What Went Down in Pittsburgh! : SVP 2010 (Part 1)

Posted by Nima On Sunday, November 7, 2010 8 comments

Hello Paleo-fans! It's been a while, but here's the news: Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) was excellent. I had been planning to go to to the October SVP convention in Pittsburgh for several months. And since getting back of course I had to write the story (with certain stylistic liberties). So here's the first installment of my crazy SVP Pittsburgh adventure. Enjoy!

Saturday October 9:

I got to John Wayne airport at 7:00 in the morning, and reached the terminal gate roughly half an hour later. I was tired before the plane had even prepared for takeoff, so I tried to keep awake by writing a list of who I wanted to meet and what sessions I wanted to attend. Horner's crew were, for obvious reasons, undoubtedly high on the list, but so were the sauropod talks, where my real interests lay. The fact that I had not had time to complete my Andesaurus diagram nagged at me, but I figured this definitely wasn't going to be my last SVP, so anything that didn't go right here would be a lesson in preparation and charisma for the future. The entire room was sleepy and barely lit by the dawn, and the dreary beige of the walls reminded me just how much of a provincial bubble I was leaving behind for a week.

We slowly boarded the plane – a cramped 737 - and I slept for most of the flight. The lady beside me, in the window seat who seemed to need a bathroom break every five minutes, begged to switch seats with me. But the cranky man on the aisle side was not willing to change seats, the result being that I got the prized window seat, while she was wedged in the middle, having to wake up the poor wretch and jostle over his varicose legs for what seemed like fifteen times over the whole flight. Somewhere above Utah, we seemed to hover above a plateau riven with millions of dry stream channels. For some minutes a whiteness covered the rusty brown land – whether low clouds or salt flats I do not know. Then the dark Rockies slowly moved into view. And then a green area of what looked like corn farms, followed by brown ranches for miles and miles. Complete with wooden fences, portable homes, and a bone-white Warren Jeffs-style temple compound. Spooky.

After more mountains and a huge length of additional sleep, we descended into a rather dead and barren flat area which I then realized was Denver. It looked like a patch of Mars, or some other desert planet. Though the alien feel of the Denver airport made this a less strange sight by comparison. One huge monolith contained the control tower and possibly many other structures. The entire area had the feel of space exploration more than an earthly airport. The buildings were NASA meets Lucasfilm, with a good dash of Kubrick thrown in. Denver's airport was a maze of various levels, larger and far more interesting than the John Wayne airport. A plethora of restaurants and shops crowded the duty-free zone. There wasn't much time to catch the next flight and I was starving, so I found the closest good place to eat (or so I thought). It was Wolfgang Puck.

Well... Wolfgang was Pucked. I got a chicken pesto sandwich on whole wheat bread – the chicken turned out to be the “shaved” sort whose actual phylogenic origin is a bit hard to guess, and the pesto was absolute slop which must have had some sort of expired mayo in it. My mischievous wheeled suitcase was getting in the way of every movement. But the air was filled with pheromones of strangers, and devoid of the mind-numbing altitude of jetlag. Soon a voluptuous beauty invaded my line of sight – mercilessly. She was curious as to where I was going since when I asked “which way are the forks” she did not recognize my accent (I was not aware that I had one, but I guess I don't sound like a Denverian). Yet before she had said much of anything, her pencil-necked mannequin friends, both of them married though quite flirty, pulled her away and presented themselves in the best broadway choreographed tease-walk. These gangly stick figures held no appeal for me, nor did the shallow exchange of greetings, not least of all because my sandwich had disappeared by this point and I needed to catch my flight to Pittsburgh.

On this flight things were a bit different. I had a seat next to a mustachioed man who turned out to be a fellow SVPer. And he mentioned that there were at least two others on the same plane. I showed him my art and he liked most of it, but couldn't quite figure out the scene with the "Archbishop" at first (presumably because it was so complicated. The Andesaurus – which I had rushed, in vain, to finish before the conference – scarcely caught his eye. All the same, he was not exclusively a dino-man by any stretch of the imagination. He worked, if I recall correctly, mainly on mammals – especially the oreodonts, an odd group of sheep-sized burrowers, that according to him didn't actually burrow - it looks like his is a minority opinion. But he did occasionally hit a dinosaur back in his early years as a geologist for oil companies. 

Pittsburgh was a beautiful city. I say that with not the slightest hint of sarcasm or irony. Well, sarcasm anyway. The airport was gigantic, and very clean. There was a replica T. rex skeleton, a floor below life-sized models of of George Washington and a Pittsburgh Steelers football player whom I've never heard of, though judging by the perfectly symmetrical and undamaged shape of his head and helmet, he's probably not Roethlisberger.

The T. rex was mounted in a very accurate posture that reflected current thinking, and despite a total lack of opposable digits, was holding black pennants in both hands that said “WELCOME SVP”. I was impressed to say the least. Pittsburgh, as I was to find out, truly valued the contribution of SVP to the city's economy. 

There were something like 5,000 people (and I'm being conservative here) at the convention this year, and my best guess is that all of them were eating out, even those who were locals. Even before getting anywhere near SVP, my eyes were flooded with some very lovely locals indeed.

