Dinosaur Depicter

A talented USC Roski alumna brings the prehistoric Mesozoic Era to life.

March 07, 2016 Robin Heffler

When Stephanie Abramowicz was growing up in Pomona, Calif., she used cotton, cardboard and Play-Doh to create tiny toy bears and bunnies that lived in a make-believe village in her bedroom. For a time, she even kept a miniature dinosaur museum.

As it turns out, her youthful imagination hinted at her future.

Today the 2006 USC Roski School of Fine Arts graduate artfully brings prehistoric creatures to life as scientific illustrator and photographer for the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. She re-creates the world of the Mesozoic Era, which ended about 65 million years ago and was marked by the appearance of the first dinosaurs, mammals and birds.

Abramowicz produces illustrations and paintings of creatures for museum exhibitions and scientific research. Using an electronic tablet, she begins with a simple black-and-white drawing, examines similar animals, and discusses possible characteristics with the museum’s paleontologists to develop the skeleton, musculature, scales, feathers, eyes and teeth in a colored rendering.

“I enjoy being able to look at a group of fossil bones, put them back together in an illustration and flesh it out with details,” she says. “I think it’s fantastic that there can be multiple illustrations of the same animal that look completely different, and are all theoretically accurate—until a new discovery may come along to change that.”

Abramowicz also relishes field work. She helps to prospect for and excavate fossils, photographs them and draws quarry maps of dig sites. Most memorable was her first such experience in 2005 at the Montana dig of “Thomas the T. rex,” a titanic Tyrannosaurus rex thought to have been more than 30 feet long.

“Field work enriches what I do as an illustrator,” Abramowicz says. “With Thomas, it was awe-inspiring to be there when the fossils saw daylight for the first time in 66 million years. You feel your place in history and appreciate what came before.”

Her talents and thoughtfulness draw raves from collaborators.

“She is remarkable in how skillful she is, and it speaks very highly of the kind of young professionals that the university can produce,” says paleontologist Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute and adjunct professor of earth sciences at USC. “She pays attention to details and is able to modify her style to whatever you want to emphasize.”

While Abramowicz was studying at USC Roski, Doyle Trankina ’04, a friend and USC Roski alumnus, introduced her to Chiappe. Abramowicz volunteered with the Dinosaur Institute for two years, became an intern and was hired after graduation.

Abramowicz credits the honing of her foundational artistic skills to two USC Roski instructors: Margaret R. Lazzari, professor of studio art, and Bob Alderette, associate professor of painting and drawing. She advanced her skills in drawing nature at the Australian National University in Canberra during a semester abroad.

At the Dinosaur Institute, the latest big project is “Gnatalie,” the fossil of a newly recognized species of dinosaur discovered in Utah in 2007. Nicknamed for the biting gnats that pestered excavators, the sauropod is estimated to have been more than 70 feet long and to have lived about 150 million years ago. One day, it too is expected to be a museum exhibit that Abramowicz will bring to life with her art.

See more of Abramowicz’s work.