Painting the stars

Art has always been key to increasing the public’s engagement with science, and NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope project is utilising the help of artists to reach out to the masses.

Illustration by Keely Van Order

Illustration by Keely Van Order

Astronaut Nicole Stott grew up just steps away from the sky. Due to her father’s love of constructing and flying aeroplanes, she was raised in an environment surrounded by the artistry and technical calculations of the aerospace industry. In their garage each plane was carefully crafted into an efficient work of art. Every inch was created with an artistic and scientific attention to detail, design, and craftsmanship. After his masterpieces were completed, Stott would ride with him to a local airport where he would fly his creations and share his love of flight with her.

Although she did not realise it at the time, these experiences had an extremely formative and inspirational impact on her life. Not only did these trips to the airport lead her down the path of becoming an astronaut, they also led her to join the scientific art movement.

Art has always evolved with society, taking on many forms to reflect the culture that surrounds it. As scientists work to share their knowledge with the world in ways that are easy to digest, many, including Stott, have found power in mixing art into their efforts. The embracing of art by scientists has evolved into an entire field of SciArt that is being used to spread scientific concepts in new and exciting ways. These two fields feed off of one another, powering a revolution of science-influenced culture that generates public awareness and appreciation.

 
Astronaut Nicole Stott on board the International Space Station Expedition on October 21, 2009. Stott’s painting “The Wave”, is based on a photograph she took of Isla Los Roques, Venezuela, through the window of the Russian Service Module. Image courtesy of NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Astronaut Nicole Stott on board the International Space Station Expedition on October 21, 2009. Stott’s painting “The Wave”, is based on a photograph she took of Isla Los Roques, Venezuela, through the window of the Russian Service Module. Image courtesy of NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Stott’s interest in art remained with her beyond her childhood and through her studies to become an engineer and astronaut. The culmination of these experiences occurred when she launched up to the International Space Station in 2009. While on the space station, Stott became the first person to paint in space. 

From that point on she has been committed to using her artwork to uniquely communicate her spaceflight experience, and to generate interest in the inspiration that comes from the blending of art and science.

“I believe that sharing this perspective has the power to increase our appreciation and obligation to care for each other and our home planet, and to increase awareness of the amazing things we’re doing as a global community every day in space that benefit us all right here on Earth,” Stott said.

Now back on Earth, after two spaceflights and 104 days in space, Stott has retired from NASA. She has now dedicated her life to sharing her experience in space with others by creating art. Through her artwork, she shares the beauty she experienced looking out the windows of her spacecraft..

“I love that when I have the chance to talk to people about my artwork, and spaceflight experience that inspired it, even if they didn’t know there was a space station, they want to know more, they want to download the Spot the Station app and see the station fly over them,” Stott said. “They are excited by the fact that we have had people from all over the world living together in space peacefully and successfully and working to improve life here on Earth.”

 
Astronaut Kate Rubins on board the ISS, wearing a hand-painted space suit from the Space Suit Art Project. NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Astronaut Kate Rubins on board the ISS, wearing a hand-painted space suit from the Space Suit Art Project. NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Stott has even had the opportunity to collaborate on other new space inspired projects now that she is back on Earth. One project in particular is the Space Suit Art Project. The project consists of three art space suits: Hope, Courage and Unity. Built from the hand-painted artwork of children in treatment at cancer centers around the world, the idea for the suits came from Ian Cion, director of the Arts in Medicine Program at The University of Texas MD Anderson Pediatric Cancer Center. By using the inspirational theme of space exploration, those involved with the project seek to give people hope and courage to look towards a positive future.

“Our space programs have been one of the best examples of how when we work together, pretty spectacular things can happen,” Stott said. “And space suits, especially these art space suits, are a stunning visual representation of hope, courage, and unity.”

This mission of connecting with the public through scientist-created art is not restricted only to space exploration, but extends beyond into many other fields. University of California Berkeley Neuroscience PhD student Christine Liu, and Skidmore College Environmental Science student Tera Johnson, founded Two Photon Art, a business making science, technology, engineering and mathematics-inspired zines, patches and pins. The science-inspired zines, self-published and small circulation booklets, are their primary focus, combining educational information with their own distinct drawing style. They dive into scientific concepts in new ways beyond the traditional textbook diagram. Ranging from pen and ink drawings of mathematical equation patterns to portraits of scientists, their full page art brings to life areas of science that may previously have been unknown or ignored by the general public.

 
A selection of Two Photon’s zines and art projects, covering a range of science topics. Image used with permission.

A selection of Two Photon’s zines and art projects, covering a range of science topics. Image used with permission.

 

Liu and Johnson initially chose the artistic medium of zines because of their accessibility to them as creators. “We had no idea how to navigate the art or publishing worlds so we decided to start by self-publishing on the path of least resistance,” Liu said. “We could create something we were proud of with little more than a printer and a stapler.”

