The Seafood flavorings of Cup-O-Noodles had some aquatic problems for the local, hungry heroes.

 

If you would rather watch most of these at once, you can see them all linked here:

 

I had never seen any of these commercials before and was only made aware of them when the Stan Winston School of Character Arts posted a video of them to advertise their stop-motion animation courses.

Gone to Texas

The conclusion of this painting’s 700 mile 20 year round trip is a fitting end to this series of my work and I feel like my summer projects have been finally completed.

A quick backstory on the painting’s subject in case you are catching up on this at the end: The cotylorhynchus is an early Permian synapsid that was first described by OU’s own J. Willis Stovall in 1937. The species name for the specimen found just north of Norman is Romeri for Alfred Romer (1894-1973), the founder and first president of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology which now grants the Romer Prize to predoctoral students for work excellence of scientific value and oral presentation at SVP’s annual meeting.

View of small Cotylorhynchus plaque in Museum(Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
View of small Cotylorhynchus plaque in Museum(Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
Dr. Romer beside Cotylorhynchus Romerii at Stovall Mueum, circa 1970. Stovall Museum (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
Cotylorhynchus on display at Sam Noble Museum of Natural History, photo by author

Shead’s 1938 painting is the first attempt at depicting the animal in life and while there are many issues with the interpretations by today’s standards, it stands as a testament to his skill as an artist and the importance of paleoart, even in the 1930s. The painting itself lived in the Stovall Museum until the time came to move into the new building in the late 90s early 2000.  There are a few different accounts to where it was found initially, leaning up behind a vacant building, next to the trash receptacle, or similar, but either way it was slated to be discarded. Either room or just it’s own out of date representations of science may have doomed it, but thankfully a cheerful passerby inquired about taking it and it was saved. 

I don’t know the names of any of the parties involved at this point, but at least 2 different stories corroborate what happened next: The painting made it’s way to the finder’s brother who was attending A&M down in College Station, Tx and hung in his apartment until he graduated whereupon he presented it to the Biodiversity Research and Teaching Lab. There the “Komodo Dragons” quickly became a staff favorite.

 

Now, something about this painting if you haven’t made it out by this point is it’s size. The thing is nearly ten and a half feet long and over four feet tall. This wasn’t just swept away under an arm like a folded newspaper. To relocate this thing anywhere required work, and a great deal of it.

Thankfully the powers that be at the research lab agreed to gift the painting back to the Sam Noble where it now nearly completes some semblance of a “set” of what Shead paintings I have been able to track down. A pickup date was scheduled that coincided with a need to transfer some textiles from another collection on the A&M campus to Sam Noble and we were to initially head down sometime between the 28th and the 30th of August.

Poseidon, not being a fan of art or terrestrial fauna, had other plans. Hurricane Harvey, in addition to the immense devastation along the Texas coast, postponed the painting’s return trip. We eventually rescheduled for September 25th and 26th.

Texas A&M is about 357 miles from the University of Oklahoma and after picking up the rental van and removing what seats we could,  we loaded it with all our packing and strapping and were finally headed south around 10:30 am. 

The next morning we met the Biodiversity Heritage folks and prepared to claim the prize. As if making up for the delay, luck smiled on us in the form of a masonite backing on the painting which made if far easier to secure in the van. Some framing, lashing, and a few knots and it was ready to return to it’s ancestral home.

We picked up the textiles across campus and left College Station nearly exactly 24 hours after we have left Norman. We caught a break in the rain bands when we unloaded the cargo and it is now safely in “the bubble” where it will rest in a type of quarantine for a few weeks before getting it’s frame worked on and joining the other wayward Shead paintings.

Not only is the Cotylorhynchus Norman’s native son, but it is the only painting of Shead’s that we have a photograph of him painting. I don’t think I could ever thank the wonderful folks at A&M enough for agreeing gift it to us. To think that it could be displayed with the photograph of the artist at work gives me an incredible sense of satisfaction with how this whole thing has played out.

