Rock of Ages, Sands of Time  

An interview with
Barbara Page
painter of Rock of Ages, Sands of Time

Q. How did you happen upon the idea for Rock of Ages, Sands of Time?

A. I've been intrigued by our perception of the passage of time since childhood . . .why was recess always so short? Figuring out how to transform this concept into imagery was often in the back of my mind as I worked on different projects in the studio. It so happened that geological references were cropping up in my paintings. At some point I made a mental leap from rocks to fossils and realized that the antiquity of a particular specimen could provide the structure for a piece about time. Each fossil could be arranged in a chronological sequence beginning with the origin of visible life. I would make a series of panels, each of which would represent the passage of one million years, and put the fossil images in their proper slot.

Q. Why did you decide to undertake such a massive, multi-year project?

A. This was definitely a case of fools rushing in where wise men fear to tread. I never studied biology, geology, or paleontology so really had no clue how difficult the research for this project would be. One of the first books I read was Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History, which supplied not only a comprehensive and fascinating survey of very bizarre creatures that appeared early in the history of life but also illuminating illustrations. So I began. Little did I realize that this book would provide the last easily accessible information on an array of fossil organisms existing in a particular moment of history. Initially I worked on Rock of Ages only sporadically. After a while I had put so much time into research that I couldn't quit, so just caved in and let it take over my life. When Warren Allmon, director of the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, New York, told me he would like to install Rock of Ages in the future Museum of the Earth, he gave me the impetus to finish it. Its appearance in the form of a book set the deadline.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about your previous artworks, and how those relate to Rock of Ages in theme and execution?

Barbara Page and Warren Allmon in Page's studio
A. I had a rather patchy education as an artist. I never did any figure painting at all. Now look at all the anatomy I've learned doing this piece! The inspiration for my work has revolved around natural history. For example, I did a series of watercolors of stream beds viewed from above. The fact that it is possible to focus on either reflections on the water's surface or the bottom of the stream, but not both at once, makes this a challenge. I did oil paintings of imaginary tide pools after completing some large canvases, each of which portrays one fish so big that it doesn't fit into the boundaries. Fish imagery keeps reappearing in my work for some unfathomable reason. The fossil animals and plants in Rock of Ages are an extension of my previously acquired graphic vocabulary.

My work is not driven by technique. Certainly all my years of painting both in representational and abstract modes moved me to use what I know how to do in the execution of this piece. However, I never worked with clay or did any three dimensional modeling before beginning work on the bas-relief panels in Rock of Ages. I learned on the job. I didn't purchase any special tools, just used whatever was at hand in the studio to shape the clay—my fingers, a knife, and some pencils.

Q. Why did you choose to paint Rock of Ages in a contiguous format, so that fossils sometimes spread across several different panels?

See images from the book spanning the whole of geological time.
A. I wanted to give a sense of the continuity of time by having background color flow from one panel to the next or by spreading a fossil image right over the crack separating the panels. Humans have divided time into small units such as hours and minutes for convenience and orientation. In Rock of Ages each panel represents a one million year span as designated by this particular human being. I wanted to acknowledge both the quantifiable and immeasurable aspects of time.

Q. The panels of Rock of Ages are bathed in a muted rainbow of background colors. You also use an amazing range of three-dimensional textures. How did you choose these colors and textures?

A. I tried whenever possible to key the background tonalities to the color of the sediments in which the fossils pictured were discovered. Fossil beds, such as the Burgess Shale, Texas Red Beds, and Solnhofen Limestone, have a characteristic type of rock substrate with a certain color and texture. The best fossil imprints are usually found in very fine sediments so many of the panel surfaces are quite smooth. I buried some of the bigger bones in what looks like coarse sandstone but is actually pigment mixed with grains of volcanic pumice.

Q. Some of the geological periods, such as the Permian and Cretaceous, ended in cataclysms. How did you represent these disasters in paint?