Although neither have even had formal training in art, Liu and Johnson have always seen art seeping into their lives as scientists. Whether it was doodling in the margins of their notes or putting in extra time towards making a figure aesthetically pleasing, intermingling science and art came naturally to the pair. For Johnson, art isn't necessarily better or worse at conveying scientific concepts than other techniques, but she believes it complements already existing platforms.

“Unlike a peer-reviewed scientific article, art can escape technical confinements and complex jargon while tapping into a viewer's emotions and aesthetic tastes,” Johnson said. “Take our zines for example. They include stylised illustrations that might stick in a viewer's mind longer than, say, a text description.”

One of Two Photon’s zines, Face Blindness, focuses on prosopagnosia, a neurological disorder that impairs a person's ability to recognise faces. They included drawings and descriptions of scientists who also had prosopagnosia, including Oliver Sacks and Jane Goodall.

“This visual and accessible interpretation interested many people at zine fests and has connected us to several people who either had some form of prosopagnosia, or knew someone with it,” Johnson said. “We've found that art engages a much larger audience, and brings new ideas, voices, and supporters that more technical platforms might deter.”

Their creations have received rave reviews from people with both science and art backgrounds.  People in the zine and art communities have praised how fun and accessible science becomes once it’s packaged with nice drawings and straightforward language, while people in the science world have been inspired by the way art can enhance how science is presented. On their Etsy page they tout approval from scientists in the fields their zines discuss, as well as praise from people who deal with the disorders discussed in Face Blindness.

Scientists creating art inspired by their work doesn’t stop at a lone astronaut and a small zine business. In a similar vein, the globally recognised National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has found value in utilising art to reach out to the masses and spread awareness of science. NASA has taken professional artists into their scientific facilities to be inspired and create works of art that can serve as the intermediaries to bridge gaps between those that might normally not value space and the scientists themselves.

In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope will launch into orbit around the Earth to replace the Hubble Space Telescope. Right now, however, it is being worked on at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. In order to spread awareness of this new telescope, Goddard decided to invite a group of artists to view it, work in the flight center and find inspiration in the new technology.

 
The James Webb Space Telescope is constructed of 18 hexagonal mirror panels, and inspires artists around the globe. NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The James Webb Space Telescope is constructed of 18 hexagonal mirror panels, and inspires artists around the globe. NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Fiber artist Sue Reno has worked with biological and environmental sciences in the past, but had never used space as an inspiration. She has followed the activities of the space program since she was a child, watching the moon landings on television. When she heard about the opportunity NASA was offering she jumped on the chance to apply and be a part of the history the James Webb Space Telescope will no doubt create.

Reno was one of only 24 artists invited to attend the event. In addition to the inspiration derived from the beauty of the telescope’s 22 foot tall mirror, Reno appreciated seeing the similarities between the processes that both artists and engineers use. The tour guides of the event explained that after a particular project or test, the NASA engineers will disassemble the equipment and store the components. The engineers seldom discard any components, but instead pile them up for possible reuse.

“There are people there who have a mental inventory of these components, so the messy looking stacks of stuff are actually a very controlled bit of chaos,” Reno said. “This is exactly analogous to every artist I have ever known and every fine craftsman's workspace. Once I realised I was touring through a giant workroom of sorts, I felt right at home.”

Reno’s main focus in her art is the creation of studio art quilts. Therefore, the final piece Reno created in honour of the NASA experience was a large art quilt (60 in x 72 in). The quilt incorporates imagery from photos Reno took on site that she printed as cyanotypes (photographic blueprints) and a digitally printed fisheye view of the clean room with the telescope. It also includes hand stitched silk hexagons, representing the mirrors, that she began stitching during the work time at the artist event. 

 
The pieces Sue Reno’s fabric art which became part of her final project, inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)

The pieces Sue Reno’s fabric art which became part of her final project, inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

In the creation of this piece Reno took a similar approach to the techniques she uses in the development of her botanical and environmental inspired art. She aimed to pique people’s interest by using the beauty of the work.

“I think it is difficult for the public to value and appreciate something they have little exposure to and don’t understand,” Reno said. “I wanted to show the beauty of the technology, and the gee-whiz effect of what it hopes to reveal about the universe. Optimistically, that can lead to curiosity, then education, then involvement.”

Across the board, the emergence of STEM-inspired art serves as a method to elevate scientific communication and has become an important tool in education and public engagement in science.

“Art is a very powerful communication tool for presenting the actual science from the data, as well as very creatively helping us imagine our future through science fiction,” Stott said. “An artistic representation of the science speaks much more clearly to our brains than the 1s and 0s ever will.”

Together, all of these artists, along with many others, are creating a shift in scientific engagement by making these experiences culturally engaging. As art and science continue to merge and find new means to spread in the years to come, both fields are poised to reach more audiences and have a more meaningful impact than ever before.

Edited by Sara Nyhuis