Shead at work on Cotylorhynchus painting (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Seeing just this sampling of Ralph Shead’s work, now nearly all collected back under one roof, is amazing just from the art and the historical perspective. If these enormous works can ever be displayed together in the same room  it would certainly be testament to the power of paleoart and paleoartist–past and present –to still inspire awe in the visitor.

R.B. Shead: Art Director

If you have been following along, you will recognize the crescendo of  this Shead story has taken over my posts and summer research. It is hard to think of anything else I could add to what I’ve discovered so far save just adding to his already herculean numbers of completed pieces of art. Following the magazine covers that were part of his enormous portfolio and utilizing the interlibrary loan services at my library I secured a few copies of the Specialty Salesman Magazine. 

They aren’t readily available and is one of those magazines whose volume numbers roll over in the middle of the calendar year. Luckily I was able to get a copy of November 1925 as it explained the change in editorial and layout (in great detail), and the new direction that the magazine was headed. This is fortunate because one of the pages featured a set of portraits of the magazine staff including their titles.  Not only was Ralph Shead a contributing illustrator to the magazine he was the magazine’s art director. This explains the several covers that were part of the portfolio as well as the few pieces of art that weren’t his.

Specialty Salesman’s Staff November 1926
R.B. Shead, Art Director

So far the earliest I have seen is the November 1925 edition, but one of the portfolio covers shows  the change from 1924 to 1925. Perhaps he was working for the museum even earlier. I am still trying to track down as many copies of the magazines as I can to at least figure out when he started publishing illustrations there. This isn’t a particularly easy task as the magazines are large format (about 12×14 inches) and average 150 pages each. Some of the earliest ones I have seen swell to nearly 250. This means they take up a lot of space on library shelves and are likely not to be requested much. This is one of those instances where the physical copies of the magazines are essential to determining who produced the art. As great as microfilm is for text it is just as bad when it comes to images. We’ve preserved hard black and white letters for 500 years, but there was no apparent reason to care about that the images were. Simple pictures and visual aids are of no importance. (This is where we need a dedicated sarcasm font). For instance, in microfilm you would never be able to make out the works on the wall or on Shead’s easel in this image. Working with the physical copy you can clearly see one of the originals from the previous post hanging on the wall.

I am working on getting a clearer scan of that page to see if I can match any more of the extant pieces with the Art Department’s studio. I am hoping against hope that the one he is working on in this photo is one of the originals, but I fear I may have already used up my allotment of luck for this project.

Before I show the few matching pieces that I have found I want to share a little about the magazine itself. As its title suggests it is a magazine for men and women who sell. Sell what, exactly? And to whom? The mid twenties saw a rise in the traveling salesman and this magazine was a trade magazine of sorts to those enterprising enough to go door to door. Even if you’ve never been visited by a brush or vacuum cleaner salesman, you know there kind. This is exactly what Daffy Duck was doing representing the various head offices in Walla Walla, Washington. It wasn’t just a television trope.

Among the short stories illustrated by Shead and a handful of others there were scores of advertising pages providing dealer direct stock of men and women’s clothing, fountain pens, pocket watches, and even fire extinguishers. It is basically a magazine full of all the things that are relegated to the backs of most magazines today.

With nearly 9 more years to round out the 20s I do not know when or if I will be able to complete the decade an further to see when Shead’s final piece appeared, but there is more than enough here to attest to the profound productivity during his time in Indiana. In the 14 issues that I have catalogued Shead produced 84 illustrations and the all their covers.

For every one of the originals that are still in the portfolio there are several that exist as illustrations only. Some are part of the same stories, others are dispersed throughout countless other stories.

Shead’s illustration surrounding this poem “The Gallant Salesman” also shows that his animal scenes were just as good as any of those featuring people. It would be almost a decade before his subjects took him back to Norman to the campus museum and into prehistory.

As a final though on Shead’s work and to tie it all back around to his work at the Stovall museum and where I first encountered him, there is a marvelous collection of images that are all part of the same  project. Throughout this project besides breaking through some of the obscurity of the man and his work, I have been able to see his watercolor study, the plaster Marquette (which it turns out are not his), and a beautiful black and white photo of the finished diorama as it ran in The Oklahoman in 1952. 

