Jim Gary, 66; Artist Who Created Playful Dinosaur Skeletons From Car Parts

Times Staff Writer

Jim Gary, an artist who used junkyard car parts to make playful dinosaur skeletons that were exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and other leading museums around the world, has died. He was 66.

Gary died Jan 14 at Centrastate Medical Center in Freehold, N.J., of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage suffered last month, according to Kafi Benz, the director of his studio. Gary was a resident of Farmingdale, N.J.

Gary's exhibit, "Twentieth Century Dinosaurs," toured the United States, Australia and Asia for more than 20 years, starting in the late 1970s. It featured several dozen creatures, most of them nearly life-sized, and attracted crowds at such venues as the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and the Automobile Dismantlers Assn. of America in Detroit.

He built many of his sculptures from the worn-out parts of hulking American cars of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. He turned old brake shoes into dinosaur feet, oil pans into faces, axles into legs. Using generator fans as dinosaur eyes allowed for huge lashes.

He often painted his dinosaurs bright orange, purple and pink with automotive paint.

Some critics compared Gary's scrap-metal creatures with Picasso's famous bull's head made from a bicycle seat and handlebars.

Gary had a more basic conception of his art.

"If I were to try to define my works, I'd say they represent a view of the past through the use of the discards of modern technology, done with love and a sense of humor," Gary said in a 1994 interview with the Dallas Morning News.

He and his art were featured in Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic World and a number of other science and nature publications. His dinosaurs also appeared in the 1986 intergalactic movie fantasy "Howard the Duck" and in "Dinosaurs!" a 1991 television special narrated by Walter Cronkite.

Children were among Gary's biggest fans. He held workshops for them at many of the museums where he exhibited his dinosaurs and often received letters from them that he answered personally. He made guest appearances on several popular children's television shows, including "Captain Kangaroo" and "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." One of his works, "Stegosaurus," is included in "Alphabet Animals," a children's book by Charles Sullivan that includes depictions of animals by John James Audubon, Alexander Calder and Marc Chagall.

Entirely self taught, Gary sometimes marveled at his success, particularly when his work won awards. "Here were all these people who had degrees and had traveled to Europe and studied with the masters," he told the Dallas Morning News in 1994. "And then, there was me. I didn't have any formal training."

Gary was born in Sebastian, Fla., one of 11 siblings. His father was a farmworker. His mother did domestic work. The family moved to Colts Neck, N.J., when Gary was an infant.

At age 11, he went to live with a family that was better able to support him, and he remained friends with the family for the rest of his life.

He graduated from Freehold Regional High School, where he became interested in wood working and began to make wooden sculptures. He was also very interested in cars as a teenager and built several of them entirely from scrap parts.

After high school he served four years in the Navy, where he earned an aviation mechanic's license. He later held various jobs and continued to work on his sculpture.

When one of his temporary jobs ended, he decided to make art full time. He crafted small animals and birds that he sold at art fairs. Increasingly, he received private commissions.

In recent years, he was commissioned to design a 9/11 memorial sculpture for Colts Neck, honoring five men from the area who died in the attack on the World Trade Center in New York City. A work in brass and copper, it includes lotus leaves and butterflies. It was installed at the Colts Neck Municipal Building in 2002.

He also designed a baptismal font for St. Benedict's Catholic Church in Holmdel, N.J., and stained glass pieces for the Opera Society of Monmouth, N.J.

Asked how he came to think of auto parts and animal parts as having some connection, he said one always made him think of the other.

"Junkyards remind me of animal graveyards," he said in 1979. "I decided to try to get the animals back out of the cars."

Gary is survived by a sister and four brothers.

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