MARCH 10, 2013 (SUN.) 12:00 NOON
NYC ATHEISTS BRUNCH / SPEAKER
SPEAKER: VIKTOR DEAK – PALEOARTIST
As a paleoartist, Deak is responsible for making fossils into faces and bodies by adding the missing face and body parts, thus adding to our knowledge of how we evolved through the ages.
His reconstructions and images have been featured in The American Museum of Natural History. He has also created work for National Geographic TV, Nova, and BBC Documentaries.
This is an article that was published by the New York Times about our Sunday speaker, Viktor Deak. Read it and enjoy! You might also want to check out his web site.
CREATING A FACE
An exhibit showing how reconstructions are made, at the American Museum of Natural History.
By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/m/donald_g_jr_mcneil/index.html?inline=nyt-per)
Published: June 1, 2009, New York Times
A Paleoartist at Work (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/06/02/science/20090602-prof-pano.html)
Podcast: Science Times
Viktor Deak, one of the world's top paleoartists, created many of the hominid images in the new Hall of Human Origins, and those in the book "The Last Human."
HANDS ON Mr. Deak reconstructed Australopithecus afarensis, known as Lucy, who lived more than three million years ago. Homo ergaster is at left.
For his first date with a fellow art student, Viktor Deak suggested “Bodies,” the exhibit of flayed and plasticized humans.
She said yes, even though she had already seen it. He thought that was promising. But it was dinner afterward that convinced him this was the real thing.
“Any woman who could go to ‘Bodies’ with me and then eat a steak,” he said, “and still be dainty and fun and all, was a girl I could be with forever.”
Mr. Deak (pronounced DAY-ahk) and Xochitl Gomez were married at the Bronx Zoo (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/b/bronx_zoo_wildlife_conservation_park/index.html?inline=nyt-org), in the gorilla grotto. Which makes sense, given how much time they spend there. He brings the camera, she totes the big looking glass.
“They know it’s a mirror,” he said of the zoo’s gorilla family. “They come up, make faces, check out their teeth. I’ve gotten some really great shots.”
His interest in gorilla grimaces, like his interest in displays of dissected flesh, is professional. Mr. Deak, 32, is one of the world’s leading paleoartists. If you find yourself face to face in a museum with Homo habilis, Australopithecus afarensis or Paranthropus boisei, you may be looking at his work.
Many of the images of hominids in the new Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/a/american_museum_of_natural_history/index.html?inline=nyt-org) are his, as are those in the book “The Last Human,” both of which he did in collaboration with Gary J. Sawyer, the museum’s physical anthropologist.
(Much of Mr. Deak’s work can be seen on his Web site,www.anatomicalorigins.com (http://www.anatomicalorigins.com/).)
His 78-foot-long mural showing six million years’ worth of the proto-humans whose bony bits have been found in northeast Africa is coming to Manhattan in June as part of the exhibit “Lucy’s Legacy.” The exhibit’s centerpiece is the fossilized skeleton of Lucy — three million years old, less than four feet tall, hailing from the Afar Depression of Ethiopia and named after the Beatles (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/organizations/b/beatles_the/index.html?inline=nyt-org) song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which was playing in the camp when she was found in 1974.
But his mural, a vast Photoshop collage, is more fun to ponder than the bones. The background uses thousands of his photos of vegetation, rocks, valleys and outcrops from the South Dakota badlands, the Puerto Rican jungle and the Wyoming prairie. Only one speck of it, a friend’s mother’s safari shot of faraway thorn trees, was actually snapped in Africa. But Ethiopia today, of course, no longer has the lush rainforest (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/science/topics/forests_and_forestry/rain_forests/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier) and grassy savannah of Ethiopia three million years ago, so Mr. Deak had to improvise. His landscape is filled with ape-men morphed from photos of his sculpted heads overlaid with photos of chimpanzee hair like a late-night hair restoration commercial, each one set atop the body of a human — usually Mr. Deak, his wife, or friends — in a primeval pose, then further adjusted to have longer arms, jutting buttocks or whatever is accurate.
You do not want to be alone in his apartment at night. His shelves have more skulls than a heavy metal album cover, some of them only partly defleshed. Even his little pasta machine is creepy. He uses it to extrude red clay at just the right thickness for face muscles.
