Bones of the beast

Just because they’ve been extinct for billions of years doesn’t mean they can’t still wreak a bit of havoc every now and then.

“When you bump into the hipbone of a T-rex, it hurts. You can tell that by the bumps on our heads,” says Carl Felson with a laugh. The recently transplanted Chicagoan has spent his life in the steel industry: His family owns Chicago Ornamental Iron Co., which has had a hand in shaping a good portion of the city’s skyline. But helping Asheville sculptor John Payne build his full-scale, scrap-metal dinosaurs has given Felson a whole new way to test his metal.

“I retired recently and wanted to get into [the sculptural] aspect of steel, so I threw myself on John’s mercy and asked him if he would be a teacher,” Felson explains. Now, he helps Payne create dinosaurs two or three days a week. “I’m having one of the best times in my life,” he says enthusiastically.

Payne feels the same way. “We just did it because it was fun,” he relates, adding, “It’s a people magnet.” The sculptor’s easygoing manner belies the scrupulous preparation and plain hard work required for accurately recreating the massive animals.

“I read books and collect information as much as possible, whatever the subject is, the particular dinosaur,” Payne explains. “Then I make my own blueprints, [using] a computer to build a grid.”

The two gather most of their materials from the scrap yard. “We try to recycle as much as we can,” says Felson. “We use a lot of recycled hinges, plus automobile joints and connectors which we scavenge.”

Building the beasts takes months of hard labor, but the results are always worth the effort. In the hands of Payne and Felson — and the hard splendor of the metal — the prehistoric creatures’ hulking, dramatic forms haven’t changed since the Mesozoic era.

Dinosaurs are survivors, Felson points out, in the sense that everyone remains fascinated by them. “We all think of antiquity as adventure,” he observes. “The thought of coming upon one of these animals is just absolutely terrifying, and fear is a stimulant. Coming in [the studio] sometimes at night, with just a light on one of the dinosaurs, is scary — but wonderful. I think [adults] are fascinated with animals that roamed the planet before man [had] done his damage. And educators love it. Teachers are always wanting to bring their students to the studio.”

Indeed, the purest accolades come from children, both men concur.

“That’s actually the thing that drove us to do this,” confesses Felson. He describes the enthusiastic reactions their most gargantuan effort — a 44-foot-long, 15-foot-high tyrannosaurus rex, whose ominously lowered head displays an appalling grin, replete with sword-sharp fangs — elicited from Carolina Day School students. “Some of the kids were petrified, but mostly they were awestruck,” he recalls. “They’d come in with these big eyes, and their jaws would just hit their chests. It was wonderful.”

The ambitious beasts will garner broader attention later this month, when Payne and Felson pack up their three biggest pieces for Dinofest International in Philadelphia. Included will be the T-rex; a scaly-backed stegosaurus with a pivoting head (compliments of a car’s U-joint) and peevishly snapping jaws; and what promises to be a shiveringly lifelike marionette raptor (or flying dinosaur) with control lines that run ceiling-high.

Dinofest International was conceived four years ago by Dr. Donald Wolberg. Sponsored in conjunction with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, it’s the largest show of its kind in the world, attended by the world’s pre-eminent archaeologists and paleontologists — “anyone connected with anything you’ve ever seen on the Discovery Channel, or [read] in National Geographic,” Felson explains.

Payne and Felson say they’re deeply honored by Dr. Wolberg’s invitation to be a part of Dinofest International, and doubly pleased by the esteemed position bestowed on their two biggest creatures: T-rex and stegosaurus will hold lofty court at the show’s outer portals, weathering the northern spring chill outside the Philadelphia Civic Center as gleaming ambassadors from the past.

“We’re really honored to be able to do this, considering we didn’t even think of marketing these or putting together an exhibit until we were a little further along,” says Felson. “And to have Dr. Wolberg ask us to put our two largest pieces outside the exhibit hall as a draw … can you imagine, at 3 a.m., people walking across the Civic Center parking lot [seeing] a T-rex skeleton in a running position?”

In fact, the two men have imagined even more. Payne describes plans for a portable dinosaur show (possibly including steel crustaceans and other ancient life forms) that they may present at this year’s Bele Chere, not to mention a 2,500-square-foot traveling exhibit that would be offered to science and nature centers worldwide.

On a recent visit to Payne Studios (nestled near the French Broad River among other warehouse studios), only the stegosaurus and an imperious little archaeopteryx were fully assembled. Pieces of the other beasts were scattered here and there, waiting patiently to be packed off to Philadelphia.

But even in pieces, these are impressive animals. Each curved rib of the T-rex is five feet long (its spine is crafted from a light pole). The beast’s massive head sat alone on the floor near the front of the studio, facing the outdoors and reflecting the late-morning sunlight. The head was so huge I could crouch inside it, following for a long second its unswerving gaze as it drilled past the railroad tracks and warehouses toward the worn course of the river.

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