The moon hides behind the clouds on this sunny morning, clouds that gather in preparation to live up to weather forecasters’ prediction of a 50 percent chance of rain.
You’d almost think the clouds are doing this on purpose here, and well, they are. But not for the sake of obscuring Sallie Wolf’s view of the moon.
Still, that’s what’s happening outside the Louisiana Art & Science Museum, where she places her compass on a railing and faces opposite the needle’s northward direction.
“The moon would be to the south at this time,” she said.
She opens her sketchbook. It’s filled with handwritten notes, geometric measurements and sketches of the moon in various phases, all of which will translate into a 15-year art project documenting the moon’s position in the sky.
Along with Wolfe’s life.
Oh, she doesn’t write down what she was doing on this day or that, but she can recall what was happening on which month, even at the beginning of her Moon Project exhibit in the museum’s Colonnade Gallery.
She’s one among eight artists whose work will hang throughout the museum’s galleries as part of the exhibit Starry Messenger: Galileo’s Vision in 21st Century Art beginning Saturday, Sept. 26. The show will run through Dec. 13.
“This is the International Year of Astronomy — the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope,” Elizabeth Weinstein said. “Galileo didn’t invent the telescope, but he was the first to write a treatise on what he was able to see.”
Galileo published his writings in 1610 under the title Sidereus Nuncius. The title translates to Starry Messenger.
“We named our exhibit Starry Messenger because of this,” Weinstein said.
She’s the museum’s curator. And though exhibit items are just now being uncrated at this moment, she’s already anticipating what will go where.
Eva Lee’s digital animation “Jewel” will dominate the Soupcon Gallery. This colorful earthlike image will rotate then disperse into bits of color that come together for another rotation. It will share the gallery with Carol Prusa’s lighted hemispheres.
Weinstein peeks into the Soupcon Gallery. It’s the smallest of the museum’s exhibitions rooms, which is perfect for the pieces to be placed here.
“See?” Weinstein said.
She points to two sample shades of purple painted on the wall. One of the shades has been chosen for the exhibit.
“And we’ll be painting the room purple and darkening it for the pieces we’ll have in here,” Weinstein said. “But it won’t be so dark that visitors won’t be able to see where they’re walking.”
Still, enough light will be absent to allow the installations to glow, to shine, to sparkle.
For these represent the starry messengers of Galileo’s day, the bodies in the sky that were thought to be celestial, heavenly.
“And because they were in heaven, they were thought to be perfect,” Weinstein said. “Their surfaces were thought to be smooth, whereas here on Earth, the surface isn’t smooth, because we’re imperfect.”
Meantime, the Roman Catholic Church declared Earth as the center of the universe. And when Galileo backed the Copernican heliocentric model with his own documentation, the church reprimanded him.
Still, Galileo revolutionized humanity’s understanding of its place in the cosmos. Even today there’s much to be learned from his writings and drawings.
Especially his drawings, for these were the equivalent of today’s digital images. Think about it.
There were no film cameras in the 1600s, yet images had to be recorded. Meaning scientists many times also were artists. They had to be.
“And there were no lines drawn between art and science and math as there are now,” Weinstein said. “Look at Leonardo da Vinci. He was an artist, a scientist — he was so many things.”
Galileo was born Feb. 15, 1564, in Florence, Italy. His full name was Galileo di Vincenzo Bonaiuti dé Galilei. He originally set out to become not a scientist but a painter and even trained in art. But his credentials eventually would read physicist, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher.
And his title? Well, he’s been called the father of modern observational astronomy, the father of modern physics, the father of science and the father of modern science.
“But before his death, he said he wished he’d been a painter,” Weinstein said.
She laughs. Perhaps painting would have been easier, but then again, who knows? Paintings of the day focused on religious subjects. Galileo was Catholic, but would he have strayed from the art subjects of the day?
Well, he apparently did.
“It’s interesting for us to look at Galileo as an artist,” Weinstein said. “Again, there were no divisions between art and science, and Galileo used art terminology in describing what he saw through the telescope.”
For instance, his use of secondary light definitely is art terminology describing incidental light reflected on a three-dimensional object. And the objects he was describing were the mountainous and crater-filled surface of the moon.
“It led him to debunk Aristotelian cosmology, which held that heavenly bodies, unlike Earth, must be perfectly smooth spheres,” Weinstein said. “Galileo’s sketches were more persuasive in an age when people trusted images more than words.”
All of which combine to reflect the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s mission.
“This is an interesting exhibition, something different from what we usually show,” Weinstein said. “We are an art and science museum, and we’re looking for more exhibits to go with our mission.”
And this one is perfect, for all of the artists chosen to show in Starry Messenger are consistent in their studies of the heavens. One even holds a degree in physics. All are known in artistic circles for their astronomical work, but they aren’t exactly household names.
“The most noted artist in this exhibit is Vija Celmins,” Weinstein said. “She was born in Latvia.”
Celmins now divides her time between New York and California and is internationally known for creating intensely realistic images of star-studded nighttime skies, ocean waves and desert floors.
