Monday, June 16, 2014

Trolling the Fossil Freeway with Ray

Even if you haven't heard the name Ray Troll, it's still almost guaranteed that you've seen some of his artwork. Maybe you saw an amazing museum exhibit, or picked up a copy of Cruisin' the Fossil Freeway, or perhaps you remember a few weeks ago for Mary Anning's birthday we debuted an awesome piece of his:

“Mary Anning's story was really inspiring to me and Brad when we made that book all those years ago and then finding out “she sells seashells by the seashore…” it's all about her..." - Ray Troll

But Ray Troll is much more than an amazing artist: he's a top-notch paleonerd, amazing author, game-creator, science education advocate, fish enthusiast of the strongest sort, and also a musician! He also recently completed a project close to home for the Vengeance Team: he painted the mural of the Saber Toothed Salmon fossil, part of the Explore Oregon exhibit at the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History (That exhibit is freshly opened and extremely awesome, so if you get a chance you should swing by and check it out).

Amy and blog assistant/boyfriend Kelly were lucky enough (Meaghan is SUPER GODDAMN JEALOUS) to sit down with Ray Troll and his wife Michelle at their beautifully fossil-decorated house in Ketchikan, Alaska and pepper him with questions about his music, art, connections to Mary Anning and paleoichthyology musings while Meaghan sat at home grumbling and doing science stuff.

Forever the image of Meaghan's Envy

Amy: If you could live in a different time other than now, which would you choose? And which would be your last choice?

"Ages of Rock" by Ray Troll
Ray: I would live in the Devonian because it’s the age of the fish. I mean I’m a Pisces, I’m a guy who’s built his entire career on fish, but the Devonian- that’s the big switch, that’s when our clan, the fish tribe, made the big transition from water to land. And there were no vertebrates up on the land, there were only the inverts out there crawling around up until then. But then the diversity, just the alien world that it was, the trees, the forests, the arthrodires, the big placoderms those big armored guys... time traveling through any period of time I’d always wanna be looking at 'where’s my kin?' Where are we in this whole story? Where are vertebrates, what’s the line leading to me and that big pivotal moment when there was something from our tribe making that little (eehhh ehhh ehh) transition.
Troll's whorled toothed Helicoprion

I’d like to see the Permian too, if I could take a little sideways veer. I’d like to see the whorled toothed shark and the edestids and all that going on there but I’m really, I think the biggest mystery in paleontology is what happened at the end of the Permian? It’s still not nailed down - what the hell happened? But anything in the Paleozoic, just go back to the Paleozoic, it’s such a different world. 

Amy: Alright you’re a pretty greedy time traveler here.

Ray: I am, I am. What’s my least favorite time period to go back to? Is this a standard question that you ask?

Amy: No we just came up with it earlier today.

Ray: It’s for me? Well hmmm...

Amy: Yeah, oh yeah this is a personalized interview! So... the Archean or some boring time like that?

Ray: Yeah thank you for the leading hint there from the help line but yeah... the Great Age of Cyanobacteria I think, "nah not so much." But you know, that said, I’m still very curious about other planets and Mars. I do look at Mars photos and any paleontologists the other day would have said holy crap that’s strata right there. The Rover was driving by and went whoa, wait! Veer over there!

Amy: Next question! We know that you are a big fan of fish.
Ray: Duuuh. You’ve done your homework.
Amy: Well what got you interested in the paleontological aspect? What spurred that interest?

Ray: Well my first love was dinosaurs.  At age four I was picking up a crayon, and what was I going to draw? Dinosaurs. I was drawing dinosaurs. The first word that I could spell was dinosaur.

Amy: Oh awesome, you were just a geek from the get-go!

"Before the King" Troll 2007
Ray: Yep, from the gecko. I was drawing dinosaurs at age four, with crayons, and the joke is that at age sixty I’m still drawing dinosaurs with crayons.  Still haven’t gotten it right, still haven’t moved on.

Amy: Or maybe you just figured it out really early.

