Alumni Profile: John Gurche, Paleo-artist

Alum brings the past to life using anthropology, geology background

John Gurche works on a reproduction
As a paleo-artist, John Gurche reproduces lifelike sculptures of human ancestors.

If you notice a lifelike presence when you look into the eyes of John Gurche’s sculpture of an ancient human ancestor, that’s no accident.

The paleo-artist, who has made a career of creating reproductions of early humans and dinosaurs, draws on years of research on and fascination with fossils and extinct species to make works that are as lifelike and accurate as possible.

His sculptures, paintings and illustrations have been displayed in museums, publications and even on postage stamps. Among his most well-known subjects is Lucy, whose 3-million-year-old fossil remains are the most complete of a human ancestor this old.

Gurche will be recognized at a special event in Kansas City on May 1. He was named one of the 2013-14 Distinguished Alumni of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas, the highest honor from the College.  

You could say Gurche’s story as a paleo-artist started hundreds of millions of years ago. As a kid growing up in the Kansas City area, Gurche discovered his first fossil, of a small pre-historic brachiopod. The shell-covered marine animal was notably abundant during the Paleozoic era, in this case about 300 million years ago. The discovery was an early spark that has fueled a prolific career.

“I couldn’t believe that this ordered little structure existed within something as random as a rock,” Gurche recalled.

Aside from having an early interest in prehistoric species, how does one become a paleo-artist? For Gurche, the process involved studying as much as he could about paleontology, while practicing his artistic technique on the side.

He studied under paleontologist Larry Martin and anthropologist David Frayer while earning a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s degree in anthropology from the University of Kansas.

John Gurche sculpture
Each of Gurche’s works takes months to years to create. He works often from fossil records, so creating a lifelike and accurate reproduction requires a great deal of scientific analysis and research. This image is from “Shaping Humanity” by John Gurche.

“I began to understand in high school what unusual creatures we are, among other mammals and other organisms. I began to really be fascinated with how this phenomenon that we call humanity originated,” Gurche said.

In his early career, Gurche was best known for his dinosaur art. He was involved in development stages of the movie “Jurassic Park” and was commissioned to create dinosaur scenes for a U.S. postage stamp, in addition to frequent illustrations for magazine covers.

Over the past decade or so, his focus has been on human origins. Although he’s “still up for an exotic vacation in the Mesozoic” to work on dinosaurs, he said he considers working on hominids to be home.

Gurche’s solid background in paleontology is evident in the sculptures, paintings and illustrations he creates. Each piece is researched and built from the bones up, ensuring scientific accuracy and lifelike detail. He works in a variety of media, starting with wire frames and casts of bones, working his way up to silicone sculptures and bronze castings.

To ensure each piece looks realistic and accurate, he has to look at the fossils closely and compare them with modern species to predict how developed the various muscles should be, how its facial tissue would be structured, even how big the eyes would have been. This research allows him to create a reproduction that is as close as possible to the way the ancestor would have looked when it was alive. The process can take anywhere from months to years.

Gurche sculpture
Gurche creates works in a variety of media, from silicone to bronze to paintings to illustrations. This is another of his pieces featured in “Shaping Humanity,” a book recently released by Gurche.

The result Gurche hopes for at the end of all this work is that viewers will feel a connection with humanity’s past. It’s an idea he calls the “ancestral connection,” which he explores in detail in a new book about his work. The book is called “Shaping Humanity: How Science, Art and Imagination Help Us Understand Our Origins.”

“Once you spend time connecting with these ancestors, and I really try to foster that connection in ‘Shaping Humanity,’ you begin to have a different perspective on the lives of humankind. You begin to look at the existence of humanity within a larger evolutionary context,” he said, “and that is a life-enriching perspective.”