The terminal section was detached from ground transport by a long stretch of runway, which was only traversible by means of a very fast underground train, in which more than a few tired visitors and sprightly locals lost their footing, among other things. They began to regain their bearings, and resume that awkward gossip that ensues for about five minutes among fellow travelers who know nothing of each other and fear offending the others' social or moral sensibilities, when a man far, far in the back, loudly and angrily bellowing his tears into his cell phone, roused the shushing and disgruntled grimaces of the other passengers. He had been jilted.

The train arrived at the exit section of the airport, and here things got tricky. I had a roommate, Rob Taylor (no relation to British paleontologist Mike Taylor), a pharmaceutical analyst who has a deep avocational interest in paleontology and is involved in Andy Farke's Open Dinosaur Project. He had booked a room in the Quality Inn at University Center near the University of Pittsburgh, a short way from the Westin, where the SVP meeting was actually happening. Ironically, Quality Inn seemed to be the only major hotel chain that had no courtesy shuttle to Pittsburgh International, as it appeared nowhere on the shuttle directory in the main shuttle terminal. Not cool. And the information desk at the ground transport section was empty. Half an hour passed until I finally saw a person in an airport staff uniform walk by – a huge bearded man with a face both long and heavy, resembling both Rossini and Rothstein in equal measure. The first thing I asked him was “I'm looking for a shuttle to my hotel, I just came from Denver”. He said “just look over there for your shuttle on the wall directory”. The guy's voice was pure Brooklyn, though whether Jewish or Italian was hard to tell. I explained that I had already looked at that directory and my hotel's shuttle wasn't even listed. “What the hell – get a new hotel! Haha wait a second kid – here's what you gotta do: go down to stop # 8 where all those buses is comin' from, see that? Well that's where you can ask the shuttles or the bus if they goes to your place”.

Stop # 8 was a minute's walk away, and with my suitcase wheeling behind me, I got there in time to notice a young guy, probably even younger than me, waiting for a bus. I asked him if there's a shuttle that goes to the University Center area. He replied, in a very thick Indian accent, that there were no such shuttle unless you wanted to pay for one and call them, but there was a bus, bus 28X, which did go to that part of the city. Without time to ask anything more, I noticed a bus with “28X” flashing in its digital display and got on. Everyone busted out their two dollars. I only had 10s and 20s on me, and none of the passengers had enough change to break a 10. I asked the driver if he had change, and his response was to the point: “don't even worry about it, just get on. Save it for your tab with the bartender tonight!”. This was the east coast chill pill that high-strung southern California needs so bad. I hadn't gotten away with a free bus ride since my Maryland days – you just CAN'T pull off this kind of stuff in Orange County. 

The bus went through a long and at times circuitous route. Before getting into Pittsburgh proper, it stopped nearly a hundred times in the towns to the west with odd names like Rosslyn Farms. Pittsburgh International Airport is actually very far outside of Pittsburgh itself. As the bus wound through old mining towns recently turned into community college showpieces barely covering up century-old ruins of steel mill foundations and old bridges, it stopped nearly every couple of minutes and then sped off, not always with new passengers.

As we actually entered Pittsburgh, the lights shone in a massive panoply of colors, skyscrapers lit bright blue by the show. Crossing over a bridge, the bus headed toward Boulevard of the Allies, a major street that eventually ran by the Quality Inn. But it quickly departed from this path, and went through the city for the better part of an hour. It was turning dark and the bus itself was freezing like outside. I asked the driver if we were getting close to the hotel. He smirked and said wait a bit longer. Some time later he said “this is it; turn right and keep going past the MacGee Women's hospital till you get to the hotel, it will be on your left”. Freezing and shivering, I jumped off, dragging my suitcase with me.

The street going to the hotel quickly turned ugly. It had the hospital on the right, and a row of dilapidated – no, make that absolutely trashy – houses on the left. The whole place began to look ghetto very fast. And soon I came across boarded-up houses with warning signs “smokers stay off this property – take your butts to MacGee!”. The said smokers soon popped up, and seemed to pay no attention to me, though I noticed that the smoke was not all coming from tobacco. They weren't particularly friendly-looking, but not hostile either, and in any case, they were far too stoned to put up much of a fight. Finally at the end of the street, things changed once again to the bare margins of a college city, with the Quality Inn coming into view, with its seven-times-repaved patchwork of asphalt parking lots. I crossed and checked into the hotel, which was conveniently attached to a Panera restaurant.

I called Rob and then found my room, where he was already waiting. We went to Panera for dinner and then returned to the hotel room - two queen beds, a shower, and a few desks and chairs. It was getting late, but we did have a chance to get to know each other and talk about SVP and dinosaurs, and it turned out that he had a massive database of dinosaur information on his laptop. It must have had a massive load of spyware too, because it sometimes took four minutes to load a single file, and he was already asleep before I had been able to look at much.

