The Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda is staging the first solo exhibit of the work of University of Chicago paleoartist Tyler Keillor through June 26 at 27277 N. Forest Preserve Road. He also will present a slide lecture titled “From Fossils to Flesh” at 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 4 at the museum.
The exhibit ranges from Keillor’s childhood drawings in Magic Marker on notebook paper, depicting dinosaurs and monsters battling with volcanoes erupting in the background, to the flesh-model reconstructions and displays of prehistoric creatures discovered by paleontologists at UChicago and elsewhere. Keillor’s longstanding fascination with prehistoric natural history serves as the exhibit’s common thread.
Keillor studied art and filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago. “I wanted to do movie special effects, and so that’s where I learned a lot of the principles of mold-making, casting, sculpting, painting, creating illusions for films,” he said.
Although he took some science classes, it was a subject he mostly pursued on the side. “I’d collect books, watch documentaries, just try to keep updated with news and discoveries as they were happening.”
In the early 1990s he worked at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in the wig and makeup department, applying sideburns, bruises and other theatrical touches to cast members. He also helped local filmmakers produce commercials, industrial films and low-budget horror films.
Tasting the entertainment industry
It gave him a small taste of the entertainment industry, enough to generally satisfy what he termed “my adolescent quest to do this. And all that time my interest in science and dinosaurs was still there.”
His next job, working in a dental laboratory, foreshadowed the work that he would later do in the UChicago fossil lab. For two years he worked under a microscope, crafting precisely fitted porcelain crowns, bridges and implants for dental patients.
In January 1999, Keillor began a two-year stint in the Field Museum’s exhibit department. The museum was preparing Sue the Tyrannosaurus rex for exhibition. Keillor helped prepare the display base for Sue’s skeleton but also built a miniature model so that the exhibit’s designers could see how the posed dinosaur would look in Stanley Field Hall on a fractured slab of limestone.
“That was one of my first ventures into paleoart to do a paleontological reconstruction, and it really rekindled a lot of my childhood fascination with dinosaurs,” he said.
Seeking the opportunity to become involved in more such projects, Keillor attended a lecture of UChicago paleontologist Paul Sereno. Keillor introduced himself to Sereno after the lecture and showed him some photographs of his artwork. Several meetings later, Keillor found himself in Sereno’s fossil lab, helping to clean some of the many fossils that had recently shipped from an African expedition.
Learning fossil prep
“I learned fossil preparation under the lab manager, Bob Masek, who showed me how to clean the fossils,” Keillor said. “Luckily my work at the dental laboratory had prepared me a little bit for the detailed, meticulous work that’s done under a microscope to clean fossils.”
Over the years Keillor has adapted his previous experience to the needs of the fossil lab.
“First he picked up fossil preparation, and he picked it up slowly but surely, and he’s gotten to be one of the best in the world at that,” said Sereno, who has an undergraduate background in art. Then Keillor moved into Sereno’s casting and molding lab to make jointed models of the fossils.
“You can do everything under the sun in my lab with fossils,” Sereno said. “We need to prepare fossils, but if you have the talents to do something else when that opportunity arises, then we bring you into that picture as well.”
Keillor also has collaborated with other paleontologists at UChicago and elsewhere. He worked with Neil Shubin, the Robert R. Bensley Professor in Organismal Biology & Anatomy, on a reconstruction of Tiktaalik roseae. Announced in 2006, the new species filled an evolutionary gap between fish and land animals.
Keillor also has worked with two of Sereno’s former students, Jeff Wilson, PhD’99, now at the University of Michigan; and Chris Sidor, PhD’00, now at the University of Washington. In 2005, Sidor announced his discovery of a new species of prehistoric amphibian, Saharastega moradiensis. The creature’s skull now is on display next to Keillor’s flesh model at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle.
Last year Wilson announced his discovery of a new species of prehistoric snake in India, Sanajeh indicus, coiled in a nest of eggs laid by a longneck dinosaur. “I collaborated with Jeff to rebuild that scene as a diorama showing the moment just before those animals were preserved — probably in a flash flood — that buried them right in their places just as this big dinosaur had hatched from its egg and the snake was about to strike it,” Keillor said.
The Discovery Museum’s hours are 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $6 for adults ($3 for seniors 55 and up) and $2.50 for children ages 4 to 17. Admission for Keillor’s May for talk is $7 for Lake County residents, $9 for non-residents.