Alaska News

Painting with dinosaurs

Art collectors know painter James Havens for his realistic images of the Iditarod Trail, the Alaska Railroad, percent for art projects and allegories featuring monumental angelic figures.

For the past several weeks, however, he's been working on a hunting scene from the state's past -- way, way distant past. "Albertosaurus, Cretaceous Alaska" depicts a gigantic predatory reptile stalking a herd of horned herbivores through the prehistoric jungle presumed to have covered part of what is now the North Slope 70 million years ago or so.

Havens created the 7-by-4 foot canvas with the Alaska Museum of Natural History in mind. A portion of the sale of prints of the painting will benefit the museum, which displays fossils and replicas of Alaskan dinosaurs in its collections.

When he began work on the canvas this spring, Havens had no idea that its debut this weekend would coincide with the arena spectacle "Walking With Dinosaurs," which will be presented at Sullivan Arena Aug. 19-22. But, he admits, the timing is fortuitous.

Born to a military family in Bangor, Maine, Havens came to Alaska in the 1980s. "My dad liked it here. He bought property in Wasilla and I graduated from Wasilla High School in 1986."

He credited art teacher Jacqueline Schmidt with forming his love of painting. "She put this gigantic white board in front of me. I was too nervous to do anything, so she took a brush and made a big swath of paint on it and said, 'There. Now you can get started.' "

After studying art in the Lower 48, Havens returned to Alaska, where he met and married his wife, Andi, who manages the business and often collaborates with him on the artwork. The two completed a major mural in the new school in Togiak earlier this year. In the dinosaur painting, she roughed in some of the trees while he focused on the detail work. "It saves me an enormous amount of time," he said.


Andi Havens also worked on elements like the dragonfly in one corner of the painting. It's small in proportion to the dinosaurs, but "Those dragonflies were the size of my arm," she said, spreading her arms apart.

That's only a slight exaggeration, noted Katch Bacheller, the executive director of the Natural History Museum. A Cretaceous dragonfly might have spanned 18 inches.

"The reason mammals were burrowing at that time was to avoid being eaten by the bugs," she said.

The museum's dinosaur exhibits include a full skeleton of a duck-billed hadrosaur and a replica of an albertosaurus tooth; a number of such replicas are available so that school kids and other visitors can touch them. Fossils of both have been found in Alaska, as has the edmontonia, aka "The Talkeetna Tank," a squat, armored fellow whose skull is on display at the museum.

There's also a replica skull of a tyrannosaurus rex and, on display soon, the head of a horned diablosaurus, with a fancy frilled collar. "This is one really cool dead guy," Bacheller said. "But he wasn't from Alaska."

There's some debate about whether the horned dinosaurs in Havens' painting, anchiceretops, lived in Alaska. But Andi Havens thinks there's enough evidence to include them in the painting. She only wishes that she had been able to convince James to add feathers to their reptilian hides.

Bacheller agrees. "We're pretty sure that Alaska dinosaurs had feathers," she said.

While the museum plans to display the painting, Bacheller stressed that purchasing it would be dependent on getting a grant. However, she has funds for an albertosaurus replica, a full-size model of a teenage dino. "Most of the dinosaurs found in Alaska are teenagers," Bacheller pointed out. "It should be here in a couple of months."

For those who need a big lizard fix right now, "Walking With Dinosaurs" will be presented for eight shows in Anchorage starting Thursday. The theatrical extravaganza features full-size robotic puppets of prehistoric reptiles, though "puppets" may be misleading.

The large "animatronic" facsimiles of tyrannosaurus rex, stegosaurus and other dinosaurs are constructed of 1-2 tons of metal, foam, fabric, hydraulic hoses and wires, powered by truck batteries and manipulated by a team of three performers. One positioned inside the form steers it while two "voodoo puppeteers" handle lashing tails or lunging heads by remote control.

The touring production has proved wildly popular for families. It includes 10 large animals, including a brachiosaurus that stands 36 feet tall. Five smaller animals are portrayed by actors in dinosuits. Two other small puppets depict baby dinosaurs. A Hollywood-type soundtrack, lighting and special effects make "Walking With Dinosaurs" a jaw-dropping piece of performance theater intended to virtually transport viewers back to the time of the terrible lizards.

It's a time that Bacheller, for one, is glad she missed. "Nobody gets how fast these animals were," she says.

Or how dangerous they could be, if guided by even a small amount of brains. People who watched the Fur Rendezvous parade in February could get an inkling when Kevin Hall's fabulous T-rex skeleton costume marched along Fifth Avenue, towering over the crowd and taking periodic snaps in their direction. (The costume is stored at the museum.)

The idea of using some of the sales to benefit the museum is part of Andi Havens' business plan. "It's what my grandmother told me to do," she said.

The couple is known for working a charitable angle into their art marketing. Previous releases of James Havens' work have benefited organizations that provide hospice care, feed the homeless and advocate for the victims of abuse.

If the print is a hit with the public, he's considering making a series of such images featuring long-extinct wildlife of yore. The series would probably key in on animals represented in the museum's collection, like the flying pterosaur whose footprint was discovered near Denali, or the agile troodon, considered to have been the most intelligent of the dinosaurs. (Ask Andi to show you how they moved.)

There's a world of conjecture about the ancient beasts, ranging from theological arguments about whether they ever existed to academic debates over their DNA -- and of course the matter of whether Alaska dinosauria included plumed anchiceretopses.


Bacheller prefers to sidestep the controversy. "We're not here to tell everyone that they need to think what we think," she said. "But I think we can all agree that dinosaurs are cool."

Find Mike Dunham online at or call 257-4332.

Dino sources

• ALBERTOSAURUS, CRETACEOUS ALASKA is on display today at The Museum Source in the University Center. James and Andi Havens will be there from noon to 4 p.m. to answer questions and take pre-orders for limited edition copies of the painting. The store will be giving away a Family Four-Pack of tickets to see "Walking With Dinosaurs." For more information, contact the Havens Studio and Gallery at 980-1307 or 250-0816. You can also visit the website at

• A percentage of sales will go to the ALASKA MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY, 201 N. Bragaw St. in Mountain View. Havens' painting will be displayed at the museum later. The museum's summer hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $5. $3 for children.

• WALKING WITH DINOSAURS will be presented at 7 p.m. Thursday, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Friday, 11 a.m., 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, and 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 22, at the Sullivan Arena. Tickets are $19.50-$59.50 at, 800-745-3000, Fred Meyer Ticketmaster outlets and the Sullivan Arena. Group discounts are available. Call 279-0618 or e-mail

• WORKING WITH DINOSAURS Crews are being sought to help set up "Walking With Dinosaurs" on Aug. 17 and take down the show on Aug. 22. Heavy lifting and pushing will be involved. Contact


Mike Dunham

Mike Dunham has been a reporter and editor at the ADN since 1994, mainly writing about culture, arts and Alaska history. He worked in radio for 20 years before switching to print.