Sunday, October 10:

I awoke early in the morning to the sound of loud stomping outside and the freezing air of the AC unit. Time to get to SVP in earnest! After a quick breakfast at Panera, Rob and I drove to the Westin Hotel, and across the street we parked in a huge structure where your parking passes were gobbled up by indoor machines resembling huge red beehives. Then we crossed the cold street into the Westin, and up the escalators to SVP itself.

The Westin was gigantic, and had several sections. There was a covered bridge that crossed the street to connect with the actual convention center out back. This was a massive building, which had an unusual hangar-like area inside, and whose roof was apparently held up by giant hexagonal bundles of steel cables which recalled the city's Carnegian past, but were probably far younger. A few floors up in an elevator, and we were in the convention hall. The elevator groaned like a bad case of indigestion, but for some unknown reason the stairs were “off limits”.

 (...not inside that mammal room, anyway... there was no research being presented outside in the main hall. Don't you just love zoom lenses?)

Once in the actual hall, it seemed as if all of SVP was there. The hall was very wide, clean, and crowded with paleontologists, graduate students, paleo-enthusiasts, and confused-looking Star Trek fans who seemed to be on the wrong floor. We got our registration name tags and then went inside the main lecture hall for the first talk of the day. It was a cavernous, pitch-black seminar hall, barely illuminated by hundreds of evenly spaced lights on the smooth foam ceiling. There could conceivably have been a Donald Trump real estate seminar held there the previous or the next week.

The first few talks seemed to go very well. They ranged on a number of topics, from horned dinosaurs to mammals to sedimentation. Most were only 10 minutes long. But after the first five talks or so, a funny thing began to happen. The room started getting extremely cold. FREEZING cold. I had a long-sleeve shirt but had left my jacket in the hotel. The room started getting far colder than even the outside weather had been. So I was left with the painful choice of missing the lectures to get some measure of heat, or staying, taking in the information, and freezing even more. Once the lectures got to basal proto-dinosaurs, I could no longer take it and I left the room. The main hall outside turned out to be little better. After about 15 minutes of trying to cool down (and frictioning the hell out of my shirtsleeves) I went back in, at which point there were two talks left.

After these, I left with Rob and Tracy Ford (yes, the Tracy Ford – the man's a genius I tell you!) as well as dino-sculptor Bruce Woollatt and his roommate Kris Kripchak, and we went off to lunch at a nearby pizza place. It was around noon and the sun had warmed the air outside the building considerably. I began to joke that a creationist or catastrophist technician in the building had turned on the AC to an obnoxiously high level to make life difficult for all the paleo-people in the main lecture hall. 

Downtown Pittsburgh had an eclectic feel, part San Francisco, part Baltimore. The area near our restaurant was surrounded with shops and Italian dinner places crowded with avant-garde and new age decorations and themed posters. The pizza restaurant itself was a crowded, hot, greasy sort of place, with seats and tables far too small, but very fast service. The owner talked faster than a speeding bullet, and like an auctioneer gave us the prices of every pizza in a single breath. We bought our pizza slices and sat down, gulping large sodas and talking about Jack Horner and Torosaurus between bites. 

 Rob Taylor (left) and Tracy Ford (right).

Our next stop was the Carnegie Museum, where Greg Paul was scheduled to give a talk and promote his new book, The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs. It didn't appear to be an event directly sponsored by SVP, but Paul had, it seemed, booked an auditorium inside the museum for this purpose. I had met Greg Paul for about 90 minutes back in 1998 in Baltimore, and I was very curious to see what his new ideas and research were. I had not actually bought his previous books, and the only one I had seriously had a chance to look at was Predatory Dinosaurs of the World.

 A better T. rex painting, there has never been!

We bought tickets and then left the museum. What transpired immediately next is of no benefit to the reader. Then, after a spell, we reached the Westin again, and Bruce Woollatt invited us up to his hotel room to see his scale model of a T. rex skeleton. Bruce had made plenty of paper-mache models of full-body dinosaurs, but this was the first skeleton he was sculpting. Bruce can best be described as fanatically dedicated to accuracy – a camera salesman by day, a sculptor by night, he literally had a computer-like brain capable of processing photographs of skulls into CT-scan-like 3D schematics with precise slices of uniform thickness. He then drew the outlines of these slices onto sheets of balsa wood or some other lightweight wood, and then cut them out and glued them together. With his T. rex he had drawn these slices in lateral profile, but for previous dinosaurs he often did them in front-view slices, and more than a few times he had sculpted larger-scale models in foam, notably a Parasaurolophus which used the primary color scheme made popular by John Sibbick's portrait of the beautiful beast.