A. The Permian Period ended with a major extinction that may have been partially caused by massive volcanic activity. I decided to simulate ropes of lava by thickening the paint with a gel medium and applying it in fat rolls with a palette knife (see pp.166-68). The K-T extinction at the end of the Cretaceous may have been caused by a large meteor slamming into the Gulf of Mexico. One of the consequences was the deposition of a thin band of iridium which has been discovered in numerous localities. I painted this band in very pale iridescent orange made with pulverized mica (p.267). Several panels without any fossil images follow, representing the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other organisms (p.271).

Q. You mention in your "Artist's Introduction" to Rock of Ages that some of the fossil images in your work carry cultural references, such as "optical allusions" to works by past and present artists. Can you point out some of these for us?

A. I didn't make premeditated references to specific artworks except in a few cases. For example, a sea spider from the Devonian Period is painted in carbon black on a silvery background and has one orange foot (p.90). That's because twenty years ago I saw a painting by Lois Lane with a witch's black silhouette on an almost black canvas—the witch was wearing orange shoes. I retrieved it from the encyclopedia of images in my mind. Sometimes a panel in progress developed some characteristic typical of past art and I enhanced those affinities. The rusty red background of a section depicting marine Mazon Creek fossils in the Carboniferous Period inspired me to compose them like petroglyphs on sun-baked rock (p.133).

I also thought about collecting as a cultural phenomenon, how people get obsessed with stamps or baseball cards or trilobites, and how we display those collections. We sort, name, categorize, and assign value to objects. The most valuable are stored in special places. The museum as a cultural repository is a relatively recent invention. Now museums for everything imaginable are springing up like mushrooms. Making this collection of fossil images was a bit like creating my own wonder cabinet.

Q. What works of art and literature had the greatest impact on Rock of Ages?

A. Egyptian hieroglyphics, the murals at Pompeii, Ghiberti's bronze doors for the Baptistery in Florence, and Jennifer Bartlett's suite of enameled plates called Rhapsody. Literature, hmm. I studied Greek and Latin so didn't find scientific nomenclature particularly intimidating. Annals of the Former World by John McPhee directly influenced my interpretation of geological events. If I had read Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino before I finished Rock of Ages, I would have selected it as a kindred interpretation of evolution through artistic imagination.

Q. While you were working on Rock of Ages you traveled all over the world looking at fossil specimens in museums and some of the sites from which they had been dug. What objects or places did you find most evocative or inspiring?

A. During a behind-the-scenes tour at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Dr. Desmond Collins, a paleontologist well-known for his work on Cambrian fossils, showed us a magnificent specimen of Anomalocaris, the largest of all the Burgess Shale animals. It was so much bigger than the others that parts of its body such as the O-shaped mouth and segmented pincers were each classified as individual specimens. Dr. Collins submerged the piece of gray shale with its black silhouette of Anomalocaris in a basin of water and the black turned to iridescent blue, green, and gold—refractions, I guess, from a carbon film. I tried to replicate that transformation in my rendition of Anomalocaris (p.19).

Another indelible experience was the drive north from Dinosaur National Monument past Flaming Gorge on the Sheep Creek Loop. Signs along the roadside gave the geological names and ages of stratified rock outcrops as we passed from pre-Cambrian sites through the relatively recent Morrison and Chinle formations under cliffs of Navajo sandstone, Entrada limestone, and Mancos shale.

Q. What do the arts have to offer the sciences, and vice versa?

A. Science has been a mine field, mind field—treasure mine for artists, as has just about everything else in the universe from the trash heap to transfiguration. In the glory days of Leonardo da Vinci there was no division between the burgeoning arts and sciences. As long as visible nature remained the primary focus of study, careful observation drove inquiry and invention back and forth between both endeavors and we find painters like Charles Wilson Peale and Samuel F. B. Morse who also made significant contributions to science. The twentieth century was a revolutionary period for both the arts and sciences as investigations into theories of relativity and subatomic particles turned over the old world order. Artists on the cutting edge moved away from representation of traditional subjects towards investigating dynamic systems, inventing such styles as cubism and futurism. In the fifties artists rejected the visible world and turned inward for inspiration . . . abstract expressionism ran hand in hand with psychoanalysis.

