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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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A&E >  Art

Spokane artist uses recycled materials to bring ancient animals to life

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 8, 2017

The Ice Age is coming out of the walls at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture – literally.

Directly above the group entrance, a sabertooth tiger suspended in midlaunch bares his fangs at a ground sloth emerging from the wall. Chunks of plaster litter the sabertooth’s back and the mammoth across the way has speared a piece of drywall on his tusk during his outward plunge.

“They’re reforming themselves as they come out of the building,” said artist Peter Thomas. “Everybody is fighting with each other except the mammoths.”

Thomas is no stranger to the museum or to prehistoric creatures. When the MAC hosted the exhibit “A T. rex Named Sue” 10 years ago, Thomas, then a 17-year-old junior at Lewis and Clark High School, created a pterodactyl with a 30-foot wingspan to soar over the lobby.

With the “Titans of the Ice Age: Mammoths and Mastodons” exhibit opening Saturday, the museum knew who to call when they wanted to revitalize the entrance used by students and other groups.

“Peter has been our artist-in-residence and he’s also presented for our summer camps.” said Katie Staib, youth programs manager.

She looked up at a baby mammoth whose front legs dangle from the wall. “This is the kids’ first impression when they come in. They’re in awe. They’re curious.”

It’s not just kids who are curious. While Staib and Thomas were talking about the new exhibits, a group of adults wandered down the stairs, enthralled by the action sprouting from the walls.

“It used to be such a plain space,” Staib said. “We’re excited to have this. I get to see the kids’ faces when they come in. It’s been great to see how they’re responding.”

She estimates 8,000 students will visit the MAC this school year.

Thomas was just a kid himself when he started crafting dinosaurs out of newspapers and cardboard. Several years ago, he made it easier for kids to make their own T. rexes with a do-it-your-self kit called “The Recyclosaur,” available locally at Whiz Kids.

That fascination hasn’t worn off. He grinned while talking about his latest work.

“This is a fun mix of lifelike and abstract. Usually there’s not a lot of overlap,” he said. “Initially, it was just going to be a wooly mammoth based on a tusk fossil that’s in the museum’s collection. It kind of snowballed from there.”

Most of his work is still done in his parent’s garage, but Thomas also has workspace at the museum. He paused as he walked past the Titan’s exhibit featuring a life-size replica of a 40,000-year-old baby mammoth.

“This is the end-all and be-all of where I want to end up,” he said, pointing at the mammoth. “I would love to do something on this scale with this level of realism.”

That’s not to say his current contributions are small-scale. He started this project a year ago and has spent 500 hours on his still-in-progress mastodon, alone.

As always, Thomas uses recycled materials. For example, the mastodon is made of galvanized steel wire wrapped around a cardboard frame and topped by fabric dipped in glue. When he chose pine needles to make the hair on the mastodon’s legs, he assumed he’d have an endless free supply.

He was wrong.

“The pine needles I gathered were dirt-soaked and mud-covered,” he said, shrugging. “Through the miracle of eBay, I bought cleaned and dried pine needles.”

In his quest to expand his knowledge, Thomas has gone on a couple of dinosaur digs in Montana which further fanned the flames of his fascination. He hopes his latest work will incite the imagination of the next generation.

The more he discovers about the creatures that once roamed the earth, the more he wants to know.

“I get to be part detective, part scientist and part artist,” he said.

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