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NASA Art Exhibit Launched in Vero Beach

Jay Williams
Jay Williams

He was thinking outside the box decades before that metaphor became a business cliche. On March 16, 1962, NASA administrator James Webb sent out a two paragraph memo to his staff suggesting a group of artists to help tell the agency's story of space exploration and adventure.

Webb understood that the average citizen would learn more about space discoveries through visual arts rather than dry and technical reports. That initiative would go on to produce a striking catalog of nearly 3,000 works of art by more than 200 artists spanning NASA's first 50 years. The first series of  artwork depicted the last manned Mercury  mission in 1963, the rocket Faith.

Fast forward to 2016: "Out of this World: The Art and Artists of NASA," is a captivating collection from the NASA Art Program housed at the Kennedy Space Center now on display at the Vero Beach Museum of Art through September 25.

Most of the artists in the Vero exhibition are painting in oil, acrylics, or watercolor. But visitors will also find pencil, lithography, mixed media and photography. The show spotlights a diverse pool of artistic talent, from painters to photographers, musicians to poets. Many are icons of the art world: Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz, Jamie Wyeth, Roy Lichtenstein, Nam June Paik, and William Wegman to name a few.

Artists, like astronauts, are constantly probing into the unknown. Shortly after its establishment in 1958, NASA created the NASA Art Program on the principle that artists are uniquely equipped to interpret and document the experience of space exploration.

"The NASA art collection represents an important source of inspiration for the general public that embraces and celebrates the glorious achievements of the U.S. Space Program," says Luis Bernos, NASA's senior design specialist. "Through the talents, skills and graceful strokes of a brush, we share in the passion and pride that is an important step forward toward reaching the stars and bringing together worlds of art and science."

In the summer of 2015 museum curator Jay Williams and chief preparator Matthew Mangold spent a full day reviewing and photographing the collection that is in a storage area at the Kennedy Space Center, eventually choosing 71 pieces from more than 300 works of art.

"We got full reign in our selection process," Williams relates. "It was difficult which ones to choose. We rated the works of art according to subject matter, educational value, and style. We think we covered NASA's history, all the various eras have a full range of styles from abstract to documentary and realist."

The artists were given the opportunity to work behind the scenes at an assortment of locations such as the Kennedy Space Center and Edwards Air Force base. They had access to high-security areas of NASA's operations and were able to interact with astronauts while they were busily engaged in their mission-related duties. The artists observed everything from underwater training that simulates weightlessness to witnessing a space shuttle launch.

The artists bring something that engineers and managers typically have in short supply-- emotion.

"Artists are really emotional types who can project themselves into it and really get a lot out of the experience," said James Dean, a NASA employee who was given oversight of the program.

"Hot Shot" is a 1983 lithograph by Texas-born avante garde artist Robert Rauschenberg. It was composed of manipulated photographic images that include a space suit, a shuttle orbiter being towed down the road and boxes of plants. The piece is a working proof with stencils, paper collage and gold leaf.

"Moonwalk (Pink)" is one of Andy Warhol’s last works, produced shortly before his death in 1987 and never signed.  The famous image of astronaut Buzz Aldrin in a pink spacesuit standing proudly on the moon's surface beside an American flag has become an icon of popular culture. The American hero with the U.S. flag became material for Warhol’s silkscreen series of nationally known images printed with vibrant poster colors. It's a silkscreen on paper.

One of Williams favorite works is Attila Hejja's "Cape Winds." The winds have been blowing across the Cape Canaveral's landscape since before recorded history. In this dramatic work, Hejja looks into the future at a time when both launch Pads 39A and B are operating simultaneously.  Gouache on board, the winds seem to be the dawn of a new age, that of the space shuttle.

As an added attraction, seven members of the staff museum were asked to chose a favorite work of art that is integrated in a cell phone narration for museum visitors. According to Williams, the recap blends art historical information with personal observations about a specific work of art.

"Out of this World: The Art and Artists of NASA"

When: June 25-Sept. 25; 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 1-4:30 p.m. Sunday

Admission: Off-season (Memorial Day to Labor Day), adults $6; seniors $5; students $5 with valid ID; children 17 and younger free; military free with valid ID. Season rates, adults $10, seniors $9

Information: www.verobeachmuseum.org