Episode 6: The Marvelous and the Mundane

The James Webb Space Telescope is expected to reveal secrets of every phase of cosmic history, going all the way back to the Big Bang. In this episode we talk with Washington, DC-based artist Timothy Makepeace about his exhibition Reflections on a Tool of Observation: Artwork Inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope. Makepeace’s artwork celebrates the awe-inspiring technology of the space telescope while drawing attention to the fact that it is a human endeavor, revealing the nuts, bolts, and wires of the instrument. Makepeace is joined by art historian Anne Collins Goodyear, whose research exploring the relationship between art and technology provides thought-provoking historical context.


Talasek: Welcome to The Ongoing Transformation, a podcast from Issues in Science and Technology. Issues is a quarterly journal published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and Arizona State University. I’m J.D. Talesek, and I’m the director of Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences. On this episode, we’re in discussion with DC-based artist Tim Makepeace, whose exhibit, entitled “Reflections on a Tool of Observation: Artwork Inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope,” was organized by Cultural Programs of the NAS. To see Tim’s artwork and get more context for this discussion, visit his website at www.tmakepeace.com, or check the notes of this podcast. Also joining us is art historian Anne Collins Goodyear, who is the co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. Welcome to you both, Tim, Anne, I’m so glad to have you with us today.

Makepeace: Thanks for having us.

Goodyear: Wonderful to be here, J.D.

Talasek: So Tim’s most recent work as an artist has been based upon his interest in the James Webb Telescope, a highly advanced instrument, which hopefully will allow us to observe parts of space that we’ve never seen before. But telescopes are not typically objects that we think of as subjects for art, which begs the question: Why? Why would an artist be drawn towards such technology for inspiration as a subject matter for their artwork? So Tim, maybe we can start with you. How did you become interested in the telescope? And what drew you to that as a subject for your art and for inspiration?

Makepeace: Well, counterintuitively, I’m not that interested in space and telescopes. I just happen to see a call for artists, it was a contest that was run by folks at Goddard Space Flight Center at NASA here in Greenbelt, Maryland, just outside DC. And they were looking for some artists to come make artwork about this new telescope, which I had never heard anything about. And so I applied for it, and in the meantime, I started looking up this thing. And the more I looked into it, the cooler it was, and I thought, well, I’ve just got to be a part of this. This sounds really amazing. So in the end, I was one of a handful of artists that was selected to come to the space center where they have the telescope under construction in the one of the world’s largest, cleanest rooms, for fabricating such a spacecraft. I got a couple tours, I went out there twice and took a lot of photographs. The more I learned about it, the more excited I was, and it just drove my interest. And from there, I made a lot of artwork and just kept going.

Talasek: Tim, that’s fantastic. Thank you. So Anne, the relationship of art and technology has long been an interest for you, as a scholar and as a historian. And through your work, we know that this is not an uncommon topic for artists. But I’m wondering if you could tell us, what drew you into this terrain between art and technology as an area of research?

Goodyear: Absolutely, J.D. And again, it’s a pleasure to be able to be part of this conversation. And as you mentioned, this interest of mine in the interconnection between art, science, and technology is a very deep-seated one. In fact, funny enough, I have recollections of having done a term paper, way back when in high school, about Leonardo da Vinci, who of course, is somebody who is understood as sort of a consonant unifier of art and science, especially in his own era. And in many ways, I think the type of curiosity that we associate with Leonardo da Vinci is very much at the core of why I find it’s so interesting to look at how artists, scientists, and technologists can come together. It does strike me that there have been very special moments throughout history at which visionary individuals have come together, sometimes in person and very deliberately, and other times perhaps in spaces that were adjacent to one another, but spaces that nevertheless pushed the development of new breakthrough ideas.

I think, for me, at the end of the day, I really do see a core principle of creativity at work in scientists and engineers and in visual artists that are helping us, quite literally, to see the world and perhaps to see the future. And ultimately, that’s what I find so compelling. I think I like looking at this question of the intersection between art, science, and technology through the eyes of an art historian because there are ways in which visual artists quite literally picture our world. That is to say that they create images that may reflect back to us or preserve for us extraordinary and exciting sites around us. But I think there are also ways in which artists distill and pick up on themes that we may not yet even recognize the significance of. I think that that often grows out of this special curiosity that an artist may bring to subjects that grab their attention. It’s one of the reasons that I’m so interested in the ways in which Tim Makepeace has chosen to picture the James Webb Space Telescope.