Meanwhile, Bruce's roommate Kris showed me his copy of Greg Paul's other new book, simply known as “Gregory S. Paul's Dinosaur Coffee Table Book”. As you might guess from its name, it's full of huge color reproductions of his paintings. Kris had mixed feeling about this book – he had bought it early expecting it to be nothing short of the hype – a “collected works” of the artist. But many of Greg Paul's most well-known paintings were either poorly reproduced (in grainy pixels), were harshly criticized by the artist himself in the text when he did not have an updated version due to having sold the original (Greg Paul's fiercest critic has always been Greg Paul), or were not in the book at all. What was in there was still very impressive, and showed the extreme talent of the artist – but the price made me balk. Kris had paid something on the order of $130 for this book, and it was not very thick for its price. I had read reviews of this book on Amazon that pointed out the high cost of the book, was due to the fact that it was “on-demand publishing”. Paul had put it together on his own dime, and as a result the overhead cost was astronomical, the lack of a big publisher also meant far less capital for promotion and a difficulty in producing efficient returns to scale, hence the big price per unit (I'm an economics guy, for those of you who don't know). The cover, a green Astrodon from his herd painting which had graced the Maryland Science center back in 2000, superimposed on a white background, was broken into garish seasick pixel squares rather than the smooth beautiful detail of the original. I had seen the painting in person, and this cover was miles from doing justice to it. Overhead costs...

Bruce spun around and opened a box which contained parts of his newest work, the T. rex skeleton. Bruce's T. rex was not yet complete – he had constructed the head, arms, feet, and some leg elements. A number of the bones were not entirely made of balsa slices, but of sheet cardboard, bulked out with papier-mache.

Everything that he had completed, had full articulation in every single joint – including the toes. However, the perfect articulation in his model had one downside – all of these joints were loose and probably would not be able to hold up the finished skeleton. I suggested using double wires in some joints to stabilize them, or at least some white glue in the hinged joints. He asked me on the way down to the lobby if there were other alternatives. “Yes, I can think of one more – Kotobukiya “yellow submarine” ball joints. Search for them online, many hobby companies carry them. They're very strong and perfect for building models. Usually they're used for customizing Japanese plastic robot models like gundams, but they can work for scratch-built models too”. He wrote this down as I said it. The elevators in the Westin were covered inside with gilded wire twisted into an art-deco pattern which popped out in optical illusions that, in Bruce's words, were too nauseatingly painful to look at.

A few hours later, we returned to Carnegie, ready for the talk. I took photographs of the replica skeleton of “Jane”, the juvenile T. rex, on display in one of the main halls. Finding the actual auditorium proved tedious as we had not scouted out the museum beforehand. We went through several exhibit halls, which featured dinosaurs, marine reptiles, and cenozoic mammals. Still no luck. Eventually we reached a sunken entrance to a narrow hallway with a poster showing Greg Paul's book. This was it! On the other end of the hall was the side entrance to the auditorium, an older room with art-deco design, white vaudeville-style handrails, and plush red seats worthy of the finest old Hollywood silent theater. Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford were nowhere to be seen, but Errol Flynn took his place at the front row, unpretentiously stealing the attention of more than a few giggling beauties on the way down.

An old bald man sat behind a desk on the stage, on which was piled a pile of copies of the new book. This was not Greg Paul - just the guy he had hired to sell some of the books and collect the money. Bruce already had a copy and showed me – it was impressive. Lots of skeletals all over the pages. But most of the color illustrations were not paintings – they were a new set of color pencil sketches, which by their very nature are doomed to be on the fainter side of things. They were not bad, not by a long shot – but being used to the extreme level of color and detail in Greg Paul paintings, these sketches literally paled by comparison. There were skeletals of plenty of new dinosaurs that I had never seen before, but sadly some Greg Paul skeletals I had seen before were missing. Brachiosaurus altithorax and Argentinosaurus among them.

A couple of minutes later the lights darkened, and an elderly lady stepped out onto the stage. She announced Greg Paul, and thanked him for making this appearance and for having changed the face of dinosaur art and science forever. Then the man himself slowly came into view. He began by talking about the origins of his artistic pursuits in childhood, which included not just dinosaurs but airplanes, whales and sinking ships from a very young age. What's odd is that I too used to draw the same things as a kid... maybe a bit less of the airplanes, but overall similar stuff. Then Greg got to the meat of the talk.... his work as a freelance illustrator and paleontologist. Greg is not a PhD professor, nor did he graduate from a prestigious Ivy League university – he made his name in paleontology by sheer drive and dedication. Freelancing as a profession is straining and uncertain as a source of income, and the wear showed on his face, which now lacked most of the massive Bakkerian beard he sported in the 80s. In Baltimore, he still inhabits the same small apartment as over a decade ago when I met him. A truly dedicated man who taught himself largely from scratch whatever he did not pick up from Robert Bakker's anatomy classes and art school.

If anyone can take credit for changing the “look” of dinosaurs from plodding cold-blooded reptiles to fast, active and colorful warm-bloods, it's him. Bakker supplied most of the science, Greg Paul made the art. He talked at length about the black-and-white skeletal drawings, and how he popularized but did not invent this mode of fossil illustration. He also went into the “life histories” of many of his early restorations of popular dinosaurs, and how he edited them through several versions over the years – especially Deinonychus and Giraffatitan. A new twist was his revisiting of some old never-before-published color pencil scenes, updating them to include in the new book. These were actually pretty impressive, far more so than the drab color pencil profiles which accompanied many of the skeletals in the book.

