Book Review: Shaping Humanity

Shaping Humanity book coverGray-bearded John Gurche has been in the paleo-reconstruction business for a long time. His paintings, drawings, and sculptures are featured in numerous books, magazines, and exhibitions in the National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, the Field Museum, National Geographic magazine, Natural History magazine, and The Guild Handbook of Natural Science Illustration (see Hodges 2003, 1989), just to name a few. He teaches and lectures about his work to public and scholarly audiences, including the GNSI.

John, who I consider to be the best in the business, has just published his first book: Shaping Humanity. Now, all of us can begin to understand the technical, scientific, aesthetic, and spiritual travels that take John from the fossil remains to his completed sculpture. Beautifully designed by James Johnson and lavishly illustrated in full color, Shaping Humanity is sure to become a classic in the field of paleo-reconstruction.

Shaping Humanity walks us through the process of reconstructing the fifteen early hominins that John created for the Smithsonian’s Hall of Human Origins which opened at the National Museum of Natural History in March 2010. Six are life-size, full-body bronze sculptures set in mini-environments; eight are color silicon heads (with real hair implanted strand by strand, and handmade acrylic eyes); one is a life-size, full-body color silicon sculpture posed in a diorama.

John’s work on the Hall of Human Origins began in 1984, but progress was stymied for twenty-three years starting in the late 1980s due to lack of funding. Money to complete the hall was eventually obtained through a generous gift from David H. Koch, and work began again in earnest in 2007. During the hiatus, John studied fossils and literature; traveled to Africa; dissected all the living species of great ape (including humans); conversed with experts; fantasized about the lifestyle, personalities, and general gestalt of hominins; and further perfected his sculpting and casting techniques. The results are startlingly realistic and stunningly beautiful.

John tells us about the discovery of the fossil hominin specimens, the scientific literature regarding each species, and the many debates surrounding the interpretation of these fossils. He shares his fact-infused imaginative time travels (“we look into your empty eye sockets and wonder what you saw”); how he made his artistic decisions (“our sense of aesthetics is tailored to nature”); the joys and frustrations of creating art with an exhibit team where his designs were “scrutinized, discussed, augmented, folded, spindled, and mutilated”; his scientific techniques (“My calipers are articulated, warmed and humming, ready to go. We will see what the numbers say.”); and, – to the delight of any artist –, the nuts and bolts of his artistic techniques – bone by bone, muscle by muscle, hair by hair.

John shows us thumbnail sketches he made during regular visits to a coffee shop in his small hometown village of Trumansburg, NY; his jumbled studio of casts, dissected heads, steel armature, and clay; his hard-fought-for-but-nevertheless-rejected designs; his disastrously failed melting sculptures; and his eleventh-hour changes spawned by exciting, but completely disruptive, new scientific discoveries.

Fact, deep curiosity, science-controlled imagination, unending patience, an intense love of hominins -- and a love of organic form itself -- propel the aesthetics of John’s reconstructions. With the publication of this beautiful and long-awaited book, John adds the art of writing to his communication arsenal. What I hope to see next is a new book written and illustrated by John Gurche, on painting.

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