Leptomeryx plaster models by Shead to be used in the Oligocene case in the museum. Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum
Leptomeryx plaster models by Shead to be used in the Oligocene case in the museum. Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum

 

Original Oklahoman Caption: “”big game hunter Frank buck has nothing on Dr. J. Willis Stovall, director of the museum at the University of Oklahoma, with the possible exception of Buck’s “Big’em back alive” slogan.” Photo Courtesy Oklahoma Historical Society

R.B. Shead: Pre-Museum Years

Several days after visiting with Ralph’s great nephew, Bill, he called me to say he had found a small watercolor study for one of the old museum dioramas and a few charcoal studies that Ralph had done as a student and others that were originals submitted as accompanying illustrations for short stories.

I was finally able to go back with my camera and take better photos of the paintings as well as look at these new finds. Those “few” sketched turned out to be an enormous century-old portfolio filled with over 100 pieces of art that Ralph had done either for story illustrations, studies, or magazine cover layouts. I was in awe.

The magazine covers were layout for The Specialty Salesman: The National Inspirational Monthly for Men and Women who Sell. The earliest cover layout was the January 1924 issue. I have no idea if these are the same ones that include the illustrations, but I have three years worth (12 months collectively bound) requested through interlibrary loan to find out.

Other covers included a music journal and an advertising flyer for the ad service that Ralph was working for in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

The nudes and studies are not dated but could be from his time as a student at the University of Oklahoma. The earliest dated piece is from 1916 which was Ralph’s senior year at OU. The architectural details (Cherokee Gothic) reveal that it is somewhere on campus.

R.B. Shead 1916

Most of the illustrations, when dated, are 1925 and 1926. These make up the bulk of the portfolio, which, incidentally survived the house burning down in 1937. Flipping through these huge (18×24 inches) original illustrations was something that doesn’t happen every day, and all could have easily been lost 80 years ago.  In addition to just being great artwork, the instructions for the engraver and printer were included on many including the finished sizes for printing, the largest being a mere 8.25 inches.

There a a few pastels and watercolors among the monotones as well.

One of the watercolors ties back into Shead’s museum work. It is a watercolor sketch for one of the many dioramas he painted for the Stovall Museum at the University of Oklahoma starting around 1933. Shead created these Leptomeryx plaster models for reference.

Leptomeryx plaster models by Shead to be used in the Oligocene case in the museum. Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum
Leptomeryx plaster models by Shead to be used in the Oligocene case in the museum. Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Natural History Museum

Finally, in the back of the giant portfolio was a “regular” sized sketchbook. The remaining sketch pages were all landscape studies from the 1940s complete with the color descriptions for painting– things like “pinkish bluff” and “light purplish bluff.” Many of these are recognizable areas for anyone who frequents the Southwest. Most specifically the Sandia Mountains of New Mexico. 

The Sandia Mountain sketch is dated September 1948 which means this enormous portfolio spans at least 32 years of work including Shead’s time as an OU  art student, his work as a professional advertising and illustration artist, his return back to Norman and his unfathomable amount of artwork at the museum, and, likely, the personal landscapes that adorn the walls of his home. Such a corpus of work, in addition to the fact that nearly anything at the Stovall Museum with paint on it was his, proves that R.B. Shead is fantastically more than the few sentences dedicated to him in the “official” university histories.

Shead Geologic Map

To continue from the end of the previous post, this will just highlight the largest painting completed by Ralph B. Shead. This Oklahoma Geologic Map is dated 1938, making it another in the line of WPA paintings.

Age and renovation have taken a toll on something that was never meant to last this long. It was another of those bygone works marked for disposal.  Preliminary talks are underway on how to get it restored/preserved, where it should hang after, and how to maintain it in the meantime. Maybe we can do something broadly inclusive like a crowdfunding campaign. The thing itself is a logistical nightmare measuring approximately 10×14 feet. It appears to have been painted with acrylic paint, so I am not sure if restoration is an option, it may just be a preservation issue with a coat of sealant to prevent anymore paint loss or damage.

