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updated: 3/13/2013 9:34 PM

Aurora exhibit showcases art and science of paleontology

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  • Visitors to the "Dinosaurs: The Art & Science of Paleontology" exhibit view Mr. Nixon, the plaster cast of a triceratops skull.

      Visitors to the "Dinosaurs: The Art & Science of Paleontology" exhibit view Mr. Nixon, the plaster cast of a triceratops skull.
    Courtesy of Al Benson

  • Field paleontologist and artist Rob Sula points out his pencil and marker site map of an edmontosaurus.

       Field paleontologist and artist Rob Sula points out his pencil and marker site map of an edmontosaurus.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • This photograph shows Rob Sula working on a site map for the tylosaurus he found in Nebraska.

       This photograph shows Rob Sula working on a site map for the tylosaurus he found in Nebraska.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Rob Sula calls the Tully Monster, found in the Mazon Creek area of Illinois, one of the most unusual creatures he's ever encountered. Its eyes rotate on an axis extending from either side of its body and its front protrusion is a claw.

       Rob Sula calls the Tully Monster, found in the Mazon Creek area of Illinois, one of the most unusual creatures he's ever encountered. Its eyes rotate on an axis extending from either side of its body and its front protrusion is a claw.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Titled "The Insect," this charcoal drawing is Rob Sula's rendering of a green nymph stick.

      Titled "The Insect," this charcoal drawing is Rob Sula's rendering of a green nymph stick.
    Courtesy of Al Benson

  • Rob Sula's site map of the tylosaurus he found shows each bone painstakingly drawn in its exact location.

       Rob Sula's site map of the tylosaurus he found shows each bone painstakingly drawn in its exact location.
    Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 
 

Mr. Nixon, the plaster cast skull of a triceratops, greets visitors to the "Dinosaurs: The Art and Science of Paleontology" exhibit running through May 3 at the Aurora Public Art Commission's third floor gallery at the David L. Pierce Art and History Center in Aurora.

The prehistoric dinosaur isn't named after the former president, but rather the cattle rancher on whose property he was found in South Dakota, explains Rob Sula, artist and field paleontologist, whose natural history-themed art, paleo-illustrations and site maps of found fossils fill the gallery.

This type of exhibit is a first for Sula, an Aurora resident who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in fine art, but learned his fossil-finding skills out in the field.

"I have never exhibited my paleo art before," he says.

The paleo art features illustrations of fossils and the creatures they represent. Sula also has what he terms fine art pieces in the exhibit -- pointing to his charcoal drawing of a green nymph stick, which enlarges the insect's already huge size.

"I just thought this insect was cool and I wanted to draw it," he says.

Then he introduces you to Illinois' own state fossil, the Tullimonstrum gregarium, better known as the Tully Monster. No one knows just what kind of species the soft-bodied invertebrate was.

"There's nothing like it. It's unique to Illinois," Sula says.

The Tully Monster is found in the state's fossil gold mine area of Mazon Creek near Coal City. Sula says there are so many fossils there because 307 million years ago, when Mazon Creek was river delta swamp, something happened very quickly -- possibly heavy rains caused mud to slough down from upland areas, burying whatever was in the path.

"The thing that is unique about Mazon Creek is soft-bodied preservation," he says. "These animals were all buried very rapidly. That's how the soft tissues are preserved."

Fossil hunters even find whole baby sharks at Mazon Creek, says Sula, whose illustrations are included in a new book that he helped edit titled "The Mazon Creek Fossil Fauna" by Jack Wittry. The book is found in the art and history center's gift shop. Sula also wrote and illustrated a chapter of "Megalodon: Hunting the Hunter," a study of prehistoric sharks published by Mark Renz in 2002.

Fossil hunting

Sula has a lot of familiarity with Mazon Creek. A part-time instructor at College of DuPage, he takes his students on a fossil-hunting trip to Mazon Creek every spring.

A partner in Paleo Prospectors, Sula also leads summer fossil-finding trips to Nebraska, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota. He said about 100 people a year go on the weeklong summer trips, including teachers, students, dinosaur fans and those seeking new experiences.

Sula's own favorite place to prospect for fossils is the Hell Creek formation in Montana and the western part of the Dakotas. Out there, he's on ranches that spread for thousands of acres. In addition to dinosaurs, he finds tiny, well-preserved fossils of amphibians, reptiles, fish and mammals.

"Being on the top of a hill sifting through the sand for little micro-fossils, there's nothing more beautiful," he says. "I'm a Quaker. I like the meditation. I like the quiet introspection."

Finding micro-fossils may not be as sexy as uncovering dinosaur bones, but Sula says they actually may be more significant.

"In an afternoon, you can have representations of an entire ecosystem," he said. "You can have 20 or so different species represented."

Not that Sula hasn't had his share of major discoveries. One was the 2003 find of a 36-foot tylosaurus proriger that was so complete it had preserved skin on the rib cage. The discovery and excavation of the specimen is the subject of the National Geographic children's book "Dinosaurs."

Sula says he found the tylosaurus when he was fossil prospecting in northwest Nebraska and a rancher pointed out a site he thought might have some bones. Sula found a couple of vertebrae, reburied them and returned the next year. He uncovered the tail of the tylosaurus that had been savaged by sharks, which had rotated it 180 degrees. Looking further, Sula found the entire skeleton.

"What we thought was nothing was really spectacular," he says.

The Licking Leaf site he codiscovered in 1999 in South Dakota contained more than 100 new species of late Cretaceous period plant fossils and produced thousands of specimens. He donated many of the fossils to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Child's fascination

Sula came by his fascination with paleontology, or the study of prehistoric life, early. During a trip to Chicago's Field Museum as a child, he saw a coelacanth, the relative of the lungfish that was thought to be extinct more than 50 million years. Some visitors might have thought it was just an ugly fish, but Sula was hooked. He became a kid who collected facts about dinosaurs and thrilled at finding his first fossil.

He was working as an exercise physiologist in 1998 when a patient told him about a dinosaur hunting trip. Sula went, impressed the trip's leader with his knowledge of dinosaurs and was invited to join him as a partner. His knowledge of prehistoric life is self-taught, but he's in good company with a number of other well-known dinosaur hunters, he says.

"The only way to qualify yourself as a field paleontologist is to get out there and do it," he says. "Finding fossils is not a skill that can be taught."

Rena Church, director and curator for the Aurora Public Art Commission, invited Sula to exhibit his work after meeting him at a party.

"I like dinosaurs, and they're so popular," she says. "It's definitely bringing a lot of people in."

Sula says he hopes his exhibit sparks the kind of interest his childhood trip to the Field Museum did for him.

"The main thing I want them to take away is wonder," he says. "You never know what will inspire a child to learn on their own."

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