There is something lost in time about the place. Maybe it’s the lack of artifacts from any time zone between his fossil racks and his Transformer robot collection.
It’s not just that as an artist, Mr. Deak has little patience for contemporary art. It’s that he disapproves of pretty much everything from the last 100,000 years, the entire Homo sapiens canon.
After all, he says, not only did our immediate ancestors wipe out many big mammals, but they probably killed off and ate some of his favorite objets d’art, including Homo neanderthalensis, erectus and floresiensis.
“Is it any wonder we have a hard time hanging out with our neighbors,” he asks rhetorically after a long discourse on extinctions, “when at one time we went through the whole planet and just cleaned house?”
Mr. Deak is in touch with his inner hominid. His bodybuilding hobby — the dumbbells are on his studio floor — gives him that “don’t mess with me” look sought by all male primates, and he does a mean “Nutcracker Man with a rock” pose from his own mural.
But the threatening mien is belied by his personality, which is both scholarly and a little star-struck. He is in awe of the early paleoartist John Gurche and the novelist and former New York Times reporter John Darnton, whose book “Neanderthal” he carries everywhere, wrapped in plastic.
“I was a strange little kid,” he answers when asked how he got into paleoart. One of his first sculptures was done at a family barbecue, a human skeleton from chicken bones. Other defining moments, he said, included a book of dinosaur illustrations his Budapest grandfather bought for him, seeing Luke Skywalker get a robotic hand and watching an eighth-grade science film of Mr. Gurche playing Pygmalion to a fossil skull. (Mr. Deak was born in Hungary but grew up in Connecticut.)
His big break came when he was a School of Visual Arts student sketching in the natural history museum. A staff member saw his work and introduced him to Mr. Sawyer.
“I could tell he could think three-dimensionally, abstractly and symbolically,” Mr. Sawyer, whom Mr. Deak refers to as his “spiritual mother,” said in a telephone interview. “That’s the kind of student I wanted to work with.”
At his urging, Mr. Deak went to SUNY Downstate Medical School to dissect cadavers.
“I remember one time he called me, his hands were full of guck, and he said, ‘This is fantastic!’ ” Mr. Sawyer said.
Both recall one of Mr. Deak’s early efforts at Homo heidelbergensis. After weeks of work, he showed it to Mr. Sawyer, who studied it silently, then snatched up a scalpel and began stabbing the nose.
“I almost tackled him,” Mr. Deak said. “Then he said, ‘The nose is wrong. Do it again.’ It’s maybe not the way I’d teach a student, but he taught me that no work is sacred, you have to be ready to destroy it.”
Mr. Sawyer didn’t dispute either the event or the point.
“Viktor didn’t have that deep, deep background in anatomy he does now,” he said. “He’s evolved.”
Hazings like that proved a blessing because, in paleontology, photorealism has its nitpickers. Picasso (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/p/pablo_picasso/index.html?inline=nyt-per) never had to explain that his mistresses weren’t actually cubic, but Mr. Deak has taken grief over as little as a flexed knee. One academic critic who saw his Lucy mural publicly boasted that he himself “had the good fortune to examine Lucy when she was in Donald C. Johanson’s lab in Cleveland, and I can assure you that the anatomy of the lower back, hips, feet and knee and ankle joints all provide clear evidence that those early hominids stood just as erect as we do.”
Mr. Deak replied on the same Web site that he knew perfectly well that Lucy could stand up, but he had depicted her crouching because she was pulling away from a predator — the viewer. She was, he explained, protecting the baby in her arms and about to run off.
To prove his point, he picks up a cast of her skull. The angle of the foramen magnum, the hole where the spine enters the vault, he explains, shows that she could stand erect.
Anatomical decisions aside, there were other advantages to hunching Lucy over, turning her sideways and adding a baby. Besides the added tension, it avoided the distracting Playboy Primate Playmate aspect of his early drafts, which showed Lucy in full-frontal fecundity. Unlike Homo idaltu, a homo sapiens subspecies extinct for a mere 150,000 years who is also in the mural and who sports a spear and a fetching loincloth, Lucy bipedally strode the earth before clothes were invented.