These are just raw camera images I have taken in order to try and do some digital repairs on it myself. As soon as Photoshop is working again on my work laptop I will get right on that. Until then, enjoy this enormous map with scenes of Oklahoma farm and industry surrounding it.

digitally manipulated image with adjusted perspective for a full on front shot. Digitally restoring this is going to be more difficult than I anticipated.

The 12+ labors of Ralph B. Shead

For me, History is filled with people and things. I have never really indulged in the movements and theories and isms that seem to infect the past presently. For a historian this is a professional character defect, for me it is what brings history alive and allows us to find our connections to it.  It is likely why I spent so much time learning archaeology and paleontology. I believe it is ultimately what lead me to the history of science so I could talk about all of that at once.

When I first came to OU and was getting settled across campus with the few people I had some connection with I was shown around the Sam Noble Natural History Museum. On the second floor back in the hallway to the VP lab and collections there are these two enormous paintings (13.5 feet long by 3.5 feet high). After taking in the scale and content of these behemoths I immediately looked for the signature. “Ralph B. Shead ’42” and “Ralph B. Shead ’34 (or 39 it is obscured by the frame I believe it is 34).

Who was this artist? What else had he done, and why was he doing these things at this scale? This was years before I started the digitization and scanning project and information was slow in coming. I wouldn’t even find a photo of him for 2 years. When I started scanning and updating an internal manuscript on the history of the museum I gleaned a little more information.

You can see his Mammoth Mural in the background (Source: Unpublished manuscript by Wann Langston, Jr. )

You can see how hard it is to piece this stuff together. Langston missed Shead’s retirement by a few years which is understandable because Langston was working at the National Museum of Canada from 1954-62.  Shead stayed at the Museum until 1960 or 61 and he wan’t simply the museum artist.  In addition to his museum technician and painting work he served as the Oklahoma sate superintendent for the WPA during the 30s (when the bulk of his work was completed). The WPA records and receipts over in our Western History Collection indicate that some paint and supplies were purchased as part of the “Fossil Bones” project making at least the two paintings upstairs technically WPA art.  Through some interesting turn of events another giant (13-footer) painting now resides down at the Texas A&M Biodiversity Heritage prep lab. The irony behind this is that its subject matter is Norman’s native (Permian) son–the Cotylorhynchus. 

The Cotylorhynchus  painting falls  under the WPA years as well and was complete with the aid of a plaster or clay model he created.

Shead at work on Cotylorhynchus painting (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
Ralph B. Shead with his plaster (clay?) model of Cotylorhynchus (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Shead also created other plaster models for reference, and I believe he was the one who fashioned/oversaw the plaster for the Procamelus (now Aepyicamelus) skeletal reconstruction that accompanied the skull until it disintegrated.

More plaster models. (Source: Unpublished manuscript by Wann Langston, Jr.)

The bulk of Shead’s work predates the formation of the WPA by a year. They were the “missing” and then “rehomed” paints from the previous two posts. They are also impressive in scale and scope as well, and add three more paleontology paintings to Shead’s portfolio. Ralph’s great-nephew told me that the marine reptiles  mural wasn’t one of Ralph’s. Conrad said he was certain that it was a  signed  just as the Mammoth was, of course the place where his signature would have been was unfortunately damaged when it was removed from the wall. It doesn’t look quite like other works by Shea, and was painted on sheetrock and not canvass like Shed’s other works, but he did paint most everything that was in the museum. If anyone out there has a photo of this with the signature intact please send it along.

The moving of these paintings led to some renewed interest in some old emails and leads that were passed to me for follow up. Chasing down contacts I was able to locate the final “missing” mural that I was aware of living peacefully over in the Geology Graduate offices in Sarkey’s. It is another of Shead’s giants too, this one of a Carboniferous landscape painted in 1938 (during the WPA funded period)

There were also some Shead paintings reportedly hanging out in the microbiology department so I went in search for them. There were three, two in an classroom/lab and one in the herbarium office. These were as surprising as the marine reptile mural because I had never seen mention or reference of them. I photographed them to add to my ever-growin Shead dossier. When I was processing the images later that evening I noticed that there were no signatures on the microscope or fungi ones, but I assumed they had been covered by the frame (looking back now I don’t think that is the case, I just need to look harder).

