Paleontology themed art, like much of today’s new artwork, is increasingly a human and technological collaboration. The few so-called paleo artists who create art without the aid of digital tools are heading the way of the dinosaurs.
One such renowned museum diorama artist who has specialized in prehistoric backdrops for exhibits at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and numerous other North American institutions celebrated his 81st birthday with knee replacement surgery this year.
Nonetheless, Jan Vriesen continues to fulfill commissions for those who value his talent for imagining the distant past, and hand-painting scenes interpreted by geologists and paleontologists.
Vriesen recently completed a pair of paintings depicting a now-famous fossil quarry as it might’ve looked 150 million years ago, and a nearby scene from the Jurassic Morrison Formation as it likely appeared to the dinosaurs that lived there 145 million years ago. In the scenes, plant life is sparse and shallow waterways attract animals to the flat land that later uplifted to form Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.
Geologist Bob Raynolds hired Vriesen to paint the ancient landscapes as a gift to the nonprofit
Friends of Dinosaur Ridge. That organization formed in 1989 to help preserve the fossiliferous sites that inspired the paintings, and to provide educational programs for children and adults.
“Jan’s time travel paintings convey in a very compelling way how drastically places on Earth have changed,” Raynolds said.
The new paintings will be displayed in the Dinosaur Ridge Discovery Center to show visitors what the area was like when gigantic sauropods and smaller meat-eaters populated the area. Jefferson County Open Space acquired Dinosaur Ridge the same year the Interior Department designated the Morrison Fossil Area National Natural Landmark, in 1973.
Vriesen is a Canadian citizen who emigrated from Germany and lives with his wife and pets in Minnesota. A lucky break in the 1970s led him into this niche profession when another artist quit a project at the Royal British Columbia Museum. From there his reputation grew.
A son posts Vriesen’s work on a lovely Instagram account and a website Vriesen has nothing to do with maintaining. “I’m a Neanderthal when it comes to computer work,” Vriesen jokes. “I’ve lost jobs to computers because I can’t compete.”