Local artist creates visions of the past with his fossil replicas
Charles Wilkes has found an unusual way to express himself artistically. He creates replicas of fossils such as shark teeth, trilobites and ammonites.
“It's interesting, it's fun, it's educational and it's rewarding,” Wilkes said. “I would love to make this my full-time job and my career.”
Wilkes sells his copies of the remains of ancient animals on eBay and at local events such as Horses and Courses and the Mead Hall Episcopal School's Strawberry Festival.
His copies of the remains of an archaeopteryx, a small dinosaur with birdlike characteristics, go for $125 apiece.
But most of his replicas sell for prices in the $5 to $40 range.
“I want to them to be affordable and something that everybody can enjoy, especially children,” said Wilkes, who markets his line of products under the name Colossal Fossils.
Wilkes found his first fossilized shark tooth when he was around 6 years old and has been captivated by the petrified body parts of beasts ever since.
He also enjoyed making things out of clay and other materials as a child.
“I didn't really start out to be an artist,” Wilkes said. “I've done all kinds of construction work, landscaping, house painting and some home repair.”
However, Wilkes developed a desire to pursue another line of work after coming to Aiken for a job and meeting his girlfriend, Arielle Ostrov.
“She has horses, and I wanted to do something for her,” Wilkes said. “So I decided I would do a portrait in pencil for her on one of her horses. It turned out quite well, and she was really impressed.
“She started showing it to all her friends and sharing it with other people, and before I knew it, I had people coming to ask me if I would do a portrait for them. I drew a few, and it seemed like that every one I did, someone else would see it and want me do another one.”
Wilkes' foray into producing fossil replicas started with a project he undertook to restore a tooth from the huge prehistoric shark known as Megaladon. He found the tooth on a construction site where a pond was being built.
“It was 6 inches long by about 4¼ inches wide,” Wilkes said. “It had some pretty bad damage to the enamel in the back of the tooth, and most of the root was gone. I wanted to see what it would look like whole, so I sat down with some molding putty, clay and small dentist-type tools and went to work.”
After finishing that task, Wilkes decided to create a mold of the tooth using silicone rubber and cast a copy of the fossil using resin.
“It came out really good,” Wilkes said. “I started wondering how I could use different dyes to make the colors better and more realistic. And then I decided, 'I really love this; I could do something with this.'”
Wilkes purchased some molds from other people and made more molds from other fossils that he already had or acquired. He continued to use resin, but he also started producing replicas made of the gypsum cement Hydro-Stone.
“To me, it is art,” Wilkes said. “I'll even put clay in some of the cracks in the roots of the shark teeth I make to give them a fresh-out-of-the-dirt look.
“If I don't think something is perfect in every way when I'm done with it, I'll set it aside. I don't want anybody to have anything that I wouldn't want to keep for myself.”
Wilkes has designed a sculpture studded with his fossil replicas, and he has plans to produce clocks, wall hangings and other decorative pieces.
“Fossil collectors are going to love them,” he said.
Wilkes eventually would like to cast the entire skeleton of a prehistoric mammal or dinosaur. He also hopes to do some work one day for a museum.
“It's kind of like fantasy meeting reality,” Wilkes said. “These creatures used to be here, but they're not here now. Some of them were really big, and that's what fascinates a lot of people. It's intriguing to imagine what they looked like.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.