“Is that real?”
On my laptop screen, a galaxy cluster 4.6 billion light-years away glowed like sequins flung across a dark sky. A mouse click took me to more James Webb Space Telescope pictures: black holes, stellar nurseries. One appeared like a vaporous mountainscape under an ultramarine sky, stars glistening into long sharp points, each—as if mimicking the song—“a diamond in the sky.”
Our response to glistening is itself ancient, appealing to the human attraction to reflections, perhaps a carryover from our days as wanderers in search of a clean water hole. And before stars and planets competed with streetlights, their glow in the night sky dazzled our ancestors.
But now the whole Webb experience bowled me over with these sparkling galaxies and what they mean in terms of deep time, space, and human inventiveness. So, I wondered: Will I still go out on a hot summer day to sketch a solar eclipse with a pencil? Will I still smear orange paint on black to record a lunar eclipse from my little yard in southwestern Virginia? Will I still be satisfied with my scribbled notes?
Yes. Absolutely. Because even though the Webb photos amaze, they’re hard to bend my mind around. And as a visual artist, I’m all about the visceral, the intimate, and the experiential. It’s not a choice, not as if being this way were better or worse. It just is.
And so my “primitive” sketchbook pages will continue to weave a humble human story with the celestial and earthly ones. Here are my messy observations made on August 21, 2017, while witnessing a solar eclipse:
1:05 Through my special sunglasses, all I see is a big golden ball in the sky. I hear cars whiz by, someone mowing, a couple of guys hammering next door.
1:10 Still waiting. An ant bites my ankle. My face drips with sweat.
1:12 I think I detect a small bite out of the sun, upper right. A hawk screams.
1:25 A cicada buzzes, another seems to answer back. A hummingbird twitters. Dan brings me coffee in a sippy cup. [That is, my husband, Dan. Did he think I was so engrossed I’d spill a drink in a mug?]
1:35 Don’t the sweat bees have any respect for my watching a celestial event?
1:36–1:40 Clouds block the sun and moon.
2:00 Dan is telling me about Stonehenge, about shamans’ interpretation of events like this.
2:15 Cloud cover . . . Oh, please drift away! I can’t tell if the earth has an unusual glow now, or if my eyes are affected by looking at this page in the brightness. [I have to push up my eclipse glasses to see what I’m doing.]
Clouds drift away . . .
2:20 Increased chirps and calls: cardinal, goldfinch, jays, crows, wren, song sparrow, catbird, chickadee. Do they sense something different? Crickets—high-pitched chorus.
2:30 Darker now, or rather, the earth is bathed in soft, golden light.
2:35 Peak . . .
The moon’s path over the sun has left a sliver of light above, like the arch of a thin eyebrow. Birds are quieter.
It feels cooler . . . 79° (about 5° difference—84° when it began).
2:40 The sliver’s on the right now, noticeably shifting direction.
2:47 My drawings are crude . . . yet somehow making them affects me intimately, connecting to precise astronomical measurements in this most unscientific witness.
2:53 A towhee has sung “Drink your tea!” every eight seconds for about five minutes now. My mind is geared for timing intervals.
3:05 I noticed no huge difference in insects and birds at the eclipse’s peak. Would I have in the direct path of totality?
Why do all these drawings look like they were made in the dark of night? Because of the eclipse glasses! Only the sun is bright through them.
Next time I watch a solar eclipse, I should just draw many circles in squares—a template—and fill them in as I see changes. The next one is in 2024, though not close to Bristol. Will I be alive to see it? A good chance.
Of course, I’m not pushing art historical or scientific boundaries in these sketchbook pages. My sketches have nothing to do with art movements in 2022 and everything to do with living in the present. And my science? A Supertramp lyric comes to mind, the one about questions getting too deep when all the world’s asleep for such a simple man. Replace “man” with “woman,” and there you have it.
Here’s another thought. The Webb Space Telescope photos could result in a collective epiphany, inspiring all of us to dwell on big questions like “How did it all begin?” and “Are we alone in the universe?” Yet we plod along as we always have, stuck in mud as we seek the proverbial water hole. Then again, maybe that’s natural—maybe our brains are more wired to grasp a black ant biting our ankle than a black hole light-years away.
When my son Theo was ten years old (he’s over forty now), he’d go out on a clear, dark night with his red Tasco reflector, gripe about the streetlamp’s light pollution, and squeeze his eye to the lens. He’d view Saturn or the M13 cluster or something he’d read about in Sky and Telescope. On a piece of notebook paper clamped to a clipboard, he’d scribble his observations, jot down times along with subtle planetary changes. Those childhood drawings record such simple delight with things not so simple: a pencil transmitting outer space to inner space.
Now he’s Ted Stryk, whose expertise in digitally refining early astrophotography inspired Alan Stern to invite him to join the New Horizons mission. That NASA project studies the dwarf planet Pluto, its moons, and other objects in the Kuiper Belt—all at the outer limits of our solar system. That boy with his telescope in the front yard would grow up to be one of the first to see the surface of Pluto and its moon Charon. He’d join others at John Hopkins University clapping and hooting as the first high-resolution images of that distant dwarf planet appeared on overhead screens.
Closer to home, last spring I witnessed a lunar event and jotted these notes above and below my sketchbook painting:
May 15–16 Gray tree frogs croak over the neighbor’s swimming pool, filling the night with high-pitched pleas for love. I lean back in the Adirondack chair I’ve set up in the front yard, watching the lunar eclipse. By 11:20 p.m., it looks like a big, naked eyeball, lens white, staring south. (What would a moon be looking for?) Totality at 11:30 p.m. is no disappointment: blood moon is what they call it, but it’s more like a blood orange—the fruit, that is.
In the hour that follows, that rusty-red orb glows orangier on the left, then at the bottom gets darker, and finally when a crescent moon emerges bright white, it’s well after midnight and I’m so ready for bed.