Memories of John Gurche at the National Museum of Natural History

The paleo halls at the National Museum of Natural History are undergoing a major renovation. The exhibit Life in the Ancient Seas, which opened in 1990 (see Deck 1992), closed on October 28, 2013; the remaining paleo complex, which opened in stages in the 1980s (for example, see Park 1981), closes April 28, 2014. The new paleo halls will reopen in 2019.

John Gurche’s original acrylic paintings currently enhance the paleo halls in three areas – but only for a few more months. His innovative Tower of Time stands majestically in the main entrance of the exhibit; his painting of a Devonian landscape provides the background for a diorama in the Conquest of Land hall; and his delicate and well-designed Evolution of the Horse spans half of the interior circumference of an intimate enclave in the Mammals in the Limelight hall.

I will miss our old halls, but I am happy that John Gurche’s new work lives on in sculpture in the museum’s new David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins.


> John Gurche posing with his sculptures of Paranthropus boisei, Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. Photo by Chip Clark / courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

One day in 1988 I was working in my studio in the Department of Paleobiology when I got an unusual phone call. Paleoartist John Gurche was looking for someone to share the space and expenses of a rented studio in the Washington, D.C. area. We had never met, but I knew he had worked on the museum’s relatively new (at that time) paleo exhibit halls as a freelance artist, and I had often admired his work.

I told him that I did not need a studio outside the museum, but that he was welcome to share my space at the museum. My studio was not huge, but my thought was that I needed ideas more than space, I knew John’s work would be inspirational, and I knew that it would be a valuable opportunity to learn his techniques firsthand.

Most of the nineteen curators I worked for at the time knew John already through his work on our exhibit halls and were enthusiastic about his becoming part of our department on a daily basis. I divided the room by making a wall down the middle out of two tall, old, army-surplus bookshelves; obtained a second drafting table and chair; and John settled into work. His side of the studio quickly filled with cast heads of great apes in various stages of dissection, books, art materials, and other objects of interest – including a large, ever-growing stack of coffee cups that, increasing daily, eventually grew to almost wall-size.

A portion of John’s time in Room E110 was spent working on the hominin heads discussed in his new book, Shaping Humanity, (see Gurche 2013) and preparing work sketches for a mural that was not used in the final exhibit design. Other projects he completed include four paintings of dinosaurs published in National Geographic (see Gore 1993), storyboards for the first Jurassic Park movie (directed by Steven Spielberg, 1993), a set of four 25-cent postage stamps (depicting three dinosaurs and a pterosaur) for the U.S. Postal Service (1989), a painting of the dinosaur, Barosaurus, which now accompanies the giant skeleton standing in the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History in New York (see Norell et al 1991), and a small model of a tyrannosaur used on the cover of Ranger Rick (see Duckworth 1993) for an article about John’s work.

John GurcheI worked an early shift. John arrived later (coffee cup in hand) and stayed much later, usually hunched over a small acrylic painting that slowly evolved day by day from dark to light via a tiny, sometimes single-hair brush, on a ¼ inch gessoed, untempered Masonite board, to the tunes of high energy rock music in a space lit only by one small incandescent lamp. He called his work day “going underground” (his answering machine message “I’ve gone underground” was understood by all of his family and friends) and he became generally unreachable during the length of a project by all except his beautiful and intelligent wife, Patti!


> John Gurche painting in Mary Parrish’s studio, Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, circa 1993. Photo by Mary Parrish / courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

The first thing I did every morning before John arrived, was to peek at the progress he had made the night before. Each day, like a photo emerging via the now antiquated darkroom process, John’s small paintings came into focus, until finally, they were crystal clear and photorealistic. John often said it took him four months to do a painting (which included research as well as design and rendering).

NMNH TimelineOne of John’s passions each year was to create a haunted house for Halloween. John garnered the help of practically the entire exhibit staff, and those of us in the Departments of Paleobiology and Anthropology to build ghoulish creations from the spooky detritus of John’s studio, and to act as various scary characters on Halloween night. Lines of enthusiastic trick-or-treaters circled the block near his house every year.

> Tower of Time in the Paleontology Exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution. Photo by Mary Parrish / courtesy Smithsonian Institution.

In 1992, John and Patti moved to Colorado’s Denver Museum of Nature and Science to raise a family. Several years later they moved to Trumansburg, New York, where he is now artist-in-residence at the Paleontological Research Institute’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca.

John infused my department with idealism, creativity, and enthusiasm. He left me with wonderful memories of discussions of art and life, practical knowledge of art techniques, a tiny still life painting signed “John Gurche did not do this” and a very nice parting gift: his used copy of Eadweard Muybridge’s Animals in Motion (see Muybridge 1957). Indeed, it was a time all of us at the museum remember well, and with joy.



Deck, Linda. 1992. The Art in Creating Life in the Ancient Seas. Journal of Natural Science Illustration, Vol. 1, No. 4, pages 1 - 12.

Duckworth, Carolyn, 1993. Time Traveler. Ranger Rick, Vol. 27, No. 5, pages 20 – 26.

Gore, Rick. 1993. Dinosaur. National Geographic, Vol. 183, No. 1, pages 2 – 53.

Gurche, John. 2013. Shaping Humanity. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Muybridge, Eadweard. 1957. Animals in Motion. Edited by Lewis S. Brown, Dover Publications, Inc. New York. 74 pages, 181 plates.

Norell, M., Dingus, L., and Gaffney. Barosaurus on Central Park West, Natural History, December 1991, pages 28 – 38.

Park, Edwards, A Remarkable Tower of Time Tells the Story of Evolution. Smithsonian Magazine, December 1981, pages 99 –114.


This article appears in the Journal of Natural Science Illustration 2014, number 1.

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