A brush with space
Ascent of Atlantis

Stan Stokes, Ascent of Atlantis, n.d., painting, 40 1/2 x 50 3/4 inches, Collection of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. VBMA PHOTO

Vero Beach Museum of Art launches NASA art exhibition


Years ago, when Vero Beach Museum of Art’s curator of collections and exhibitions, Jay Williams, held a similar position at the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, he got wind of a nearby collection that piqued his space-generation curiosity.

Williams learned that a portion of the collection of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Art Program was housed at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The complete NASA collection of about 2,000 pieces is spread out, with installations at several other venues, including the Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. and the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The program was conceived by James Webb, a forward-thinking NASA director in the early days, who believed that the average citizen would learn more about space exploration through art than through dry, written reports.

Webb is quoted on NASA’s web page as saying: “An artistic record of this nation’s program of space exploration will have great value for future generations and may make a significant contribution to the history of American art.”

More than 200 cameras document every second of a launch at KSC, but it takes an artist’s eye to turn that visual information into images that grab the imagination of those outside the space community.

Access to the inner workings of NASA was first granted to selected artists in 1963 to document the last manned Mercury mission, the launch of spacecraft Faith.

The artists who contributed to the collection in its more than 50 years of development have worked in oils, acrylics, watercolor, pencil, lithography and, of course, photography. A particular favorite of Williams is Hot Shot, a 1983 lithograph by Texas-born artist Robert Rauschenberg. The list of contributing artists includes icons of the art world: Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Jamie Wyeth, William Wegman, Roy Lichtenstein and others.

A traveling exhibit celebrating the 50th anniversary of the NASA art program made a limited tour around the country a few years ago but the exhibit going up at VBMA is unique, Williams says, “because we (VBMA) chose what we wanted to exhibit in terms of style, subject matter, and the numbers of works of art. They let us choose from the entire collection without holding anything back.”

Williams and the museum’s chief preparator, Matthew Mangold, drove up to KSC last summer to make their selections for this summer’s exhibition. They spent an entire day going through and photographing the collection.

“It was very exciting to see what we had to choose from, and a difficult choice,” Williams says. “We examined the entire collection in storage, shot reference images, devised an in-house review and ranking procedure, and rated the various works of art according to subject matter, style and educational potential. These in-house rankings helped us make a selection that would fit the Holmes Gallery.”

The process of arranging for the exhibit has been similar to working with another museum, Williams says, “except that it’s clear that they’re very understaffed and probably underfunded. The NASA personnel have been extremely cooperative and happy to see the collection come out of storage and used the way it was intended.”

Most of the art selected for the VBMA exhibit are paintings in oil, acrylic, or watercolor. Two photographic works by Thomas Struth and William Wegman are also included, Williams says.

For Williams, fascination with the space program was a natural part of growing up in the time of Mercury, Gemini and Apollo. “We were all riveted by the space race and moon landings,” he says.

Having a brother who worked for a company that made rocket engines for the Gemini program gave his interest a boost that continues today. He and his wife, Penny, keep up a membership in the Kennedy Space Center and enjoy sharing the experience with their grandchildren.

For this special exhibit, seven members of the museum staff were asked to choose a favorite piece to be included in a cell phone narration for museum visitors. It will blend art historical information with each one’s personal observations about a specific work of art, Williams says.

Even the museum’s summer film studies course will be getting in on the action mid-summer. The schedule is still in the planning stage but is expected to include some older films as well as space travel films from the time of the moon landing and space shuttle voyages.

“Classes may begin with an episode of one of the early serials from the 1930s, like Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers, making the tone of the classes light and fun,” Williams says. He’s lobbying for one of his personal favorites, Forbidden Planet.”

Arthur C.Clarke, science writer and co-writer of the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey said, “The astronomical artist will always be far ahead of the explorer. They can depict scenes that no human eye will ever see, because of their danger, or their remoteness in time and space.”


What: The Art and Artists of NASA

Where: Vero Beach Museum of Art’s Holmes Gallery

When: June 25 through Sept. 15

See the original article in the print publication

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