April 12 - Twentieth Century Dinosaurs!

Posted on April 12, 2020

Jim Gary (1939-2006) is the only sculptor to have had a solo exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C.

An art exhibit in a natural history museum?

Gary made huge sculptures of - among other things - dinosaurs made out of discarded automobile parts. He became internationally known for his sculptures, and his Smithsonian showing (which opened on this date in 1990) delighted people of all ages.

Jim Gary's childhood was really unusual: he "moved out" of his family's home when he was still in elementary school, just 11 years old. Normally that would be described as running away - but maybe his parents didn't report him being gone?

Gary-the-11-year-old did odd jobs and sold handmade Christmas decorations in order to buy his own food. He built several bicycles out of junk parts, so he would have a way of getting around. Later he went on to build his own car out of junked parts - and he drove that car even though he was too young to drive legally! Yikes!

I pictured Jim Gary living on the streets or in a park, but actually he secretly slept in the garage of a family who often hired him to do those odd jobs - and he was able to keep that secret for almost a year! Finally the family discovered that he'd been sheltering in their garage, and they invited him into their home. 


At high school, Jim Gary began to sculpt in wood and competed at gymnastics. After serving in the Navy, Gary began teaching welding and gymnastics (but not the two activities at the same time!!!). 

And his sculptures began to be shown in NYC galleries.

Finally Gary opened his own gallery, Iron Butterfly.

By the way, Gary started making stained glass and sometimes included stained glass in his metal sculptures. 

Many of Gary's works were commissions - requests from people who paid for, say, ornate metal doors, furniture, a Holocaust memorial, and even a baptismal font!

Gary was a bit of an inventor as well as an artist. He had to figure out ways to build and move his huge metal sculptures, and so he created scaffolding, hoists, and special vehicles that had cranes. He even created unique hand tools when he needed to do something that regular old tools couldn't do.

By the way, Gary's show Twentieth Century Dinosaurs traveled all over the world after its D.C. run was over. It was shown in museums and universities; it was used as sets for movies, plays, and even operas; it was presented at auto shows and racing events; it was even displayed in botanical gardens.