Then things got a big more twisted. Halfway through the diplodocid sauropods, he commented on how little we actually know about most dinosaurs: “You know that crazy new paper about Amphicoelias brontodiplodocus that just came out? Well I'm sorry to say this – but actually, I'm afraid those guys are kind of right. We know so little for certain about the relationships of the diplodocids that all the original type specimens for all these species could be from the same animal, and we wouldn't even know it. Now the referred specimens of diplodocidae are generally a lot more complete and are indeed from several different genera, but we don't really KNOW that these are the same animals as the type material of the genus and species they have each been assigned to. The type specimen of Apatosaurus is made of such bad material it's not even diagnostic! We should actually go back to using Brontosaurus as a genus name instead, since Brontosaurus excelsus is known from much better material. Yet Apatosaurus is given precedence because it's the older name, but the type material for that name isn't good enough to tell if this is the same animal as “Brontosaurus” or not... the type specimen for Diplodocus is just some chevrons! They could be from anything, yet they were the first double-beamed chevrons found so they got a new and unique name.”

Things got even weirder. He started presenting ceratopsians – all of centrosaurinae was lumped into Centrosaurus (yes, even Pachyrhinosaurus and Achelousaurus were sunk), and by the time he got to chasmosaurinae, I'm sure you can all guess where he was going with Triceratops and Torosaurus. It was truly a shock to behold on the faces of those present that Horner's theory had swayed one of the Dinosaur Renaissance's leading lights. Indeed maybe that's an understatement of credit – Paul had actually out-Hornered Horner. Half of ceratopsidae had been sunk into one genus! Blasphemy I tells ye, blasphemy!

All the same, Greg's expose` of the messy scientific history of some of the best-loved dinosaurs was eye-opening. And a lot of the material in the book was brand new and very impressive.

The talk finished after about an hour or so, and then we approached the stage and those of us without a book in our hands rushed, many with more fervor than members of a self-help cult, to buy a copy and get it signed – which Greg was more than ready to do, having taken a seat behind the desk.

I got my copy, and got it signed too. Greg asked “what would you like me to write?” Odd, since I had met him before. - Shocker - he didn't remember me. He wrote what I requested and signed. A haphazard signature not much like the smooth flowing one he puts on his art. And he hadn't signed many of the books yet. His gaze seemed to flit about and avoid my eyes as much as everyone else's. “It's me, Nima... we met in 1998, I visited you and we talked about dinosaurs and paleontology for 90 minutes – remember? You gave me a bunch of big skeletals and told me that the best thing to do for a career in paleontology was to take a lot of math, get good grades, never top drawing and learning about dinosaurs, get in touch with museums...”

“Hmm, sounds like pretty standard advice” he said blankly while staring down at the desk. So much for reunions... It seems like he saw just another fan. A fan blocking the way of other fans who wanted to get their copies signed. I had no choice but to move on. I had a hard time believing this was the same person. The heavily bearded Greg Paul whose picture appeared in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World seemed an imposing and adventurous figure, as well as a scholarly one - two parts Bakker, one part Rasputin, one part president James Garfield - a face which you would not forget and that likewise would not forget you. In 1998, at least to my memory of the event, a trace of that incisive appearance and authoritative presence still remained. The real man in 2010... what can I say?

“I was a bit underwhelmed” said Rob. “I'd like to disagree there” I replied. “But I can't...I actually met him long ago myself, and I remembered him being, well, a lot more confident and present.” What I didn't mention was that Paul also was a man possessed of a lightning-fast wit and a force to be reckoned with in a scientific debate, and wouldn't fear to tear his opponents a new one in print and in person.

“I get what you mean,” said Rob. “Honestly it looks like he's suffering from burnout. Maybe it was all the pressure of making this book... he just seems really tired and worn”. These are all impressions of course - we did not know anything about the actual process Greg had gone through to prepare the book, let alone what his feelings on it were. All the same we had no excuse to complain – we got our signed copies of the beautifully illustrated book, which is really what we came for.

We headed back to the Westin with Bruce and Tracy, and spend the rest of the afternoon in the poster hall at the SVP convention. On the way up, the elevator groaned horribly, making everyone inside uneasy. There were a lot of posters up, and the hall was packed with a who's who of paleontology's leading researchers. Tom Holtz was there, as was Jim Kirkland. I didn't see Bakker no matter how hard I looked, and after asking some folks whose names I did recognize, pretty much got the unanimous answer that he wasn't attending this year. There were plenty of graduate students there as well as PhDs, and many of them were presenting posters of their current research projects to all who would stop by and listen. There were also tables piled high with such delightful finger foods as Carr's biscuits and gorgonzola cheese – all provided by SVP. There was some dinosaur material in the posters, but the vast majority seemed to be on extinct mammals, fish, and amphibians. The bulk of the dinosaur research posters, I soon found out from an Aussie grad student, would be up later in the week. There was no shortage of pretty female grad students, a shock that facted both myself and no doubt many other guys who were there.

There were, in addition to professors, students, and lifelong enthusiasts, several paleo-related businesses running booths and desks. Fossil casters, field tool manufacturers and distributors, groups organizing fossil fieldtrips and preparation workshops, some of them university-affiliated.

