SPOTLIGHT Chronicling the Space Age in Watercolor: The Work of Barbara Prey
By Raphael Rosen, contributor
It’s funny how much an artist’s subject matter can change over the course of a career. Take, for example, Barbara Ernst Prey, one of America’s most celebrated watercolor artists. A long-time resident of both Maine and Long Island, Prey has for decades painted the lives of small fishing villages and the people who make their living from the sea. Recently, though, Prey has taken on several projects that are on the opposite end of the spectrum. Instead of depicting quiet scenes of fishing boats, she has begun painting towering rocket engines erupting with flames. Rather than directing her gaze towards the earth and waters, she has started contemplating the sky and what lies beyond. In other words, Barbara Prey has joined an elite group of artists: those that NASA has asked to chronicle the space age.
The notion that NASA might be interested in art might sound odd: how many other aerospace organizations commission paintings? In fact, NASA has been involved with art almost since the agency’s inception. One of NASA’s earliest administrators, James Webb, felt as early as 1962 that an art program would benefit both the agency and society at large. “An artistic record of this nation’s program of space exploration will have great value for future generations and may make a significant contribution to the history of American art,” Webb said in a contemporary press release. The resulting NASA Art Program was first managed by artist James Dean, and in the years that followed the list of contributing artists included Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell, Peter Hurd, Paul Calle, George Weymouth, Laurie Anderson, and Annie Leibovitz. Originally, artists were paid $800 for their efforts; today, that amount has risen to $2,500. Throughout the history of the program, though, the payment has been more in the form of cachet, knowing that you were a part of documenting a special time in American history.
And now Barbara Prey is a member of this illustrious group. Over the past 12 years, Prey has completed four paintings for NASA. One shows the International Space Station (which was commissioned before the station was finished). Others show the Columbia and Discovery space shuttles, as well as the unmanned X-43A airplane, which recently used a scramjet engine to set a new speed record. (The 12-foot-long vehicle reached Mach 9.6, or around 7,000 mph, which happens to be 10 times the speed of sound.)
Prey stresses that part of her process is extensive background research. “I really want to understand, learn as much about [the subject] as I can. I don’t want to just paint a painting,” she says. When she began the International Space Station project (in 2002), for instance, she spent six months studying the station, as well as talking to scientists and installing a small-scale ISS model in her Long Island studio.
"Discovery Shuttle Return to Flight." 32” x 40”.
Watercolor and drybrush. Collection NASA, NASA
Headquarters. Image courtesy the artist
Sometimes completing a NASA commission can require more than just getting the mechanical bits of a spacecraft right. Sometimes, the emotions surrounding a particular incident in NASA’s history demand special sensitivity. When Prey was asked to complete a painting to commemorate the Space Shuttle Columbia, which exploded during a landing in 2003, she had to think carefully about how to approach the subject. The decision’s significance was heightened because prints of the finished work would be given to members of the fallen astronauts’ families. In the end, Prey chose to depict Columbia in an upbeat way. “I decided to do something really positive,” Prey says. “I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would paint, and soon I realized it wasn’t just a painting. It was about the people.” The painting itself gives off a radiant aura: the shuttle lifts triumphantly from the launch platform, pointing straight and true. Even the painting’s colors convey optimism. The vibrant blue of the sky, the red-orange of the shuttle’s main booster rocket, and the white of the exhaust together evoke the red, white, and blue of the American flag. You can almost hear Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.”
Her third painting for NASA, of the Space Shuttle Discovery, was, in Prey’s words, not as “emotionally fraught.” But in her work, Prey acknowledges that while the Discovery mission—the first shuttle mission since the Columbia tragedy - went smoothly, the atmosphere surrounding it was bittersweet. The image she created shows a small Discovery set against an immense sky and billowing exhaust clouds, while below spreads a distorted, shimmering reflection in a Florida lagoon. In a sense, the painting depicts the rise of the shuttle program from disaster, the clear shuttle emerging from confusion and pain.
"X-43." 18” x 30”. Watercolor on paper. NASA
Commission, Collection NASA. Image courtesy
When asked about the relationship between art and science, Prey noted that both scientists and artists “look at the world and try to understand it.” In addition, “both artists and scientists are thinkers who reflect, solve problems, and use their imaginations.” But sometimes their roles diverge. “Scientists analyze and dissect,” Prey states, “while artists point towards what should be analyzed and dissected.”
Prey also had a lot to say when asked about the differences between paintings and photographs. “Paintings are imaginative, not reflective,” said Prey. “They are stamped by the artist’s viewpoint.” Paintings, according to Prey, are filtered by the artist’s brain, which absorbs information and processes it. The result is that paintings are both “very personal and very universal,” Prey said.
Today, the NASA Arts Program is not what it once was. Hobbled by budget cuts, the program has not commissioned a new artist in five years. “We are definitely on hiatus,” said Bert Ulrich, the former manager of the program. Ulrich is now the NASA Liaison for Multimedia, and coordinates collaborations between the space agency and television and movie producers. (Past projects include Transformers, The Avengers, and Men in Black 3.) He also helps coordinate NASA participation in documentaries (up to 100 a year).
Though they have a wide audience, one could argue that these projects lack the impact and cultural stickiness that, say, a Rockwell painting has. Art like that communicates the essence of NASA in a way that a partnership with a Hollywood blockbuster rarely can.
“Part of NASA’s mission is to disseminate information as much as possible,” Ulrich related. “Art was an easy way to do that.” Amen.
"Columbia Tribute." 30" x 22". Watercolor and drybrush. NASA commission, Collection NASA, Kennedy Space Center. Image courtesy of the artist.