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James Gurney transports viewers to Dinotopia

James Gurney has always been intrigued by lost worlds and ancient civilizations. As a kid, he dreamt of a magic elevator that - if he stood in the right spot and pressed the right button - would take him to another universe. Maybe to Atlantis. Maybe to Middle Earth.

As he grew up, he discovered another way to transport himself to a different, wondrous place - by drawing it, in the form of Dinotopia.

Gurney is the author and illustrator of the hugely popular "Dinotopia" books, about a land where dinosaurs and humans live in peace.

His original artwork for the series is being showcased in the exhibition "DINOTOPIA: Art, Science, and Imagination" on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum through Feb. 2.

"What I wanted to do with 'Dinotopia' was to create a doorway where the reader's imagination could become engaged and where we could travel to that point of contact between art and science and imagination, between fact and fantasy," he says in a video accompanying the exhibition.

That, in fact, is what he thinks fantasy is all about.

"It brings us together, it takes us to other worlds and, in so doing, it brings us to a greater appreciation of the magic of the world around us now," he says.

"DINOTOPIA: Art, Science, and Imagination" details his work process. He loves to use reality as the basis for his fantasy. He has gone to the Grand Canyon to get ideas on how Dinotopia's Canyon City should look. He has studied dinosaur skeletons in museums. (On view in the Lyman Allyn exhibitions are some dinosaur specimens from Yale University's Peabody Museum.)

Gurney builds maquettes - three-dimensional models - of buildings and creatures he wants to illustrate.

"When you light up a real maquette, there are nuances and cast shadow effects that you could never dream up, and that carries the conviction of realism more than any other single thing," he says.

At the Lyman Allyn, a maquette of a Skybax, a flying dinosaur ridden by humans, stands near the painting "Flight Past the Falls" that places those figures in front of an elaborate, Greek-influenced building and rushing waterfall in Dinotopia's Waterfall City.

Gurney has been known to paint a real site and then morph it into a fantasy as well. His painting of the Toledo Bridge in Spain, for instance, hangs on a Lyman Allyn wall next to his creation of the Ruined Bridge for the 'Dinotopia' series. Visitors can see how he added dramatic towers and a small house nestled atop one of those towers. In the books, the house serves as the home of hermit Cornelius Mazurka, whom main character Arthur Denison meets.

The same process applies for characters. Gurney actually dresses people - including, on occasion, himself - in costume as he paints figures for a scene. The Lyman Allyn exhibition includes photos of him in costume, along with an oil painting based on that photo. In the exhibition video, Gurney describes having neighbors and friends pose in his backyard and then using those groupings as references for paintings.

Gurney didn't come from a family of artists but from a family of people who were curious - a trait he inherited. His father was an engineer who worked for the space program. His grandfather pioneered sound and Technicolor for motion pictures. His great-grandfather started a company that made ball bearings.

His father told a young James that if you could draw something, you could build it. James drew a lot as a child and was fascinated by other worlds. He remembers sitting in his front yard with his Tonka trucks, digging for his own lost city.

When he was supposed to be sleeping at night, he'd instead be reading "National Geographic" magazines.

Years later, in the 1980s, he ended up working as an archaeological illustrator for National Geographic, reconstructing pictures of life in an ancient world. He'd accompany archaeologists on location and, based on the evidence in the ground, would try to paint what the full picture of that site might have been. He created pictures of the voyages of Jason and Ulysses and of the Etruscan civilization in Italy.

"At the end of each day working with archaeologists, we would often sit around the campfire and talk about the dream of discovering a lost city. It was then that I got the idea that I could create my own lost world," he says.

The idea for the Lyman Allyn exhibition grew out of a suggestion by Walter Wick, the author-illustrator of the "I Spy" series. The museum hosted a popular exhibition of his work in 2008, and Wicks suggested the Lyman Allyn folks look at Gurney's work.

Carolyn Grosch, Lyman Allyn's assistant curator and registrar, says, "We were all captivated by Gurney's work, and he's a really incredible, very imaginative artist. He's very talented. So we decided that we'd do something similar (to the Wick exhibition) but with his work."

It continues the Lyman Allyn's focus on being family-friendly and, more specifically, on giving children's book illustrators their due.

Often, Grosch says, "It's exciting to read the story and enjoy the illustration, but you don't really sit back and enjoy the artistry behind it. It is important to develop exhibitions like this, where you look at it from more of a fine arts standpoint."


What: "DINOTOPIA: Art, Science, and Imagination"

Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London

When: Through Feb. 2; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.

Admission: $10 adults, $7 seniors and students, $5 students under 18, free kids age 12 and younger

Contact: (860) 443-2545,


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