Eventually after a few hour of the poster sessions, people began packing up, and we all got onto the coach buses that were parked out front by the hotel. This was our ride to the Carnegie Museum for the night, paid for by SVP. I took a seat near the front. Close by were Tracy, Scott Hartman, Tom Holtz, and several fish paleontologists. Ken carpenter was some distance further. 

At the museum we got off and followed the newly set up signs, once again past Jane, and into a hall that led to a gigantic room fit for royalty. Its green marble pillars stretched up two very tall stories to support a vaulted ceiling covered in gilded bronze. The floor and walls all glistened with the same polished shine, and at the very far end of the room, was a seated bronze statue of Andrew Carnegie himself. This room literally dated back to his time, and was probably used by him as a reception hall for wealthy patrons and trustees of the museum. And perhaps as something of a philanthropic throne room.

All around were tables with caterers serving food and drinks. Aside from them, there was not a single person present who did not have an SVP name tag. Rob and I both got some pretty good salad and pasta (the rest of the food there was a downright terrible mishmash of unrecognizable meats, puddings, bean pastes and purees jumbled together in what was supposedly a European casserole of some sort) and then we looked for a table to take a seat. There we ran into a lady who vascillated between stories of having her research published and not published... we also met Peter Galton, a veteran of paleontology and evolutionary biology, a colleague of Bakker from across the pond, whose British accent was as precise as it was shocking to our ears in pronunciation of paleo-jargon. From him Rob and I heard our first mention of “skeLEETals” and “Keratopsians”, which sparked a burning discussion that lasted the rest of our stay in Pittsburgh: how ARE all of these scientific paleo-terms supposed to be pronounced? Di-PLOD-o-cus? Or Die-plo-DOCK-us? Isk-i-um, or Ish-ium? Pachy-rhino-SAUR-us or Pachy-rhinoceros?

Also present was Ralph Chapman, head of the Applied Morphometrics lab at the Smithsonian, and a major player in the world of paleontology, a 3D computer modeling expert well as an avid paleo-art collector. Rob had earlier told me about him – “one of the few rich people in paleontology,” he apparently had several  business interests both inside and outside of paleontology, and had long been involved in not just professional dinosaur research, but in teaching and mentoring many of today's top paleontologists – they looked to him much like a kung fu master, with every bit the same level of reverence for his wisdom. He took one look at my art and concluded it was of extremely high quality, the only strike being a lack of paintings. He proceeded to tell me of his very close friendship with Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger, and suggested we should meet up with them after dinner in the dinosaur hall to discuss my art in detail.

Ralph Chapman

Chapman then proceeded to tell me about his friendships and contacts with other big names in paleo-art. Mark Hallett. Douglas Henderson. Brian Franczak. Donna Braginetz. David Peters. Larry Felder. Stephen Czerkas. Michael Skrepnick. Lukas Panzarin. The works. Most of these artists were not at the convention, so I got a rare sneak peek at the personalities behind the names through Chapman's vivid storytelling. Being the naughty inquisitive person that I am, I politely asked about anything and everything that hinted of rivalry and controversy. What I heard from Chapman that night, was downright damning of several artists whom I had formerly admired, and the specifics of it shall never be leaked - at least not until all guilty parties have fallen through death's door. A certain troika of them had plotted to ruin all the rest, to get in good with museums and monopolize all possible opportunities for paleoartists – murals, book deals, commission work. A long chain of marginalizing and badmouthing other artists had followed. Chapman, who believed in honesty and fair dealing in all aspects of the paleo-sphere, was appalled and evidently did not get along very well with the offenders. Two of them retreated from the paleo-community and became somewhat isolated, though they do publish their work in books every now and then. One shunned other artists altogether and will no longer have anything to do with them should any come knocking at his Connecticut home.... or was it Rhode Island? What a waste, what a disservice to both paleontology and art, Chapman expressed. I concurred.

After dinner we made our way to the dinosaur hall, a journey so convoluted a number of us got lost even though we had been there earlier the same day. Paul Sereno, walking roughly 20 feet behind me, also seemed lost for a few seconds. We did get there, by finding the gift shop. Rob commented that putting the shop right at the entrance to the dinosaur hall was a total piece of commercializing genius by the museum, so that before you even saw the dinosaurs, you would already be seeing all the toys, replicas, books, and souvenirs you absolutely had to buy before you leave. The crowd of name-tagged SVP paleontologists and dino-fans poured into the dinosaur hall – it was really two halls, one featuring mostly Jurassic dinosaurs and the other featuring Cretaceous ones. The cretaceous hall included two huge T. rex skeletons arguing over a slain and dismembered Edmontosaurus

There was also a Triceratops, probably an old adult judging from the ontogeny, and an unnamed oviraptorosaur, probably a caegnathid like Chirostenotes. There were several ceratopsians skulls, as well as a quilled model of Psittacosaurus and a skeleton of a small Protoceratops

 A short distance away, there was the museum's fossil lab, with heavy glass walls, housing several skulls, casts, and an array of huge bone fragments, some still partially packed in plaster, not to mention a giant humerus that could only have come from a very large sauropod. Tracy Ford initially guessed the remains were from a new Chinese sauropod, but soon we found a slip of paper lying next to one of the crates that said “Argentinian titanosaur”.

