A Brush With Life:
Charles R. Knight's artwork
offers a glimpse into the prehistoric world
By Michelle J. Mills, Staff Writer, Sunday, July 18, 2004
The Bengal tiger's eyes seem to look right at you as he prepares to feast on a freshly killed peacock. You almost shiver as a fluffy mammoth trudges through swirling snow.
These are just two of the lifelike works in the exhibit "Charles R. Knight: Bringing Fossils to Life," on display at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.
Knight is recognized as the first artist to depict prehistoric animals interacting in their environments. He spoke with scientists and studied animal behaviors firsthand in order to make his work as accurate as possible. But to truly understand the monumental task he faced, a visit to the museum should start at the beginning -- Pit 91.
The smell of a freshly paved road fills the air surrounding the huge hole where people work. This is Pit 91, the world's only Ice Age paleontological dig in the middle of a bustling city. At the bottom, volunteers are bent over one section of the black lake of ooze. They work with small tools, chipping away for hours at the dense asphalt for its treasures.
The bones peeking up through the mire are the remains of a ground sloth, a saber-toothed tiger and a bison, said John Harris, chief curator at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits.
A space, divided into a grid, is excavated 1 foot deep and then the workers move to the next square. The digging is only done for three months during the summer and, despite the slow-going, approximately 1,000 bones are collected each year, Harris said.
There are many minute specimens as well, so every ounce of asphalt dug out must be cleaned and identified by workers in the museum's laboratory. From there, everything is labeled and filed into bins and boxes in a storage area for further study and use.
The goo doesn't only yield fossilized birds and beasts, but plant matter as well, which brings us to the new park site.
Nature today is not all that different than it was 10,000 to 40,000 years ago. With the findings from Pit 91, Page Museum researchers have been able to re-create a collection of living mini-landscapes of the past.
One may quickly recognize the tall redwood trees and other plants which represent the deep canyon area. There is also a coastal sage scrub section with many drought-tolerant plants you often see in a Mediterranean locale. Tall green leaves, lush grasses and a small stream invoke the riparian area or meadowlands.
Stand quietly and you can almost hear the rustle of leaves from a dire wolf peeking out at you or the soft solid steps of a horse looking for lunch.
The Page procured the plants for this exhibit from a variety of sources, including the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden in Claremont. It will be completed by fall with a mural backdrop and a bustle of chaparral just across the footpath.
LOCKED IN STONE
At the entrance to the Page Museum there is a carving depicting the Pleistocene era, in which saber-tooths prowl, mammoths stomp and sloths lumber along. The work is a stone replica of one of Charles R. Knight's La Brea Tar Pits murals. Knight is considered one of the foremost artists of both prehistoric and contemporary animals.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1874, Knight loved nature and began drawing animals at 5 or 6 years old. At age 6, a playmate threw a stone which struck him in the eye, severely damaging his cornea. Knight also had an astigmatism, which, combined with the accident, left him legally blind. Wearing thick glasses, he continued to follow his interest, even though he was forced to keep his face close to his work in order to see what he was doing.
At age 12, Knight attended the Metropolitan Art School. He later worked as an illustrator for children's books and as a freelance magazine illustrator. Throughout this time, he continued studying animals at the zoo, as well as in the taxidermy department of the American Museum of Natural History. He also visited zoos and museums throughout Europe.
Finally, he met Henry Fairfield Osborne, a paleontologist who wanted to take fossils out of the back rooms where they were only used for scientists' reference and put them into exhibits for the public. Recruiting scientist William Matthew, the three worked together to mount the skeletons into lifelike poses for display.
In 1898, Osborne asked banker J.P. Morgan to finance watercolors and sculptures of prehistoric animals by Knight for display in the museum. Copies of these works were made available to schools.
Knight was also interested in botany and used foliage found in Florida, especially palm trees, to represent the plants in his Ice Age works.
Knight published four books, "Before the Dawn of History" (1935), "Life Through the Ages" (1946), "Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists" (1947) and "Prehistoric Man: The Great Adventure" (1949).
He devoted his later years to his family, including a memorable summer at Woods Hole on Cape Cod with his wife and his son and his family.
Knight's granddaughter, Rhoda Knight Kalt, has only returned to Woods Hole once after her grandfather's death.
"I had such fond memories, that when he died, I felt I could never go back," she said.
Kalt has loaned many of the items in the exhibit to the museum, and some of the artwork has not been on display for 15 years.
"Except at my home," she laughs, adding that she has given several gifts to the Page Museum, including the original Rancho La Brea painting. "I feel my grandfather would want this to be its home."
Among the memories Kalt is sharing is a pocket watch Knight's father had handed down to him, a palette with paint still on it and Knight's wallet and gold griffin ring, which he designed.
Kalt's favorite work on display is "Tiger and Peacock." Knight painted it at the Bronx Zoo and it is considered his finest big cat work. George Kunz, gemologist for Tiffany, thought so much of the painting that he wanted to build an entire building around it.
Kalt has much admiration for Knight, not only as her adoring grandfather, but as an artist. He refused to create art just to please the public or a benefactor if it wasn't scientifically correct, Kalt said.
"He tried to do everything as scientifically as possible," Kalt said.
Knight's artistic talents were not inherited by Kalt, although she appreciates the arts and creativity in many fields. He did, however, instill in his granddaughter a love for all creatures.
"I have a passion for animals," Kalt said.
Knight's work has sparked dreams in many people, leading them into careers in fields such as paleontology, animal research and art. One success story belongs to Mark Hallett, a paleoartist and sculptor who has five works on display in the Page Museum.
Hallett lives in Salem, Oregon, with his wife, Turi, and their dog, Bessie, and cats, Ava and Charlotte. He grew up in Arcadia and lived in Pasadena before making the move northwest.
When he was 4 years old, Hallett had his first prehistoric animal book and it was illustrated by Knight. The creatures looked so real to him, that his father had to explain that they were not alive anymore, Hallett said.
Knight inspired Hallett to become an artist. He took Knight's ways of approaching his work to heart and followed his belief that you must understand the animal you are illustrating inside and out, as well as its behavior.
Hallett has been a professional paleoartist for 30 years and donated his first work, a prehistoric seabird, to the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, where it now hangs.
"I love what I'm doing. It combines creativity and intelligence," Hallett said.