Lovely bones

Ichthyosaur Marionette

Jerry Snyder with his Ichthyosaur sculpture, which hangs from the ceiling of the Discovery Museum.

Jerry Snyder with his Ichthyosaur sculpture, which hangs from the ceiling of the Discovery Museum.

Photo/Allison Young

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The best ideas come when friends get together and start drinking. That’s how local attorney and wood-sculpture artist Jerry Snyder came up with the idea to make a 50-foot-long ichthyosaur skeleton.

Inspired to submit a regionally-focused wood sculpture to the Burning Man Circle of Regional Effigies (CORE), Snyder and several artists got together last spring to spitball ideas for what wood sculpture could represent our region. Snyder seized upon the ichthyosaur, the Nevada state fossil.

Immediately, he knew it would take considerable manpower to produce such a structure. Finding the right people would be essential.

“One of our key Burning Man volunteers and collaborators, Bernie Beauchamp, is a puppeteer,” Snyder says. “I knew I wanted him on the project, so I decided we’d make it a puppet.”

The idea was met with enthusiasm, Beauchamp was sufficiently lured in, and work began almost immediately. After a research trip to the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, site of the largest known specimens of ichthyosaurs in the world, the team returned to Reno and got started. Great Basin Brewery offered a donation, and a few grants and donations through a Kickstarter campaign provided the rest to fund the project.

Forty sheets of three-quarter inch plywood were purchased and the work of approximately 50 volunteers began on the marionette on April 13 at The Generator, a 34,000-foot, free artist workspace in Sparks.

To construct the behemoth, which Snyder says is actual size but not scientifically accurate, the team rough-cut plywood, glued the pieces together to create depth, and finished it with a coat of white deck stain. Each of the vertebrae alone is comprised of seven wooden discs, and the ribs are each comprised of three plywood layers.

“All in all, for each rib, I think we probably spent 10 to 15 hours,” Snyder says. That’s nothing, however, compared to the head, which he says took 100 hours.

The project consumed the lives of Snyder, his fiancee Kris Vagner, family and friends for months, to the exclusion of all else. Several children, including Snyder’s own daughter, even got in on the act. But in mid-August, after roughly 2,500 hours of labor, they had an impressive 2,000-pound ichthyosaur skeleton ready for the Black Rock Desert.

Then the work really began. A 20-foot-high structure composed of 6-inch x 12-inch beams, gusseted and tied down with compression straps, held the giant beast. Each piece was tied with bungee cording to the cathedral-like roof, enabling the skeleton to bounce and “swim,” marionette-like. A week’s worth of playa dust and burners swinging from bones forced daily repairs.

“We started calling it ’the fixyosaur,’” says Snyder.

Though it was not made a CORE project, a fortuitous meeting last fall with Nevada Discovery Museum’s executive director Mat Sinclair led to an arrangement that enabled Snyder to give the ichthyosaur to the museum as a permanent installation. No longer a marionette, it was installed early this month, and is suspended by metal cords from the ceiling above the main entrance to the museum.

So why do all this—spend countless hours of backbreaking work, at the expense of your leisure time, on a piece of art you just give away?

Snyder recalls the book Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins, which offers what he thinks is the best reason: “If there’s a thing, a scene, maybe, an image that you want to see real bad, that you need to see but it doesn’t exist in the world around you … then you create it so that you can look at it and have it around.”

“When we got up to the playa, it was like, ’Yeah. That’s what I wanted to see,’” Snyder says. “And now here, at the museum, with kids looking at it and ooh-ing and aah-ing, I think, ’Yeah, that’s a cool thing we did.’ I’m proud of it.”