The other one was even more surprising because while it is a Shead painting, it wan’t painted by Ralph.


I had no idea there *was* a Robert Shead and that added a whole new layer to the simple project of documenting Ralph B. Shead’s work. I found even less on Robert Shead (1908-1999) than his older brother Ralph. Robert had a son who ended up working at an internationally acclaimed interior design firm in Dallas. That son’s, (David LaForge Shead) obituary outlined his work followed in his parents’ footsteps studying art and design at OU. I haven’t been able to track down Robert’s years at OU yet. William Shead confirmed all this and added that Robert had a lucrative interior design company in Oklahoma City. He even served as a designer during his war service years, boasting that he has designed the interior of MacArthur’s private plane. He also confirmed that the fungi and the microscope were Robert Shead paintings and not Ralph’s.

Ralph B. Shead from OU 1916 yearbook
Shead in 1915 (OU Yearbook)

Ralph however received his certificate of art in 1916, 14 years before Stovall arrived at the university, and became *the* name associated with all things museum and paleontology related. David Levy’s  The University of Oklahoma: A History, Volume II 1917-1950 only mentions Shead in a single sentence: “Ralph Shead, a professional artist who became a long time employee of the museum, designed displays and created historic murals.” (214).  At least two of which include a Jurassic scene and the background for the oreodon exhibit. Not only did Shead paint the background but  he did the figure sculpting for the diorama as well.

Jurassic Background (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

 

Oreodon display. These fossils were prepped and mounted by WPA workers and are still in these positions in their new habitat in the current museum. (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Pretty short-shrift for someone who produced four 13+ foot paintings, three slightly smaller ones, and served as acting director of the museum between 1952 and 54 (Stovall died in 1953) after the “new” Museum was opened in 1951.

University Museum 1951. (OU Yearbook, 1951)

The paleontology paintings aren’t even the largest scale that Shead worked with while painting at OU. There is an enormous geological map of Oklahoma painted with various labor scenes around it that I will be spending some time with next week photographing more completely and attempting to do some digital repairs on it.

Photo by author

Shead wasn’t bound to the art studio during his tenure at the museum. As WPA superintendent part of his work included accompanying the visitors and press to sites worked under WPA funding. Here here is during the “This Project Pays your Community” public tour week in the Cimarron County Dinosaur Quarry.

Mr. Held, pres agent, Ralph Shead, Miss Fullerton, Mrs Stafford, J.W. Stovall (left to right)(Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
Cimarron County. Dinosaur Eula Fullerton, Director P&S Division and Ralph Shead, Supt. Paleo project (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Similarly, Shead’s fieldwork was not simply administrative. There were times when Shead as a “museum technician” was involved in the dirt of the excavation, and like his paintings he worked with dinosaurs and extinct mammals.

Ralph Shead (right) with WPA foreman Mannie Capansky and the “brontosaur” femur. (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)
R.B. Shead excavating elephant 3 miles SW of Weatherford Sept 4, 1941. (Copyright Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History)

Later in 1941 Shead published a 7 page informational booklet on the Bear Zuni Fetishes from the Spiro Mounds archaeological excavations. Spiro was another scientific University WPA project. OU Anthropology students Shawn Lambert and Lucius Martin presented a poster highlighting the OU WPA artists and their illustrations for the Spiro project and publications. Interestingly this poster hangs in the same paleontology hall as the first two Shead paintings that I saw.

While I was working on this collection of Shead work, I contacted his great nephew William who not only lives in Norman, but lives at the original Shead address. The original house burned in the 1930s and the current house is a gorgeous faux adobe Mexican colonial partially designed by Ralph with the interior designed by Robert. It is definitely my favorite house in Norman.

