Project History

How did we get here?

This project started out much, much smaller than where it ended. It initiated as a simple idea, included as the outreach portion of my NSF CAREER Award back in late 2017, meant to be a "Life through Time" coloring book, geared towards elementary school kids in an effort to teach them about the immense history of animal life revealed by the fossil record. The coloring book was to accompany fossil kits highlighting some of the most important fossils in the state of Missouri. Along with my graduate students, we would have been taking these kits and books into schools around Columbia for the kids to learn with the fossils and leave with the coloring books – and hopefully illustrating the importance of the link between the science of paleontology and zoological art in order to visualize extinct animals of the past. I thought it was a great plan... But then COVID happened. And I wasn't going anywhere, let alone into any elementary school classroom. With limited timelines on using grant funding, and the need for having something that could move forward in the new COVID atmosphere, I felt that I needed to adjust and to do so quickly. While the motivation was clear, I'm not sure exactly where the inspirative spark came from, whether from any of the numerous versions of time-scale art we've all seen previously or from the full-color version of the ICS Time Scale I have hanging in poster form in my office, but I remember emailing Stacy Turpin Cheavens, MU's scientific illustrator and who I had tagged to lead the coloring book art, to see if she'd be keen to flip this from a "let's bring it to them" art piece instead to a "let's bring them to us" permanent installment. And the mural idea was born.

Design & Preparation

I'd be lying if I said that the design and preparation efforts were a breeze. They weren't, at least for me. After discussing a broad-scale overview – from having the mural be a continuous scene traversing a shoreline (and the animals around it) through time, to having each Period's width scaled to its duration, and to using monochromatic color families referenced to each official Period color from the ICS, Stacy and I solicited input from the wealth of paleontology graduate and undergraduate students in my Department. Nearly everyone suggested that we be sure to include fossil groups that the Department's paleo faculty actually work on, which became an excellent starting point to begin framing out Period panel ideas. 

While an exceptional artist, Stacy had never done a mural before, and so she spent countless hours watching tutorials on YouTube and then paraphrasing what she learned in emails to me so that we could make a supplies list and gameplan. We decided to use primered polytab for the medium, which made it easier to hang, manipulate, and project the initial drawings for scaling-up. After spending hours at the local Sherwin Williams trying to color-match printouts of the ICS scale (maybe not surprising to many of you, but certainly to us, RGB or hex codes don't translate directly to paint mixers) and sometimes settling on a color just because of its name (for example, could we find a better color for the Ediacaran than SW's "Butterfield"? No, absolutely not!), Stacy and several enthusiastic students took to mixing the monochromatic palettes and beginning the monumental task of painting each panel. Meanwhile, I cut out sections of flooring-grade plywood following templates we had made from melamine. These would serve as the backing where we'd later glue each polytab panel.

Nearly two years of pretty consistent work later, and we have a (if I do say so myself) gorgeous installation that showcases the interface between science and art – and I think that was one of my primary goals at the onset even in my CAREER proposal. More importantly, this is an installation that will hopefully serve as a draw for local students of all ages to our building, engage them both during outreach events that we host and passively through the digital interface of an associated touchscreen, and will outlast anything else I could have done with my outreach goals. I would be delighted to walk you through the finished product if you are able to come see it in-person.

-Jim Schiffbauer