Photos and articles ©2004 the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Monday, March 29, 2004

Museum exhibit reveals sharks old and new

By NICK GEVOCK, Chronicle Staff Writer

About the only thing cooler in artist Ray Troll's eyes than a shark is an ancient shark, the species that went extinct millions of years ago.

And like father like son, Troll's son was fond of sharks.

It seems kids find sharks as fascinating as another toothy critter that gets so much attention from youngsters.

"Kids love sharks about as much as they love dinosaurs," the 50-year-old Troll says. "They're two things they really dig."

So when Troll's son Patrick started learning his ABCs a decade ago, Troll searched for a shark alphabet book. He found plenty of alphabet books about dinosaurs, alphabet books on the Amazon and, yes, an alphabet book about frogs.

But there wasn't one to be found with sharks. A idea was planted in Troll's head.

Such was the genesis of "Sharkabet," Troll's alphabet book of sharks for kids. The book is the subject of a new exhibit on display until Nov. 7 at the Museum of the Rockies that features Troll's original color pencil drawings for the book.

But far from the world's oceans, where sharks are in their natural habitat, the Montana exhibit may seem like a fish out of water, so to speak.

The connection?

Although Montana is well known for its dinosaurs, the Treasure state is also a treasure trove of prehistoric sharks that swam here when the land was covered by a giant inland sea.

Many of the prehistoric sharks in Sharkabet have been found in Montana.

Troll is part artist, part paleontologist and a whole lot of fun. His zany nature is reflected in the book, which includes a shark for each letter of the alphabet, and the exhibit.

The drawings are set up in a room that had every nook painted for the exhibit. On a recent Thursday before the exhibit opened, Troll and museum workers busily dabbed paintbrushes into soda cups filled with paint to prepare the room. Outlines of sharks projected onto the walls were painted over freshly painted walls.

"What you're doing is walking into the wacky world of Ray Troll," Troll says. "It's like you're walking into a drawing."

The book took a decade. Troll didn't just want to draw great white sharks and other well-known species. He combined his interest in paleontology and sharks to research the ancient sharks that swam the world's oceans millions of years ago.

With the help of some of the leading researchers in prehistoric sharks, Troll drew the extinct species, making them look as realistic as possible, he says.

"Even though the art context and the surrealism can get a little goofy, I like to get the critters right," he says.

Despite Troll's efforts to make the prehistoric sharks as authentic as possible, he still finds room for a sense of humor. Some of the drawings have a splash of fantasy thrown in to make them fun for kids.

Paleontologist Jack Horner says although it's difficult to discern exactly what an ancient shark looked like, Troll's drawings are as accurate as possible. But Horner says he's glad Troll sprinkled some fantasy into his drawings.

"It's been slightly cartoonized to make them fun, which I think is great, because younger people are going to be interested it," he says. "If we lose the kids, we lose the most interested people out there."

Dogfish are depicted swimming among a pack of dogs, goblin sharks are set with a bunch of jack-o-lanterns and Troll himself appears in a hospital bed surrounded by nurse sharks. He says at the time he drew the work, he had been training for a marathon and was sure he'd end up hospitalized.

"They're pretty mellow," Troll says of nurse sharks. "They're 14 feet long and they don't eat anybody."

The drawings go on, with Queensland sawfish drifting alongside wood saws, kidney-headed sharks swarming among cans of kidney beans and a zebra shark staring at a -- you guessed it -- zebra inside a tank.

His drawings are all done on black paper, giving them a dark tone with the feeling of the deep ocean.

Troll says the book appeals to older people too. It includes a shark "family tree" showing the evolution of sharks and their relatives, and has more detailed information about each species in the back.

"A guy with a Ph.D. can pick it up and learn something," Troll says.

The exhibit mirrors the book. Walking in sequence from A to Z, the paintings take viewers through the world of sharks, both ancient and those still lurking the deep.

Among the "dinosaurs" of sharks are megalodon, a 60-foot behemoth of a shark that "ate whales for breakfast," Troll says. Then there's Troll's favorite ancient shark, helicoprion, a aberrant beast with a lower jaw shaped like a circular saw it used to rip into its prey. The shark never lost its teeth, unlike most sharks.

"This is the only animal to ever cheat the tooth fairy," Troll says.

The strangest prehistoric sharks were drawn without any extras because Troll says "some critters are so bizarre, you don't need the goof factor."

Among Montana's prehistoric sharks is Iniopterygians, an incredibly exotic-looking group of sharks that sported wing-like fins just behind the head. Troll says some scientists speculate they could fly.

"How cool is that, flying sharks from Montana," Troll says.