The Jurassic Hall was where the real action took place. A Diplodocus and an Apatosaurus framed the sides of the hall, along with Allosaurus and Stegosaurus

A baby Apatosaurus was mounted near the huge adult. All of them were on raised platforms covered in real live ferns – which made them look far taller than they really were. 

In reality the chest height of Diplodocus is no more than 6 feet, and the width of its rib cage is far less than that. The necks of Diplodocus and Apatosaurus arched around the room and towards each other, as if reaching to kiss in some strange inter-genus action. But the real showpiece of the hall was the mural. Stretching some 200 feet around the edge of the room, and appearing roughly 10-15 feet tall, the mural depicted the dinosaur life of the Late Jurassic morrison formation, including the dinosaurs in the halls (Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus) as well as Brachiosaurus and a small ornithopod which was either Othnielia or Dryosaurus

 The Carnegie Jurassic Mural (by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger)

On the far left was a glass wall with chambers containing the huge predatory (and cannibalistic) fish Xiphactinus chasing some shorter tuna-sized fish.

Into this vast hall poured the multitudes of SVP attendees. Ralph Chapman soon showed up, accompanied by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger, a dynamic and lively husband-and-wife duo who run the most successful paleoart studio in the nation, and possibly the world. Walters and Kissinger have many paintings and scientific murals to their credit, but the most significant was the very same mural which graced the Jurassic hall at Carnegie, and most of SVP was right there, both admiring and scrutinizing it.

 Tess Kissinger and Bob Walters

Chapman introduced me to Bob and Tess, and I showed them prints of some of my work, which I had taken in a binder for exactly this sort of purpose, as Chapman looked on. They looked at it closely, including such works as “Tragedy of the Archbishop”. Their comments were mostly praise, especially regarding the detail and precision of my work. However, Bob wanted to know: “Do you have any paintings?”

Triassic Phytosaur in the Carnegie Museum (mural by Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger)

I was frozen for a second. “No, not anything recent... a few older ones but they're not as good as the drawings”.

Bob was adamant: “you HAVE to have a lot of stuff in color. That's where the real money is in paleo-art.” Tess concurred. "You need to do paintings, that way the public at large can see how good your skill as an artist is, a lot more easily." 

“Thirty, thirty-five years ago, you'd be paid well for technical illustrations in black and white, for monochrome dinosaurs”, Bob said. “Today, no way. If you really want to get your name out there and get hired for commissions, you need to make some paintings”.

I took in the message pretty quick. As we speak I am working on a painting.

“Do some paintings and send us a few pics of them, I'll critique them. You're really good, but your stuff needs to sell”.

In short order, Greg Paul showed up. And got a chance to see my art as Bob Walters was flipping through the pages. This was a nervous moment, seeing how he'd react. Was my style too close to his? Ever since I have been making this new dinosaur art (I started in 2007 after a long break from dinosaurs) a thing that's been bugging me is how much I end up agreeing with Greg Paul on dinosaur aesthetics and textures. I'm not in any way attempting to simply copy his style – indeed most of my recent work was done without having any Greg Paul pencil references to look at! But again and again I receive comments of the similarity to his style. Inventing my own has not been easy, and while Paul is far from being my sole influence in art (Douglas Henderson and, on the non-paleo side of things, Chris Van Allsburg and M.C. Escher, are among the others), I constantly find my drawings taking on similar attributes to his. Of course Greg is a very accomplished artist, one of my favorites in fact, and there is much to be said for his extensive contribution to paleoart. But at the same time, he has many imitators who simply trace or re-draw his stuff, and I notice a large number of people out there who will hurl a lot of flak at you for drawing something that even remotely looks anything like Greg Paul's style, with complaints like “be original, stop being another Greg Paul clone...”

For the record, I'm not one of those 'clones' whoever they may be. I'm used to drawing and shading a certain way, largely self-taught, creating my own scenes, my own angles and ideas, and aside from the basic anatomy and level of detail, it's not that much like Greg Paul's style. I've found I also disagree with Greg Paul's newer ideas in several aspects of dinosaur anatomy, particularly in sauropod and hadrosaur necks, and the use of dermal spines on specific groups of sauropoda.

I never knew of a place where you can buy the coquille board that he uses for his drawings (nor would I want to use it at this point since that would make it look even more like his work instead of mine). So I use heavy paper for most of my paleo-art, which makes for a different texture. Greg did not initially take a close look at my work, and started chatting with Ralph Chapman as Bob and Tess were looking at the binder.

 My in-progress version of Andesaurus which appeared at SVP. 
Based directly on the published bone figures in Salgado, et. al, 1997. 
(Absolutely ZERO Greg Paul images used for reference, in case you were wondering).

