The director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History is buddies with the Ketchikan artist behind Southeast Alaska’s punniest T-shirts.
Ray Troll, the man behind “Beevus and Halibutt-Head,” and Kirk Johnson, who oversees the world’s largest natural history collection, have been friends and collaborators for nearly 27 years in large because of Troll’s cheeky work.
“Ray had built an exhibit at the Burke Museum in Seattle, and I knew about his stuff,” Johnson said. in an interview with the Empire. “I worked in Seattle, so I always saw Humpies from Hell and Spawn Till You Die Die. Back in the early ’80s, they had a bunch of Ray Troll T-shirts. I walked into the show, and my head exploded.”
“It was like, ‘The T-shirt guy does fossils,” Johnson added with Jeff Spicoli affectation. “I was so excited.”
Their longtime relationship is why both men were at the Alaska State Museum on Tuesday. Johnson gave a speech at the museum since it is the current site of a traveling exhibit inspired by the pair’s collaborative efforts and a trip along most of North America’s western coast.
Troll and Johnson’s traveling history goes back a couple of decades, too.
A few years after the pair met, Johnson said he stopped by Ketchikan to talk with Troll and to pitch the inimitable artist and self-described fossil nerd on the idea of traveling to the Amazon Rain Forest.
“So he came to the Amazon, and that was the beginning of the whole thing,” Johnson said.
That “whole thing” is a series of trips around the world and most of North America that produced a pair of books — “Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway” and “Cruisin’ the Fossil Coastline.” The latter served as inspiration for the traveling exhibition that’s been at the state museum since May and will be there through Oct. 19.
Troll said throughout their travels, the two men have easily spent a full 365 days together.
“Easily a year of my life, a solid year of my 65 years,” Troll said.
It’s clear from talking to both Troll and Johnson each man has a high appreciation for the other’s specialty.
“I like art, I always have, but I’m not really good at it,” Johnson said in an interview with the Empire. “That’s how I became an arts collector.”
Troll said that’s exactly how he views his relationship with science.
Johnson said the blend of art with science “totally essential” to communicating scientific concepts.
“Most scientists can’t communicate themselves out of a paper bag,” he said. “There’s so many great images that could be made that are never made.”
Both men said science and art inspire thought and challenge conventional thought.
“They change your perceptions,” Troll said.
Johnson expounded on the thought.
“They give you new information, new ways of looking at things,” he said.
• Contact reporter Ben Hohenstatt at (907)523-2243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @BenHohenstatt.