SciArt Magazine - All Issues - Page 14

SPOTLIGHT Chronicling the Space Age in Watercolor the work of Barbara Prey By Raphael Rosen Contributor It’s funny how much an artist’s subject matter can change over the course of a career. Take, for example, Barbara Ernst Prey, one of America’s most celebrated watercolor artists. A long-time resident of both Maine and Long Island, Prey has for decades painted the lives of small fishing villages and the people who make their living from the sea. Recently, though, Prey has taken on several projects that are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of depicting quiet scenes of fishing boats, she has begun painting towering rocket engines erupting with flames. Rather than directing her gaze towards the earth and waters, she has started contemplating the sky and what lies beyond. In other words, Barbara Prey has joined an elite group of artists: those that NASA has asked to chronicle the space age. The notion that NASA might be interested in art might sound odd: how many other aerospace organizations commission paintings? In fact, NASA has been involved with art almost since the agency’s inception. One of NASA’s earliest administrators, James Webb, felt as early as 1962 that an art program would benefit both the agency and society at large. “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,” Webb said in a contemporary press release. The resulting NASA Art Program was first managed by artist James Dean, and in the years that followed the list of contributing artists included Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell, Peter Hurd, Paul Calle, George Weymouth, Laurie Anderson, and Annie Leibovitz. Originally, artists were paid $800 for their efforts; today, that amount has risen to $2,500. Throughout 14 the history of the program, though, the payment has been more in the form of cachet, knowing that you were a part of documenting a special time in American history. And now Barbara Prey is a member of this illustrious group. Over the past 12 years, Prey has completed four paintings for NASA. One shows the International Space Station (which was commissioned before the station was finished). Others show the Columbia and Discovery space shuttles, as well as the unmanned X-43A airplane, which recently used a scramjet engine to set a new speed record. (The 12-foot-long vehicle reached Mach 9.6, or around 7,000 mph, which happens to be 10 times the speed of sound.) Prey stresses that part of her process is extensive background research. “I really want to understand, learn as much about [the subject] as I can. I don’t want to just paint a painting,” she says. When she began the International Space Station project (in 2002), for instance, she spent six months studying the station, as well as talking to scientists and installing a small-scale ISS model in her Long Island studio. Sometimes completing a NASA commission can require more than just getting the mechanical bits of a spacecraft right. Sometimes, the emotions surrounding a particular incident in NASA’s history demand special sensitivity. When Prey was asked to complete a painting to commemorate the Space Shuttle Columbia, which exploded during a landing in 2003, she had to think carefully about how to approach the subject. The decision’s significance was heightened because prints of the finished work would be given to members of the fallen astronauts’ families. In SciArt in America June 2014