That night was jam-packed. To go though everyone I met and everything we talked about would fill several pages. Rob and I lost sight of each other as we seeked out our favorite paleontologists (or those that studied areas we were interested in. I ran into Matt Celeskey, of the Hairy Museum of Natural History, and Brian Switek of Laelaps, and we chatted about dinosaurs, art and various top-secret projects. The night was a sweep through the entire profession: professors fossil preparators, artists, computer modelers, and enthusiasts from other countries who actually knew very little about dinosaurs, but could cough up the cash to both stay at the Westin for a week and attend SVP (you know who you are). Dr. Ken Carpenter was in the crowd, as was Scott Hartman. Pretty soon, even Jack Horner showed up. But Horner said he could only stay for a few seconds as he has headed back to his hotel room to prepare for something and grab some papers. He said we could meet later. I wasn't interested in debating anything with Horner. I simply wanted to meet as many paleontologists as possible and find out about PhD programs and study opportunities at their labs. Horner disappeared into the crowd and left the hall, followed by no less than ten students, some looking young enough to be undergrads or high school volunteers.

 Bruce Woollatt in the Carnegie Museum's Cretaceous hall

At this point John McIntosh made his appearance. Probably the eldest of the SVP members there, McIntosh is well known to those in sauropod circles as one of the foremost experts of the field, reportedly able to identify most sauropods from just one bone. Even more astounding is that he has a degree in physics, not paleontology – he taught himself paleontology, on his own time and dime, and his papers are of such good quality that he has been unanimously respected as the leading authority on sauropod dinosaurs. Indeed, he is famous as the man who re-united the Carnegie Museum's Apatosaurus (currently mounted mere feet away from the spot where we were standing) with its correct head! So this was indeed a big honor. I showed him my art as well, and he generally liked it and complimented the detail and originality of a number of scenes, particularly the Archbishop - though he questioned if the “swan necks” as he called them, of my brachiosaurs, were more science or art (in my view they are equal parts both). Neck posture has always been an issue of contention, and generally most professionals, McIntosh included, are of the view that the necks were pretty flexible. At this point Greg Paul made another appearance and peered over McIntosh's shoulder. The tension mounted... Greg actually didn't have any particularly harsh criticisms of my dinosaurs. He seemed to like the Argentinosaurus and most of the others. And the style, it turned out, wasn't an issue. His main critique was about the brachiosaur necks - “they need a big nuchal ligament there, the neck was more slanted”. That was just one of those areas where we'll have to agree to disagree for now.

So I asked Greg something which I had been meaning to learn for a long time now – what is the most effective way to break into the paleo-art profession? Greg's answer: “I cant tell you. I have no advice. I wouldn't even know where to begin, I got into it so long ago, and things have changed so much, that I wouldn't have a clue how to get into it now.” I was as shocked as with our previous brief conversation at the auditorium, and asked him: “But you know how it's changed, then – I mean aren't there some suggestions you'd have for getting work published, commissions, and so on?”

His answer was even more shocking: “No, I couldn't tell you anything useful. If I gave you advice it wouldn't help and it wouldn't apply to your situation as a new artist getting started. You know, a lot of people like to preach and dispense advice about things they don't know, they pontificate, assume stuff and make statements, about things they don't know. I'm not going to do that, because honestly I know nothing about getting into the field or the art today, I made my entry so long ago it would not have any relevance to today. So I'm not going to pontificate about it because honestly I don't know.”

So this is what it came to: a world-class paleoartist, the same who invented the “new look” of paleoart and changed the modern view of dinosaurs forever, had no advice to offer me about entering the profession and making a success out of it. I am not one to be bitter or angry but this just seemed like a total departure from the world that the rest of Paleontology inhabited. Everyone had a bit of useful advice, and I doubt they were pontificating since they had personal experience to speak from. Bob Walters urged me to paint. Several other SVP attendees had expressed interest in publishing my illustrations in their papers. PhD's and PhD students that I had asked about research opportunities told me tips on getting into good paleontology programs – once again, they had relevant experience. And all around I had received the advice of contacting authors and researchers to get some of my art published n peer-reviewed papers and books, to at least start getting my name out there. But Greg simply refused to give me any suggestions on guiding a career. What he didn't say carried an equally important message though, which I only realized later – I must forge my own path and not simply imitate the strategies of those who have gone before. Advice from others can only get you so far in your own experience, you need to take the risks and explore the horizons.

Tracy Ford in front of Apatosaurus in the Jurassic Hall

For the rest of the night, I chatted up anyone and everyone I came across with an SVP badge. I traded business cards with nearly forty people. There were bone preparators, dinosaur PhDs, mammal grad students, and a gang of five or six distinguished old professors sporting big Darwin beards who largely specialized in the rather un-controversial subjects of amphibians and squamates. At 1:00 am or so, Rob and I decided to go back to our hotel and call it a night.

Back at the museum the huge gathering lasted longer than either of us could know. At our hotel I read some of Greg Paul's book, and looked at the skeletal drawings for at least an hour, while looking at PDFs of sauropod papers on Rob's laptop. A bad habit, staying up too late – and I was snoozing on California time.