But the real controversy, Mr. Deak said, is in the idea his work represents. When he was waiting tables as a student, he served a family that had just visited the natural history museum. When he said he worked there part time, they were excited — until he said he worked on the Hall of Human Origins.
“They said, ‘Shh, please — don’t say anything around the kids,’ ” he said. “ ‘We believe in a young Earth (http://topics.nytimes.com/top/news/science/topics/earth_planet/index.html?inline=nyt-classifier). We teach our children that we’re made directly in God’s image, and the Earth is about 5,000 years old.’ ”
“Well, did you see the dinosaurs?” he asked.
“ ‘Yes. We tell them these are the creatures that didn’t make it to the Ark.’ ”
“I felt a chill of fear,” Mr. Deak said. “I still do when I think about it. I’ve seen, sometimes firsthand, the evidence that came out of the ground. It’s terrifying that people can look at it and say, ‘It’s not there’ and believe in something that was just dictated to them.”
“But,” he added, “I was a waiter. I wanted a tip. I bit my tongue and just got out of there.”
Paleoartist Portrays Human Evolution
By Recreating the Individual from Fossils
Ever wonder how we know what Neanderthal man looked like? Could those recreations of him in the Museum of Natural History be accurate--or are they someone’s fanciful imagination?
Wonder no more. Meet Viktor Deak, paleoartist, who recreates Neanderthal man, and other prehistoric beings, for museums from all the scientific evidence available to him, including fossils, anthropology and research.
“I work from fossils from museums or institutes or directly from scientists,” Deak says. “I do soft-tissue reconstruction on top of the casting of the skull using the anatomical method--and then I let other kinds of things inform me about skin color, eye color and wrinkles--how old the individual was when they died, what continent they are from, what kind of diet they may have eaten.”
The end result (and you will see it on Sunday at the NYC Atheists Brunch) is remarkably lifelike and--scientists will confirm this--as accurate a depiction of hominids as modern science can construct. You can see Deak’s work in the new Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History.
Discovered at Museum
Deak, who has a Master’s degree from the School of Visual Arts in New York, happened on this rare science/art specialty by accident: While at the School of Visual Arts, he would often go to the Museum of Natural History to paint and draw in its august halls. One day, a museum administrator saw him, noticed his drawings and brought Gary J. Sawyer, forensic technician in the Anthropology department of the Museum, to look at Deak’s drawings.
The rest is history: Sawyer took the young artist under his wing, taught him everything he knows and immersed him in the study of anthropology and human anatomy.
The result was a book they wrote and illustrated together, “The Last Human,” published by Yale University Press (2007) and Deak is listed as co-author, a remarkable feat for an artist who was under 30 years old at the time.
Since then, besides his work for the Museum of Natural History, Deak has also done work for BBC, National Geographic television, Discovery, Nova, Scientific American, Houston Museum of Natural Science, Seattle Museum of Science, and Japanese and European museums.
Larger Issue: Truth About Evolution
Deak, an avowed evolutionist, feels that his work is about bigger issues than just paleoartistry. Ultimately, in getting closer to scientific evidence of the evolution of mankind, it is about the larger issue of the need for humans to abandon religion, he feels. Religion, he says, has served its purpose for humans; it is time to move on.
Come and hear this young, vibrant scientist/artist as he talks not only of man’s evolution but also of his own evolution from artist to paleoartist to scientist to--hopefully, someday, a filmmaker about evolution. (He has done work for upcoming 20th Century Fox motion picture “Rise of the planet of the Apes.”)
Come and see, at NYC Atheist’s March Brunch, Deak’s remarkable gift for sculpting a face and a body from fossils so accurately, so realistically, that you can almost see the sweat on the forehead of a Neanderthal man.
WHAT: “A PALEOARTIST SHOWS EVOLUTION IN HUMANS” -- a talk with photos by Victor Deak, paleoartist for the Museum of Natural History
WHEN: SUNDAY, MARCH 10 at 12 Noon
WHERE: THE PRESS BOX - 932 Second Ave. (bet. 49 & 50th) -Second Floor
COST: Brunch is $20, which includes a selection of buffet entrees, salad, soft drink, coffee, tax and tip. We are fans of the Eggs Benedict.