GRETNA -- When Jennifer Buckingham was launched through the windshield and sustained 85% paralysis in her arms in a car crash in 2002, she thought she would never be able to sculpt again.
“I couldn’t hold a coffee cup, let alone a delicate piece of pottery,” she said.
After a winding recovery, Buckingham is almost finished with a larger-than-life piece of art: a 37-foot-long, more than 10-feet-tall model dragon which she created with the help of her husband, Michael, and with direction and funding from the Roanoke-based Dragon Research Collaborative.
Constructed with a metal frame with a clay exterior, this mythical monster, along with another, smaller dragon Buckingham finished in 2018, will be included with a traveling exhibit of dragon-related artwork and cross-disciplinary research from the collaborative entitled “On the Origins of Dragons,” which will be featured at Roanoke College. She has said she might bring it to Martinsville.
“This is more of a true crossover between natural history and art,” said Dorothybelle Poli, an evolutionary biologist and professor at Roanoke College who co-founded the Dragon Research Collaborative.
This 37-foot monster, which is based off the name Tiamat, a dragon on the Ishtar Gate into Babylon, can be broken into 14 separate sections so he can easily be moved through standard doors and be hauled from place to place. Not counting the hundreds of hours of work Buckingham and her husband have put into building the creature, the dragon cost $7,000 to build.
One of the reasons Buckingham, a long-time fan of fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, has enjoyed working with dragons so much is the freedom, since there are no scientifically proven dragon fossils, which gives her wiggle room to improvise with sizes and even make up species.
“The nice thing about dragons is the mythology,” she said.
Lisa Stoneman, another professor at Roanoke College who specializes in the cultural folklore and legends of dragons and co-founded the collaborative with Poli, could not be reached for comment.
“The group basically works from lots of different directions to try to figure out how these plant fossils could have impacted dragon lore around the world,” Poli said.
The collaborative has come to the conclusion dragons, which ancient cultures from around the world have legends about, did not exist, Poli said. Instead, they hypothesize that ancient cultures interpreted carboniferous — a period believed to have occurred more than 300 million years ago — plant fossils, which appear to have scaly reptile skin and body parts, in coal seams, as the fossils of large creatures and created dragon narratives from them.
“Dragon stories were probably one of the first interpretations of plant fossils,” Poli said.
A map of their combined research — Stoneman of the folklore and legends, Poli of the plant fossils — reveals significant overlap, showing the cultures without coal seams also did not have indigenous dragon legends.
In addition to Buckingham’s creatures, the exhibit, which opens Jan. 24 in Olin Hall Gallery at Roanoke College, will feature other fossil evidence, maps and other sculpture.
Using chemically reactive paints that allow for layered, three-dimensional pictures, Salem artist Kyra Hinton has created multiple maps that showcase Stoneman’s and Poli’s research by overlaying the two.
“The way that these inks chemically react with each other, I’m able to use that to mimic what the earth looks like from above,” she said.
To create the 37-foot monster, the two Buckinghams collaborated and started small. First, Jennifer Buckingham created a small clay model, which Michael Buckingham then scanned with the computer, creating a basic three-dimensional frame. After scaling that skeleton up 27 times, he used a three-dimensional printer to create the model, which he then fabricated together.
“For me, I always like a challenge, and this is definitely new and a challenge,” he said.
The clay exterior is filled with spray insulation and impressed with individual scales, which are based off of a 3-D print of a carboniferous plant fossil. The mouth is made primarily with dried cloths. In total, this project has been in the works for two years.
Local artist David Husser also oversaw the painting of the entire monster.
“Without the collaboration, big pieces can’t happen,” Jennifer Buckingham said.
Next up for the couple is a model of a pelagornis: a prehistoric bird that will stand six feet tall and have a 25-foot wingspan.