By Sharon Lint
March 01, 2005
"The idea occurred to him to have me do a poster which would be given out at the potlatch when the pole went up," Ray explained. "I met with his familyand I began to understand the ownership of stories, and the whole story about the creation of salmon. . . this is a real privilege to [have been] able to do this . . ."
Around that same time, he became fascinated with the history of Southeast Alaska. He found a special interest in the arrival of the Russian people to this area and the story of how cultures collided in 1802 and 1804. To portray the battle of Tlingit warriors who attacked the Russian-Aleut settlement of St. Michael's, he created "The Battle of Old Sitka."
"When the Russians first tried to settle in Sitka, Alaska, there were several . . . out-and-out battles . . ." he said and then as he pointed to several objects in the piece, he divulged, "these are all war helmets.
"Martin Oliver is right back there, he's kinda lookin' over this guy's shoulder . . .the guy in the white shirt - [portrays the] number of American sailors from Boston that were marooned in Sitka and . . . joined the Tlingits when they attacked." His next comment drew laughs from the audience as he told them, "I'm the dead Russian guy over in the corner."
Moving on from huge battles to huge exhibits, he started working on "Planet Ocean." It began as a book and then into a display that encompassed approximately 3,000 square feet. A half-million people saw the show and by the time it made it out to the Denver Museum it had grown to 14,000 square feet. As an example of the enormity of the project, he related, "that's about the size of the civic center."
The exhibit included a fish that Ray had come across during his research. Although even ichthyologists are skeptical when they first encounter drawings of the Sabertooth Salmon, it turns out that this fish really did live in our seas and is an ancient ancestor of the Sockeye. It could grow to an average of 8-9 feet and had big fangs. He incorporated the wonderful beast attacking a Sabertooth Tiger in a display called, "The Battle of the Giant Sabertooths."
Of course, being part artist and part paleontologist, Ray tried to make his drawings look as realistic as possible. He worked from the Sabertooth Salmons' six foot-long holotype [the first fossil ever found] housed at the University of Oregon in Eugene. "Imagine the fillets!" he enthused.
It also included murals, an interactive computer, tanks, a dance floor and an original soundtrack with scientists rapping about sea life. Better yet, it showcased the Evolvo; a Volvo that had been painted, tricked-out, infested with trilobites and ammonites and piled high with dinosaur bones. It even had Charles Darwin as the driver. "I'd been wanting to do this for many years and I'd proposed it to many different museums. . ." he said.
His work with the exhibit brought his attention to what he refers to as "under-appreciated fish," such as primitive sharks that resembled ratfish and were, in fact, related. These bizarre monsters had lived some three hundred million years ago and most had never been drawn before. He ended up on a Discovery Channel show after taking several trips and making several drawings of them and others.
One shark that totally infatuated him was the Helicoprion. It retained all its teeth in a whorl-tooth circular-saw-like mouth. This led to his book "Sharkabet," which in turn, was transformed into an exhibit, much the same way "Planet Ocean" had been born. He painted goblin sharks, dogfish, and nurse sharks for the project. Many of the models for his work were taken from fossils found in Montana.
His most recent obsession is with the fish of the Amazon. His original trip to the waters there was in 1997. He has been there three times now and his latest trip ended only twenty days or so ago. The seas in and around Alaska include approximately six hundred species of fish, but the Amazon has over 3,000 recognized varieties and that number is still growing. Some estimates go as high as 5,000.
Some are harmless, others deadly. One of the most famous species living in the Amazon River, the Piranha, has retained a bad reputation over the years. Stories have been told of the little beasts devouring a man in seconds, but the truth is that there has never been a documented case of a death caused by this sharp-toothed creature.
"Black piranha are. . . as common down there as humpies are here in the summer," Ray informed the audience, adding, "We have this perception that they. . . will skeletonize you if you jump in the water but it's really not so, although they do take a nip out of you every now and then. . ."
Inspired by the magnificent array of fish as well as by stories like these, he began working on a 7 X 15 foot mural of Amazonian fishes on his return. The finished mural is entitled "Freshwater Riches of the Amazon." It was featured in a story written by John Lundberg that was published in the September 2001 issue of Natural History Magazine.
While working on the mural, Ray approached the Miami Museum with his vision of expanding this artwork into another exhibition. They took the bait. The Exhibit is now in the works and in theory it will open this October in Miami and then will travel around the United States.
Ray also spoke of a species of giant catfish that grow to be about seven feet. ". . . stories are told down there of catfish even bigger that swallow humans whole . . ," he said. He also told the audience of another story told to him while he was visiting the region.
After enjoying a couple of Caipirinihas (pronounced as kai-pee-reen-yahs), his charter-boat captain began a tale about "The Seven Plagues of the Amazon River." The story chronicles the fact that although mankind enjoys thousands of fish in the Amazon, there are seven that enjoy us.
One of the seven identified is the candirú. The candirú is a tiny catfish that feeds on blood by attaching itself to the gills of other fish. In the coming Miami exhibit, Ray plans to tell the story and have specimens of the catfish to make the "terror of the Amazon" more realistic.
"There's a terrible mistake that they make every now and then. A horrible mistake that people find fascinating . . ." Ray began. "If you're in the river and you really have to go and the little catfish mistakes you for a giant catfish, it will follow the warm flow and it will go right in [a urethra], male or female."
Ray concluded his talk by telling of yet another project he has been working on for a good portion of a year. It is a map of the United States showing all known fossil sites. He has been working on this with Dr. Kirk Johnson from the Denver Museum. They hope to be finished in the fall of 2006.
As Ray stepped away from the microphone to speak to some fans and sign autographs, it seemed the answer to the question of the day, "Fish Worship; Is It Wrong?" was clear.
From the wholehearted applause from the audience, no one there seemed to think it was.
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Sharon Lint ©2005