Jim Baichtal, Pat Druckenmiller and Troll
finding Alaskan fossils 
Ray: Well yeah! The drawing on my studio wall right now, it’s a drawing of hadrosaurs from the Cretaceous, from the North Slope of Alaska. I want to do Alaskan dinosaur portraits. I think the Alaskan dinosaurs are actually going to prove to be different species. I think all of them. Oh, and I have done a Pachyrhinosaurus and another one in there somewhere, anyway the hadrosaur now, little baby hadrosaurs, but I’m drawing them with crayons. The difference now is that they are professional crayons.

Amy: Well you just jumped to one of the other questions I have here for you about your current projects. So what specifically are you working on these days?

Long-time friends and colleagues Johnson & Troll
 exploring the Fossil Freeway

Ray: Well I am trying to focus on finishing the book with Kirk Johnson who, in the meantime since we started this book project got a job running a little museum back east.  The readers can put that together. But I am bound and determined, as is he, let it be known here and in the blogosphere that he is also determined to finish this great project, which was funded by a Guggenheim grant: "Fossils of the West Coast."

This is specifically a book on the fossils from Baja to Barrow. We still have to get down to Baja but we’ve been pretty much all up and down the west coast, which is where I met you first in Oregon and we were working on that book then.  But yeah Oregon Washington, California, BC, Alaska, we’ve done all the cool fossil sites together, but the great hole in our jointly experienced fossil site bliss is Bakersfield. Kirk's been there but I have not. That’s sharks tooth hill, so I regret that I have not been there. And he’s been to the Burgess Shale and I’ve only been to the base!  I think we’ve been everywhere else and then some.  So we are working on a book that’s called The Eternal Coastline, which is turning into the eternal book project.

Michelle: But they’re always like that.

Ray: They are always like that, so that’s why I’m not really sweating.

Amy: Yeah, like Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway, how long did that take, start to finish?

Michelle: It was long, it was a long haul.

Crusin' the Fossil Freeway: Amy has had the poster in her room since she was 15 yrs old

Ray: It was like, five years over-due. Too ambitious. So now I’m about to start the Alaska one, and I keep thinking “oh the BC one will be quick!” And then there’s Mexico. Oh yeah. Baja-hahaha. So that’s how we deal with those things. I am trying to focus on that and in the meantime keeping the T-shirt empire alive and well, that which feeds us and allows us to be here. It’s also the infrastructure that keeps all the other craziness alive because I, unlike Dr. Johnson and others in the academic and museum world, don’t have a steady paycheck! I must fend my way in the real world, like Mary Anning. She was never affiliated with an institution, I'm not working, I am perfectly unemployable, you couldn’t employ me, I couldn’t work for anyone, I really couldn’t! Just like Mary- she was taken somewhat seriously by academics, “(british accent) Yes Thank you Mary, thank you for the specimen, what was your name again? Maybe I’ll mention you…”

Amy: Or just call her “Hanning,” a common typo.

Ray: Was it? Really?

Amy: Yeah oh yeah. And even more connections between you and Mary - she was an artist! She did some of the earliest drawings of what these fossils would have looked like alive, the ichthyosaurs, and plesiosaurs, and reconstructed their skeletons with no formal education at all. She would dissect modern sharks, fish, and rays to figure it out and piece together these ancient creatures.

Mary Anning's drawing of the original Squaloraja
Ray: So she got curious. Were her drawings any good?

Amy: I think so, she has one drawing of Squaloraja this shark/ray thing…

Ray: Wait wait wait…. Squaloraja is a ratfish.

Amy: Really?! There we go.

Ray: Squaloraja was a ratfish… She drew it?!?

Amy: Yeah! She found the first one! I am pretty sure! We can double check with Google but we wrote a little piece, one of our “Awesome Dead Shit” posts was about Squaloraja and Mary Anning a few months ago.

Ray: Man, that’s two degrees of ratfish here! I have done drawings of Squaloraja myself [see sketches below, making their digital debut right here!]. It’s just because the fossil is so weird.

Amy: Super weird.

Ray: It’s Chimera. And she found the first one. (british accent again) Wait a minute. Mary is speaking to me from the grave. Mary the Ratfish Queen.

Amy: Here’s another good one: You do a lot of science outreach, and Meaghan and I are big advocates of that. We are curious about your favorite form of outreach? You do all these different things, your artwork, murals, sculptures, and of course, your band The Ratfish Wranglers!

