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Paul Thek, Untitled (Earth Drawing I), ca. 1974.

Drawing the Stars as a Way to Reach Distant Worlds, New Ideas

Under the auspice of the Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018, Tam O’Shanter Drawing Sessions have been underway to explore a breadth of artistic and creative impulses that we call drawing. Named after Carnegie Museum of Art’s historic children’s art program, these episodic gatherings, dubbed drawing sessions, stretch the definition of the medium and return us to the idiomatic drawing board: the foundational and ideational stage of a creative, artistic process. Over the course of the next couple of years that lead up to the opening of the exhibition, this programmatic thread will cover a range of forms and ways of mark-making that give shape to the ideas explored by the session leaders—designers, writers, artists, curatorial companions, and other contributors to the International.

My contribution to the Tam O’Shanter series was a two-part session devoted to drawing the stars, organized in collaboration with University of Pittsburgh astronomer Tommy Nelson. Beyond encouraging visual representations of an ethereal subject, I was interested in exploring an expansive and creative state of mind through drawing. With our minds, we sculpt figures and objects of various shapes from the clouds that float by above us; just as so, with our minds, we can draw lines that connect the shining dots in the night sky. Constellations have been born out of creative minds thus stringing together the bulbs of light; they have guided wayfarers and inspired myths and legends from all corners of the world since time immemorial.

For the first session, held last April at the Carnegie Science Center’s Buhl Planetarium, Tommy and I spoke in turns about the night sky as a site of human inquiry over the past millennia. Tommy projected images of the earliest petroglyphs of the ancients to the latest digital photography of our contemporaries. I presented an inspired selection of slides from past Internationals, focusing on the 2008 iteration titled Life on Mars. Together, we addressed the artistic and scientific impulses that drive humans to put pigment on wall, ink on paper, or light on silver plates. Those of us gathered that night, seated with our heads thrown back under the dome, drew stars, constellations, galaxies, and nebulae, under the expert guidance of the astronomer, and to the sound of jazz, house, and other electronic tracks selected by the artist, music-aficionado Geof Oppenheimer.

The pairing of art and science offered moments of radical and liberating shifts in perspective. With data visualizations projected onto the dome, the Science Center staff CJ Smith and Charissa Sedor took us on a virtual journey to space. As we zoomed further out from Earth, we watched the shape of the constellations as we know them morph and take on depth, ultimately becoming unrecognizable. Even though we may have known that the distance between Earth and each of the stars in a given constellation varies greatly, many of us had not, until that moment, realized how conventional renditions of stars as dots on a flat, black surface had inhibited us from imagining the Big Dipper or Orion’s Belt, for instance, in a three-dimensional space. In a profound recognition of our previously untested assumptions, we filled the planetarium with exclamatory oohs and aahs and drew new connections between the innumerable points in the sky. Seeing and drawing the constellations as shifting lines in motion unlocked us from a fixed perspective, and affirmed an expansive sense of the worlds beyond us.

I ended the three-hour session of lectures, images, and drawing of the universe to customized music tracks with an evocation of the early 20th century German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. In his essay “To the Planetarium,” he conjectured:

The ancients’ intercourse with the cosmos had been different: the ecstatic trance [Rausch]. For it is in this experience alone that we gain certain knowledge of what is nearest to us and what is remotest from us, and never of one without the other. This means, however, that man can be in ecstatic contact with the cosmos only communally.

Articulated in this conceit that we all seek ecstatic contact, communally and in each other’s presence, was my motivation in bringing people together to draw the stars and more: a constellation, a celestial map, artistic interpretations of astronomic events. Yet, we also drew our breaths in awe. We drew one another’s attention to the movement of the stars across the dome. Above all, we drew charged emotions and great inspirations from our collective inquiry. That evening, drawing was wielded as a tool for picturing and connecting to worlds beyond our physical reach, a process of forging connections from one point to another—from art to science, earth to sky, me to you.

The desire to share, communicate, and connect, especially from one person to another, was at the core of the second session, held at the University of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny Observatory.

On a clear June evening, amid the century-old telescopes in the city’s historic center of astronomic observations and studies, Tommy and I focused on letter writing as a form of drawing and sketching out inchoate ideas. While I spoke about the way artists re-tool the written language to offer different modes of communication, Tommy read us a letter he authored that frames letter writing as a vehicle for exchange and advancement of knowledge. Addressed to a friend and peppered with personal anecdotes, it reflected on his initial foray in the field of science, and provided insight into the basic human emotions and desires embedded in noteworthy correspondences in the history of astronomy.

Astronomer Tommy Nelson (center) talks with workshop participants at Allegheny Observatory. (Bryan Conley/Carnegie Museum of Art)

In two groups, we alternately toured the facility and wrote letters in the observatory’s library before heading to the telescope that offered close-up views of the moon, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Under the night sky, we exchanged letters at random, written anonymously to a fellow stargazer, to create a temporary community of letter writers. I described this process as drawing an invisible line from the writer to the stars, then from the stars to the recipient of the letter. Drawing invisible lines thus was not a flight of fancy, but a way to exercise our imaginative faculty to forge meaningful bonds that defy physical obstacles and borders.

To illustrate this point, I spoke about a man interviewed for the Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 documentary Nostalgia for the Light. A former political prisoner in the Atacama Desert during the Pinochet regime, Luís Henríquez spoke about “a feeling of great freedom” while observing the stars in the prisoners’ self-organized astronomy lessons. While imprisoned, the vast sky provided an open-ended and uninhibited way for the men to channel their thoughts to their intimates far away. Could they have written, they most certainly would have: as Martin Luther King Jr. had famously written from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, “what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?” In confinement, writing a letter was King’s way to draw attention to injustices and political turbulence of the world outside, as well as a way to maintain the bonds with his brothers and sisters in the fight. For the prisoners in the desert, the night sky was an infinite message board, even though it may be indecipherable to all but the most attuned.

The noted letter writers of whom Tommy and I spoke about in the fields of astronomy, art, literature, and politics that evening made it clear that these creative, expressive forms are important vehicles for sharing ideas, and that they do not arise or circulate in a vacuum. Serious scientific disagreements, inequitable and unjust application of law and force, and at times, silly quibbles over minor differences in opinions—the various letters we referenced (from Martin Luther King Jr’s 1963 letter to the cosmologist Janna Levin’s book How the Universe Got Its Spots) made it clear that drawing the stars and writing a letter were a proposition that involved far more than physical acts of mark-making. It was a way to draw those who were willing to gather, to look with a sense of wonder, shift perspectives, and entertain new ideas.

As part of the Tam O’Shanter Drawing Sessions, Tommy and I invited participants to become stargazers, mark-makers, letter writers, not in order to present our collective output as works of art and science. But through these two broad categories of knowledge and expression, the session invited all to think beyond the immediate surroundings, and examine how we draw fraternal and sororal lines, our circles of relations, with lines thick and thin, visible and invisible. Other contributions to the Tam O’Shanter series similarly define drawing expansively, for its elasticity as a word and as a medium allows for an array of creative activities. In our two-part star session, Tommy and I presented a distinct case of intimacy, curiosity, and excitement, exploring parallels in how artists and scientists sketch ideas, record thoughts, and draw conclusions (or not) in moments of inspiration under the radiant stars.

The Tam O’Shanter Drawing Sessions, an initiative of the Carnegie Int’l, 57th ed., 2018, are a series of public programs for those who draw and those who do not. Learn more about upcoming Carnegie International programming.