Outer space meets inner emotion

There are scientists and there are artists. There are the caricatures of spectacle-sporting number crunchers wielding calculators and there are odd-mannered creative types toting pallets. 

As local artist and former NASA employee Jim Dean found out 50 years ago, they are more alike than different.    

Dean, a resident artist at the Torpedo Factory, founded NASAs art program in 1963 to capitalize on the publics growing interest in the rest of the universe. The latest exhibit of the project, NASA / ART: 50 Years of Exploration, is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. 

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The novel idea of outer space and competition with the Russians had enveloped the public in the late 1950s and early 60s. NASA had the unique ability to predict when history would be made. It had to be documented not only with photographs, but with paint brushes, too.

NASA had hundreds of cameras capturing everything that was going on, so you couldnt compete with the factual record, Dean said from his third-floor studio at the Torpedo Factory. But when you looked at the photographs there was something missing, and it was the excitement. The tension. The electricity that was in the air when you were watching an individual getting on top of this rocket and step off the planet into a whole other environment.

Dean was a trained artist when he began working for NASA, so he was a natural bridge between art and science. He reached out to the likes of Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Jamie Wyeth to document the emotion that photos could not. Beginning with the eight artists who captured the last Mercury flight that launched astronaut Gordon Cooper out of this world, artists became almost a mainstay at NASA facilities. 

They were thrilled to receive the access, Dean said. These artists had front-row seats to the storied stage that was Cape Kennedy. 

But Dean soon realized the astronauts were as enamored with art as the artists were with the scientific and cultural enormity of space. He remembers artist Paul Calle sketching Buzz Aldrin, Neal Armstrong and Michael Collins having breakfast on the morning of July 20, 1969, not long before their 9 a.m. launch to the moon. Collins approached Calle and asked to look through his sketchpad.

He began thumbing through the drawings, just looking at them, Dean said. 

The moon is marvelous, and watching an artist work can be marvelous too.

There was a mutual awe between scientists and artists, according to Dean. Both had to be imaginative in their work, and the admiration for one another was palpable.

The art program brought NASAs work back down to Earth. Americans could now see through the lens of an artist like Rockwell, to whom NASA officials loaned a space suit (with proper supervision), ensuring an accurate painting.

People come to the Air and Space Museum to see bright, pointy, shiny objects, and I think its neat when they can go to the art gallery and see a variety of artists takes and its impact on our culture, said Tom Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution. I hope what visitors get out of a visit to the exhibition is sort of what the goal was in the beginning, which was to build a bridge between science and technology and arts and the humanities.

What you see is Jim Deans vision and an incredible vision it was.

NASA / ART: 50 Years of Exploration is currently on display at the National Air and Space Museum in D.C. Jim Dean, artist in residence at the Torpedo Factory, co-authored a book by the same name from his studio in Old Town.

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