Ray: Each outreach aspect has its joys and tribulations. Ugh, the rock and roll aspect... doing an event is always fun, and having the band together is always fun. Doing these weird science rock and roll things, the joy and the terror of that is they can veer totally out of control, which they usually do because it involves bands and audiences, and sound systems, and you never know! Sometimes we pull it off in a spectacular fashion and it’s great, and other times a spectacular train wreck. It’s out of my field of comfort, which is always more interesting for me, but when you pull it off there’s nothing like the high of an audience appreciation moment.  And you know that you’ve reached a couple thousand people, or fifty.

But its also really cool to go to classrooms and do it on a smaller scale or take a whole school. It's worth the time to go do that because in an hour-long presentation you can't reach them all, but there really is this genuine thing where you can actually transform a life. I also like doing drawing workshops where’s maybe 20-30 people in the room and there's a couple hours of that.  Not to get too hippie dippy about it, but I am an old hippie after all, and you connect with the audience and the intellectual pursuit is there in every single level because we are very curious animals and we are very curious about our lives, about every level of our lives. And we should always be!

A: What advice would you have for aspiring artists? Specifically artists interested in science, paleontology, or paleoart…?

Ray Troll's art on the local Ketchikan buses
Ray: Well I’ll try to keep it under five minutes… Make art if art is really what drives you and it is your thing. If so, you should always be doing it at every opportunity. Follow your passion, but pay attention to the real world. My advice to young artists that have that passion is not to be afraid, that art can pay, you need to be smart about it. But, do not be shy about promoting yourself. You have to have a inkling of ambition.

Makin' ancient beasts come to life
There's the approach that if you just do good work the world will find you. If it’s just freaking genius enough, if it's so awesome, you can just be really true to your craft and push your own craft as far as you can and not worry about anybody. And that’s good. That should be the way it is. But on the other hand, you know, well you know there’s so many of us on this planet now you need to get noticed. So I think you gotta be doing good work and always try to push your craft as much as you can. They don’t call it artwork for nothing, it is Art Work. It’s work. You gotta balance [your craft] with what I call the shameless self promotion gene. Don’t be shy. I want to rename it though because that actually implies shame! I have kidded about that, it's tough in a small town because y’know, is self promotion confused with ambition?  So I wanna rename it “fearless” self promotion gene because it actually takes courage to promote yourself. Andy Warhol was all about sticking your imagery on stuff wherever and I’ve always liked that idea of putting your images on just about any empty space that you could find and in every way.

Lasting art FOSHO!
Check out this piece in the movie Super Bad
I think art actually really gets hung up on definitions. Art in particular. Is it art? Yeah c’mon it's art! It’s all art. Is it high art? Low art? Middle brow art? I just never had the patience to argue all that stuff. But I know I can actually do high art. Obscure art. I hope I do lasting art and I think I’ve done some lasting art. But I also know that, like today I feel like I’m a stupid joke art. But what is being inspired all about? Its just really giving a shit about something, being inspired, its just something you want to do. You get up and you feel this urge to figure out what a prehistoric beast just looked like. The thrill of maybe being the first one every to draw that creature and make it come to
life is the thrill of discovery!  Actually rustling about in old museums finding things that are in the collections that nobody's ever really brought to life before. In particular some of these ancient creatures you need to really engage science enough to make an educated guess on it. So that to me, that paleo-surrealist dreamworld life, making things come to life. So there. Was there advice in there for young artists?

Amy: Definitely. There was a lot of advice in there.

One of Meaghan’s questions: You love fish a whole lot, but are you not aware of the existence of animals with fur and limbs?? Seriously, if you had to choose your favorite extinct mammal, what would it be?

Amy & Ray rockin' out with the Killer Pig
Ray: Well I love mammals, I’m a mammal, too! I'm all about the mammals, but they are highly derived lobe-finned fish! They are still fish. These are fins that’s what I say, they don’t call these FINgers for nothing. So just remember your humble fishy origins. It’s all I ask of people. But I loves the mammals, I’m just drawn to the killer pigs. Archeaotherium just gets my blood pumping and Dayodont aka Dynohyus the killer pigs I just can't get enough of that. There’s just not enough research being done on the killer pigs and I keep calling them killer pigs and there's still a debate on were they even pigs? I don’t know. They could eat anything they wanted. So the vast world of bear dogs, how cool are bear dogs?!

