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Arts Around Town

Arts Around Town: Dinosaurs alive and well for Cedar Crest's Nelson Maniscalco

Talking with Nelson Maniscalco is a trip – a trip back in time when dinosaurs walked the earth. Everything you ever wanted to know about these large, predatory animals comes naturally to the Cedar Crest College professor of art who has literally spent a lifetime walking in their tracks and reconstructing their presence right down to the bone.

Maniscalco, who has taught at the college since 1975, was commissioned in November 2010, by the Australian Age of Dinosaurs (AAOD) Ltd., to create a bronze skeletal sculpture of Australovenator wintonensis, also known as "Banjo," a recently discovered dinosaur fossil (2005) and the largest predatory animal ever found in the land 'Down Under.' According to Maniscalco, Banjo is estimated to have been about 15 feet long and similar in size, features and carnivorous activity to the velociraptor made famous in the "Jurassic Park" films.

"The dinosaur was reconstructed graphically (2D) through a handful of fragments and computer-supported comparative anatomy," explained Maniscalco. "My role was to create the first and only 3D interpretation for display at the museum and as commemorative gifts to its major donors."

He worked with David Elliot, executive chairman of AAOD, and scientists of AAOD via email until everyone was convinced the science was accurate for Banjo. He then created a number of sculptures in dynamic poses as a means of visually reanimating Banjo and sent them on to Australia for the museum opening.

"The project was a hit at the opening," said Maniscalco, who called the it "an important contribution to the study of dinosaurs." He is currently working with a paleontologist from Colorado on some museum mounts for a pair of rare Sinovenator changii (small raptor dinosaur) fossil skeletons.

Since his first commission for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 1995, Maniscalco has sculpted hundreds of bronze skeletal sculptures of dinosaurs for museums and art galleries around the world. Prior to 1995, his work was shown exclusively at Maxilla & Mandible Ltd., a natural history and science emporium located a half block north of the American Museum of Natural History.

"The works explored the potentially negative relationship and impact of the products of human innovation and ingenuity upon the natural environment," he explained. "These sculptures incorporated bronze skeletons that I had sculpted of extant (living/present day) animals."

The museum took notice of the work and commissioned Maniscalco to create a sculptural interpretation of the large Barosaurus/Allosaurus attack fossil mount on permanent display in the museum's Roosevelt Hall. The sculptures were numbered and presented to major donors in support of the reconfiguration of the Hall of Dinosaurs that was undertaken to reposition their dinosaur collection to reflect more modern thinking.

Maniscalco said the response from the natural history community and the public was so positive, that his direction of returning to environmental sculptures expanded in the dinosauria collection. In addition to Maxilla & Mandible Ltd., his primary venues for show also include the annual paleontology components of the International Tucson Show, the International Denver Show, The Bone Room in Berkley, Calif., and The Whaler's Locker in Maui, Hawaii. His work also is in collections around the world, including those of such notable celebrities as movie mogul Steven Spielberg and horror author Steven King.

His small dinosaur sculptures cast in bronze were exhibited locally at the Lehigh University Art Galleries in March 2004.

He is married to Kim Maniscalco, director of the dance program at the Lehigh Valley Charter High School of the Performing Arts in Bethlehem.

Growing up in the Little Italy section of Philadelphia is where it all began for Maniscalco, whose interest in prehistoric creatures peaked by watching "Godzilla" emerge from the waters of Tokyo on a small black-and-white television in his grandmother's living room. That led to visits to the major natural history museums of Pennsylvania and New York and encounters with skeleton reconstructions of the great giants who roamed the earth for millions of years. Towering dinosaurs, flying reptiles the size of small aircraft, giant sloths, pachyderms with long, twisting tusks and tigers with 15-inch sabers – to a little boy, these bone machines built to scale were not only powerful but elegant in their form.

He recalls that the more he saw, the more his curiosity grew to include the history of life and the aesthetics of bones. Sketch after sketch brought new life to these extant animals whose bones he collected from the sides of roads, railroad beds and neighborhood fields. He studied jewelry and sculpture processes at Tyler in Philadelphia, but by the time he completed graduate studies there, anatomy and bone images were at the center of his sculptures. He was progressing from fine artist to dinosaur sculptor and amateur paleontologist.

He tells the story of how when he left home to join the U.S. Coast Guard, his mother thought he outgrew his bone collection and discarded everything. She was quite wrong in her assumption, Maniscalco said, "because I started all over again."

The natural history community is better off he did.

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It's art at the edge…it's fantasy art, and it's not to be missed. The Allentown Art Museum is at it again with another great exhibit about to open for the summer, beginning Sunday, June 3 through Sept. 9. A preview party is set for Saturday from 6 to 8 p.m. "At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic" is said to be not only the most comprehensive exhibition of fantastic art in the country to date, but also the first time this discipline has been presented on such a large scale in a museum setting. The exhibit has been organized by guest curators Patrick and Jeannie Wilshire of Altoona, founders of IlluXCon, an annual gathering of the best contemporary artists working in the fantastic field.

Well over 150 artists will be represented in surrealism, science fiction, myth, folklore and the macabre. According to J. Brooks Joyner, president/CEO of the Allentown Art Museum, the range of offerings expands from 19th century and Victorian artists to the Golden Age of Illustration and contemporary artists.

Works in creature and character design in film are by Jordu Schell, whose work has appeared in "Avatar," "The Chronicles of Narnia," "Men in Black," "Batman Returns," and "Edward Scissorhands," to name some. Mark Zug's images have appeared on the covers of the "Dragonlance" series and "Star Wars" comics. H.R. Giger's work includes his Oscar-winning visual design work in the Ridley Scott film, "Alien," and the upcoming "Prometheus," opening June 8.

Let's not forget dinosaurs, and the work of James Gurney of the "Dinotopia" series for children; N.C. Wyeth and his series in an early edition of "Treasure Island" by Robert Louis Stevenson, and even William Blake's "Night Thoughts."

Allentown's Boris Vallejo, who works almost exclusively in the fantasy and erotica genres, and wife Julie Bell, also a fantasy artist, will have their work included in the exhibit. They will be giving a perspective on how fantasy art has evolved in a talk scheduled for Sunday, July 8, at 2 p.m.

More art programs and talks related to "At the Edge: Art of the Fantastic" can be found on the museum website.

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Stan Munro's "Toothpick World" opens at the Reading Public Museum on Tuesday, June 5 through Dec. 30, and explores the innovation of architecture with impressive scaled replicas of world-famous towers and buildings. Toothpicks and glue are the inspiration behind Munro's art which, according to a museum release, began in his fifth-grade art class. When students had to design a toothpick structure that could support an egg, Munro's design not only supported an egg but also his overturned desk!

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