I spent the afternoon surrounded by even more of  Ralph’s art in his old house catching up on the Shead family history which is as fascinating as I had figured and in a surreal way similar to threads of my mother’s side of my family. Just to add all the smaller pieces of Shead’s work here to what is part of the University it is obvious that Shead painted all the time. Some of these landscapes are from the areas in the panhandle area which William said Shead really liked.  I am going to make it a habit of visiting more often and next time I will have my big camera, but for now, having all of Ralph’s extant work together, even if it is just digitally. is a pretty fulfilling feat.  There is at least one more that was given to a family psychologist friend. Either set of these would be an impressive portfolio, when lumped together is simply staggering.


Most are normal “house-art” sized (16×20 or so) except the Mexican scene, it is at least 48×60. I want to try and get some better photos of at least that one for a print.

I don’t know much more about the artist that was born in New Madrid, Missouri in 1892; What was he up to between 1916 and 1933 when he started painting for Stovall and the museum? Shead’s WWI draft card lists him as a school teacher in Jenks in June of 1917. William said he thought Shead was pursuing a master’s degree in art in Indiana before the family called him home to help during the depression. A few newspapers have him exhibiting art at the Herron Art Museum and the Indiana State Fair. He  is mentioned as living in Indianapolis with his brother Walter (newspaper reporter) in the reports of Laurance’s death in 1933.   An article in the Inianapolis Star  (January 8, 1935) lists Shead as having attended Washington University in St. Louis, MO, the Grand Central School of art, and the School of Design in New York.  It mentions his OU museum murals and a potrait of Bishop Francis Kelly of the Catholic diocese of Tulsa and Oklahoma City which all seem to have been completed in 1934.

Indianapolis Star Tue. Jan 8, 1935

His plans to return to Indianapolis in 1935 changed when he became the WPA Oklahoma state superintendent that same year.  When the WPA folded, Shead became the assistant director of the University Museum, serving as “acting director” from 1952 to 1954 when the Hungarian-born archaeologist Stephan Francis Borhegyi took over the museum directorship.

The Oklahoman. December 27, 1948.
Shead in Sooner Magazine in 1957. (Vol 29 . no. 8 pp 8-10)

According to William Eugene Hollon’s A History of the Stovall Museum of Science and History (1956), during the late 1940s through the early years of the 1950s Shead was the only full-time museum employee. He serve as assistant director and head of exhibit preparation at the renamed Stovall Museum  until he retired in 1960. He continued to paint the rest of his life finally laying down his brush in 1969.

The Oklahoman Thursday Feb 20, 1969

Shead is buried next to his parents and brother (not Robert) in the the St. Joseph’s Catholic section of the Norman IOOF cemetery on Porter St. in Norman, less than 50 yards from J. Willis Stovall and his wife.  There is an American Legion medallion next to his headstone. There were even a story tied to the headstone.

The large Shead stone was created by Shead’s father James. He was skilled with concrete and decorative planters and birdbaths are part of the front garden at the house.

The family stories are not without tragedy either. The brother Laurance that is buried here was a fairly successful theatre manager at the Garden Theatre in Paterson, New Jersey who was known to help anyone down on there luck. One such patron, a prospective singer from Georgia named Louis Kenneth Neu took advantage of his kindness, accompanied Laurance to his apartment for a party, and eventually hit him from behind with an iron and stole his wallet. Laurance died of his injuries and Ney was later apprehended and executed in New Orleans for the murder of Laurence Shead and a wealthy Tennessee businessman.

Their mother Mary is, so far, the longest-lived Shead, and her story ties the family to one of the most significant geological stories in North America.  Her Father’s Grandfather, a LaForge survived the New Madrid Earthquake only to catch pneumonia from wading through the slush that was once his farmland when the Mississippi River flooded. He later succumbed to his illness ultimately making him another victim of the quake.

His surviving work is impressive by any standard, and that isn’t taking into account all the already (really) lost “displays” and “historic murals” that served as backdrops for all the dioramas throughout the museum. His work isn’t simply art or background, paleontology or archaeology. His work crisscrossed all aspects of the museum, its collections, and ever expanding subject areas (which I think is why I have been drawn to finding out more about him). They also remain some of the strongest physical links to the history of the university museum outside of the collection artifacts themselves.

 

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