Amy: Yeah, or giant ground sloths.

Ray: Giant ground sloths yes the list goes on and on! Basilisaurus, Eocene whales just bam they're there! And Pachycebus the walking whales just walking around… I am particularly obsessed with the Desmostilids, the ocean elephants. I'm putting a spin on, they're basically ocean-going north Pacific proboscidean. I cannot get enough of them I am a desmophiliac! And if there are paleonerds reading this, tinodon??? are really freaking bizarre animals, Stylinodon… in the Paleocene and Eocene  the mammals really start diversifying, and all these extinct branches that went nowhere...  They got big and weird and blunt teeth in real basic forms and giant claws and what the hell were they doing?? And they, poof! Gone. Uintatheres, such crazy things Uintatheres…

Uintatheres: acid trip or extinct mammal??

Amy: Okay let’s do the fun questions now! Enough serious chatter! Okay Saber toothed Salmon: Grilled with brown sugar and soy sauce? Or baked in the oven with lemon?

Ray: Grilled. Seared. I would sear that motherfucker. And you can quote me on that. I would probably eat it fresh, as fresh as I could.

mmm mmm good

Amy: And feed the entire town!

Ray grilling his famous
blackened salmon.
Photo cred: Alejandro Chavarria
Ray: Yeah but I would seriously, just think about a giant sockeye salmon… that red flesh and I probably wouldn’t want the really really big ones, I’d probably want the sweet kinda, y'know, the ones that had not gone anadromous and gone all dark on me, so you'd wanna catch them when they're still silvery. When I grill salmon, actually one of the ways I really like to do salmon is to blacken it and to really sear it so you slather it in butter and then put some basically hot spicy pepper, cajon seasoning on it, so its slathered in butter, you know a big chunk, and you do a butterfly filet with it - you know a butterfly filet? You’re Alaskan (motions to Kelly) so you know but basically you take a filet and you take it about halfway down and you flip it out so it's face-down on a hot grill. And its kinda seared and then just flip it once and then its on the table right away just eat it.

Amy: So these are the Rapid Fire Questions that we ask at the end of every interview. But they are different for everyone of course. The idea here is you don’t over think it you just say what is in your gut, whatever your instinct. All it is Who Would Win in a Fight? Remember do not over think it, whatever fight you envision, and we will just give you a list of opponents.

Ray: So who thought of this? You and your co-blogger?

Amy: Yep me and Meaghan. Kelly helps. Okay here we go:

A: A ratfish versus a rat in a fish costume?
R: Ratfish

A: Saber toothed salmon versus Thylattosaurus?
R: Saber toothed salmon!

A: King Crab versus King Salmon?
R: King salmon! Vertebrates always win.

A: Neil Shubin versus a very large, hungry Titaalik?
R: Titaalik!

A: Kirk Johnson versus the snowmastodon?
R: Kirk Johnson!

A: Nice! Dinohyus versus Black Sabbath?
R: haha Dinohyus!

A: Hell pig wins! Whorled toothed shark versus an Orca Whale?
R: Whorled toothed shark! Slice and Dice the orca!

Amy: Our last question: Meaghan has taken some photos of her different fish faces her human fish faces… And she would like you, as a professional fish expert, to vote on which fish face is the best! (shows picture) that’s Meaghan by the way.

Ray: I like Meaghan already. Has she seen my fish faceshirt? You bought it today… and I think fish face number three is definitely the best.

Amy: Fish Face number three! Nice! And now her request is for you to teach me a good fish face and then we have to take a photo of course.

Ray: I was born fish faced!

Amy and Ray's best fish faces,  seen with our guide book "Fish Face" by David Doubilet


We were so grateful for the opportunity to interview Ray for Mary Anning's Revenge and we hope all of you readers enjoyed the interview! Please see Ray's website for more awesome artwork, clever t-shirts, paleo news and so much more. All of the artwork featured above is, of course, all Ray's. Stay tuned to the blog as we will continue to feature more of Ray Troll's paleoart! 

Another spectacular piece by Troll of Mary Anning and ichthyosaurs aka "fish lizards"

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