Space and Wonder at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art

Space and Wonder at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art title=
Space and Wonder at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art
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By Robert Bernstein

Space and Wonder: A Conversation with Russell Crotty - Santa Barbara Museum of Art

"The Observable Universe: Visualizing the Cosmos in Art" is a new exhibit at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. One of the featured artists is Russell Crotty who was recently interviewed at the Museum. 

Here are some of my photos from that interview as well as from the Museum exhibit.

Russell Crotty's father was an art teacher at the College of Marin and Russell grew up as "an obsessive draw-er". At age 12 he became interested in astronomy. He could buy one book each month and he was happy to purchase the "Sky Observer's Guide". He also got a six inch Newtonian reflector telescope. He went on to live in the Santa Monica Mountains which offered good sky viewing. He built his own telescope that was 8 feet long with a 10" mirror. This gave an aperture of f8.

He became quite a serious amateur astronomer. Instead of taking photographs, he followed the practice of the early astronomers and made detailed drawings of what he saw. And when I say detailed, I mean detailed. He used archival ball point pens on huge sheets of paper.

The boundary between astronomical drawings and art became blurred. Here was his representation of Comet Hale-Bopp in 1997

He moved his detailed drawings to the surfaces of spheres for a variety of notable art installations. Here he posed with some of these spheres yet to be drawn upon

His installations have appeared in a number of museums like this one at the Vancouver BC Art Gallery

He has a permanent installation at the US Embassy in Beijing, China as well. But his pen and ink on paper creations have continued in a big way, too. A really big way. Here is an example of an enormous "roll up book" containing some of his drawings

The James Lick Telescope was built in 1888. It is a 36 inch refractor telescope, meaning that is the diameter of the glass lens that forms the image. Refractor telescopes are much heavier and more difficult to fabricate than reflector telescopes which use mirrors. But refractor telescopes can give finer details of celestial objects like the planets and our own moon.

He shared this photo of his visit to this historic telescope which was the source for early detailed images of the planets and the moon. He described it as "very Jules Verne"! It was the largest in the world for years.

The Lick Observatory has 3,000 observer log books. Not only did it have a world class telescope. It was also the first mountain observatory, giving clearer skies than those down below. He had the privilege of viewing some of these detailed drawings of Mars.

Crotty went on to talk about the earliest galaxies in the history of the universe. They were different from "modern" galaxies. He said they were "blue blobs". He wanted to create art pieces that would allow people to experience this early stage of the universe.

The pieces would be deliberately "funky", made of ordinary items like shower curtains. They were designed to be interactive, allowing visitors to walk through the exhibit. His wife Laura helped with this project.

We realized Laura was sitting in the audience with us

Crotty went on to speak surprisingly calmly about how he lost all of his telescopes and his house in a 2007 fire. After that he moved to Northern California. But he is now living in Meiners Oaks near Ojai. Here is one of his pieces on display at the current Santa Barbara Museum of Art exhibit. It is called Nightfall Matilija Wilderness

Photographs cannot capture the experience of viewing this piece in real life and starting to notice the extraordinary details. The exhibit will be on display only through February 16. A mere blink of an eye from now in cosmic terms!

Here is more information about the exhibit "The Observable Universe: Visualizing the Cosmos in Art"

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