Friday, December 30, 2016

Capturing the Webb Telescope – A tale of modern technology and the ancient art of sumi-e

I was contemplating what subject to paint when the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA) issued its call for artists to create artworks inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. The most powerful space telescope ever built, the Webb telescope will observe distant objects in the universe, provide images of the first galaxies formed and see unexplored planets around distant stars. In November 2016, I was among 23 lucky artists selected from over 150 applications to attend NASA’s first artist event at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 

The Webb telescope’s primary mirror consists of 18 hexagonal mirrors covered in a microscopic layer of actual gold. It measures over 21 feet and resembles a giant puzzle in a sci-fi movie. Standing in front of the telescope, I felt I have been cast

in “Honey, I Strunk the Kids.” The artist event included presentations by experts about the engineering challenges, a behind-the-scenes tour of the center, and creative time to sketch and paint. The afternoon went quickly and I came home with a few sketches, many reference photographs, and a great amount of inspiration to create more artwork of the Webb telescope.
My goal is to create an artwork that represents the amazing technical advancement of the Webb telescope, yet pays homage to the remarkable cultural tradition of the eastern art of sumi-e.  I considered many sumi-e techniques and styles, and examined a variety of materials that might best represent my vision.  After more than a few learning attempts to test the composition and design, I used ink monochrome on gilded gold rice paper and presented the artwork in a four-panel “Byobu” folding screen format.  Monochromatic ink painting is one of the finest forms of artistic expression in China and Japan, and is conductive to contemplation and enlightenment.   The folding screen, measuring 3 feet by 6 feet, suits the magnitude of the Webb telescope, and challenges me to work on a larger scale.
I kept the gold paper untouched to capture the glowing, glorious hues for the primary mirror. I drew the rest of the telescope with simple brushwork. For contrast, I painted the space surrounding the telescope in black sumi-e ink. Instead of solid black, I applied the “tarashikomi” technique, in which a second layer of sumi-e ink is applied before the first layer is dry. This effect creates backflows for fine details, ideal to represent the mysterious universe.  I repeated the process multiple times to build up the complexity.  Although there is no cloud in space, I took my artistic license and created golden floating clouds to preserve the precious gold paper.  These clouds served as tactile barriers to the mysteries of the universe that the Webb telescope will help us understand. 
Because I was reusing an antique folding screen and only had a limited footage of gilded paper from a Japanese artist’s estate, I conducted many tests and created multiple smaller work samples to resolve technical and design issues.  I am grateful for the opportunity to create artwork of the Webb telescope.  The commitment forced me to look deeply into the art of sumi-e to choose what is available to capture new technical subjects while keeping the rich sumi-e tradition.  The scarcity of materials stipulated detailed planning. The process demanded repeated evaluations in which I saw continual refinement as the project progressed. 
The folding screen, with an embroidery quilt I have created, will be featured in a special show at NASA’s Goddard Visitors Center in Greenbelt, Maryland in March and April 2017.  Online exhibition of artwork created by the selected artists is also being planned.  Please contact Joan Lok, for more details.