Now new and old science is rippling through the art world like the butterfly effect. Some contemporary artists are appropriating scientific paraphernalia or research for installations, just as I have done, reshaping what they borrow to fit their own agenda. Fred Tomaselli makes paintings out of pills. Gary Schneider's recent self-portrait is an enlarged photograph of his own DNA. And of course many artists are revelling in new technology, whether it be computer graphics or UV-inhibiting varnishes for paintings.

What art has to offer science may reside more in the realm of the music of the spheres, although artists have certainly made concrete contributions to optical theory and natural history. I like to think artistic interpretations of science and scientific events must be intellectually stimulating to scientists. I commend The Sciences magazine for its imaginative use of artworks to illustrate its articles. Recently I saw Copenhagen, a fascinating play by Michael Frayn. He dealt thematically with Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and his dubious principles, building the ramifications of uncertainty itself into his dramatic structure. Frayn's examination of the ethical consequences of implementing new technologies, in this case the atomic bomb, certainly addresses a hot topic for the scientific community today—genetic engineering.

Q. What could we gain by merging the different approaches that art and science take to understanding?

A. This is a tough question. After painting lost its perspective and physics was seduced by strange attractors the two cultures no longer had much to say to each other. The prevailing belief that every field should reinforce its own particular boundaries resulted in each speaking a language foreign to those outside the territory.

This was unfortunate because the creative process in both fields is quite similar. Both scientists and artists collect information and rely on intuition to forge new connections. In the process scientists form hypotheses then set out to prove them true or false by experimental means. Sometimes artists operate the same way. Joseph Albers, who wrote The Interactions of Color, explored optical properties in his Homage to the Square with a methodological precision that would do a scientific laboratory proud.

Artworks are experiments which find truth in fiction and false facades, providing significant commentary on the culture of their time. Artists tend to tolerate and even revel in contradictions and inconsistencies which may make scientists and everyone else very uncomfortable. Now that the definition of what is art doesn't exclude anything—anything anywhere is fair game—artists may find themselves in the position of translators and transporters of ideas and developments from all fields to the public. Translating what the artist has chosen to say is another matter.

Q. How has painting Rock of Ages changed you and the way you look at the world?

A. In ways both small and large. I now know the difference between therapods and sauropods, knowledge most kindergartners have mastered. Learning to detect differences between similar things, whether it be bird song or Chinese characters, makes the world a much richer place. Immersing myself in what appear to be dry and dusty subjects like paleontology invariably turns out to be captivating. There is a deep satisfaction in completing a project which sums up so many of the issues that were not resolved in my earlier work. It is terribly difficult to work alone in the studio for years with the vague hope that you will find something original and important to say. I am so very lucky to have met two people with the vision to bring Rock of Ages to light as a permanent museum installation and as a book. Otherwise it would sit in storage. In a sense I accomplished more than I ever expected of myself. This is very liberating. Since I no longer have to work against the bugaboo of trying to make something matter, playing in the studio is much more fun.

Q. What messages would you like viewers of Rock of Ages to take home from your work?

A. That the past is not flat, that its dimensions are deep and wide. Three hundred and thirty million years elapsed between insects developing wings and the invention of the airplane. Our culture worships speed, the here and now, and is quick to dispose of what appears obsolete. Remembering how long it has taken us to get here is my prescription for the future.



Copyright notice: ©2001 The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

All illustrations are ©2001 by Barbara Page. All rights reserved. No use without permission.

Barbara Page and Warren D. Allmon
Rock of Ages, Sands of Time
Paintings by Barbara Page, Text by Warren Allmon, Foreword by Rosamond Wolff Purcell
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 0-226-64479-0
©2001, 10-3/4 x 7, 300 pages, 272 color pages

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for Rock of Ages, Sands of Time.

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