“Her palette is very limited, and she draws with graphite,” Wienstein said
Then there are the previously mentioned Eva Lee and Carol Prusa.
Lee lives and works in Ridgefield, Conn., and works in digital media. The exhibit will include three of her digital animation installations, which includes the display in the Soupcon Gallery.
One of these installations will appear in the main gallery on the first floor, moving on a wall, then onto visitors.
“It’s a way for visitors to interact, to become part of the exhibit,” Weinstein said.
And Prusa’s work with fabricated acrylic hemispheres will only complement this. Hemispheres are what Prusa calls her half globes or planets. They protrude from the wall and are illuminated with fiber optic lighting.
Prusa lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and is a professor of art at Florida Atlantic University.
“As astronomers make educated guesses about a ‘dark’ energy, I, too, contemplate the fate of the universe and my own uncertainty and discontinuity,” she wrote in her statement, which will appear on the label card for her work in the exhibit.
“All of the artists will have labels, and we’ll have information on Galileo, as well,” Weinstein said.
And when reading this information, puzzle pieces come together. Artists and scientists actually do have a lot in common in today’s world, and they don’t really differ from those in Galileo’s.
Take New York artist Jonathan Feldschuh. He graduated summa cum laude from Harvard University with a degree in physics, yet he had an interest in art, which led him to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague.
For more than a decade, Feldschuh has used scientific images as a starting point for his work, composing planetary landscapes in swirling, dense layers of paint. His latest work is inspired by the Large Hadron Collinder, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator.
Then there’s Thierry W. Despont, who was born in France but also resides in New York. He is an architect, designer and artist and was inspired to create his own interpretations of celestial phenomena after discovering that the Hubble Observatory’s photographs actually are elaborate composites.
Now, Despont’s resume is as impressive as his paintings. He’s worked with Bill Gates, designed the interiors of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and was an associate architect for the centennial restoration of the Statue of Liberty.
Another of the show’s painters, Elen A. Feinberg, lives in Albuquerque, N.M. Her work is inspired by the Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., the Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., and NASA.
Then comes what probably will be noted as the prettiest part of the exhibition. Now, this isn’t taking away from the other artists’ work, but viewers seem always to be fascinated by glasswork and light.
And Josh Simpson’s work definitely fits this bill. He lives and works in Shelburne, Mass.
“And he’s actually married to an astronaut,” Weinstein said. “Her name is Catherine Coleman. They call her Caddy, and she took one of his glass planets with her on a 1995 space mission.”
She now stands in the museum’s storage room. It’s filled with crates, some containing purses from the museum’s last exhibit The Purse and The Person: A Century of Women’s Purses.
“They’re ready to be shipped out,” Weinstein said.
Then there are the crates on the opposite side of the room, some are open, some not. The one by which Weinstein stands definitely is open.
And in it is a Josh Simpson special — one of three 100-pound planets created for a 2005 commission by the Corning Museum of Glass in Corning, N.Y. The Corning Museum chose one of the three, which became known as the world’s largest paperweight at 107 pounds.
Public Broadcasting System produced the documentary Defying Gravity about Simpson’s process in creating these pieces.
Look closely at this piece. There are so many dimensions depicted by shape and color.
“Some of his pieces are blown glass, some are molded glass,” Weinstein said. “He creates spheres that he calls megaplanets, complete with landscapes, underwater scenes and vistas of outer space.”
Simpson’s 100-pound planet will be joined by smaller pieces, some depicting Saturn and even one shaped to be a meteorite.
And concluding the show will be Wolf’s Moon Project in the Colonnade Gallery. Wolf will be returning to the museum for a panel discussion alongside her fellow exhibitors on Oct. 22. But she’s the only artist here on this day, having traveled from her Oak Park, Ill., home to hang her show.
And to look at the moon.
“I was inspired by the moon while I was walking one day,” she said. “It was morning, and the moon was out, and I thought the moon only rose at night. But there it was in daylight.”
Wolf was looking for something to coax her outside on a daily basis. Why not track the moon?
It gave her a reason to look at the skies, to better understand science and math. She has a degree in anthropology, but science and math aren’t really her strengths. That is, at least, before she started applying her artistic abilities in documenting the moon.
Results are painted onto a daily calendar. Some days the moon is clearly visible, some days not. The latter are marked by a simple darkening of the calendar day.
“This was the spring from hell,” she said, pointing to one of her calendars. “That was when my husband was coaching little league baseball, and the sky was always gray.”
What about this calendar, which has been totally blacked out, save for a day or two.
“That was when we had a fire in our house,” Wolf said. “At home, I could walk out in my pajamas and look at the moon, but we were staying in a hotel, and I couldn’t do that at a hotel.”
So, there is an accounting for every day of every month. And Wolf doesn’t need written words to remember what happened when.
Sort of like the people in Galileo’s time. Remember how they trusted images more than words? And Galileo gave them images, shaded, detailed watercolors and drawings of the moon and the Milky Way and the planets.
All produced in much the same way Wolf is creating her artwork.
Which brings this show full circle.
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