And I have to say, I think it’s very special to picture a telescope, in the sense that once it is in orbit, once it is in action, we will see images that are gathered by this telescope, but this may be our one and only opportunity to really picture the instrument itself. And so I think there’s a way in which Tim’s artwork is helping us to be more cognizant of some of the decisions that were actually made in engineering the instrument that will allow us to penetrate in new ways into our universe. So I think it is a very suitable and exciting topic for an artist, but I think it’s also an invaluable subject for us as human beings: to be able to reflect on the instrument that is reflecting back to us the world, the universe that we inhabit.

Talasek: I think that’s a really great observation. And to that point, since we are on a podcast right now, and we’re listening and not seeing the artwork, Tim, I wonder if we could go back to what you were saying about this clean space and this room. And I wonder if you could describe to us not only the space that you were inspired by, being in with the telescope, but also can you describe your work to us in a little bit more detail as to what it represents?

Makepeace: Sure. There’s two parts, there’s the science and then there’s the art, and the art is always hard to talk about and describe. So I’ll start with the science of this beast, this beast that the NASA engineers have come up with. They spent over 20 years developing this telescope. Its purpose is, some say, to replace Hubble, which is going to burn up in a few years, it’s past its lifespan. This new telescope is a space telescope they’re launching a million miles out into space, it’s going to be like 100 times better than Hubble. Hubble is an amazing instrument. So it’s very expensive, very technologically tricky, right on the edge of what is possible. When they first designed the telescope, they didn’t even know how to build it, it was so advanced. They had to invent certain technologies just to fabricate it. Every part of this thing is tricky, from where it orbits to how they get it there. It’s an infrared telescope. Infrared is a reflective telescope, like most large telescopes, and the reflective surface is not silver, it’s gold, because gold reflects infrared energy better than silver. So it has this stunning appearance. It’s a 24 gold-plated dish that’s 21 feet in diameter.

It’s so big, it doesn’t even fit in the rocket, so it has to fold. So anytime you have moving parts, you’ve got complications. And because it’s an infrared telescope, it images heat. And so to image heat, you have to be in a cold environment, you have to have cold instruments, and by cold they mean really cold. It’s like 40 degrees above Kelvin or minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. So they have this enormous sunshades size of a tennis court and that has to unfold. And it’s just, it’s just wild.

So I got to see this thing under construction, and I took a lot of photographs of it. What inspired me mainly was it’s sort of very abstract quality. I was less interested in its iconic imagery, you know, what it looks like as a piece. If you think about an old-fashioned telescope, it’s a tube with an eyepiece. I wasn’t interested in capturing the hole and just describing it as, “here’s this thing, it looks kind of like this”—I was interested in focusing on narrowing my focus, cropping to tighter elements of it, which highlighted the geometry and the materials and the architectural elements of it. I kinda like to think of myself as a modernist artist, and one of the founding principles of modernist architecture is form follows function. So the forms that I was able to see and focus on all derived from this very specialized function that they’ve invented this machine for.

It’s a very abstract concept that is the driver behind these abstract shapes, that I am composing in an abstract way to illuminate some of the really interesting sculptural things about this. My work is based on photographs; they are large charcoal and pastel drawings that are taken directly from the photographs I took and that the official NASA photographer took, and I am drawing them in a very photographic way—very precisely. To me, it’s very important to not be inventive, because what these engineers have invented is, there’s no need to invent anything more, artistically. It’s an amazing artistic piece in itself.

Talasek: I’d like to talk a little bit about your choice of material. I find it wonderful, if you think of drawing in pencil, charcoal, pastel—any of those is technology. To represent such a high-tech, engineered piece of technology with something very, very basic, is, in my mind, quite wonderful. And I wonder if both of you would talk about that a little bit.

Goodyear: Maybe I could jump in for a moment here. I know Tim is going to really have something very insightful to say in response to that. But I’m so glad that you honed in on this question of the choices that Tim is making. Because in a sense, while I would certainly describe the idiom in which Tim is making his drawings as a “photorealistic idiom,” at the same time I would say that there’s really in some senses no such thing as an impartial transcription of reality, in the sense that we know that each of us as human beings is going to make certain choices about what we want to represent that reflect on our own sensibilities. I think in some ways, Tim may be selling himself a little bit short in terms of describing the work that he has created, because in fact I think what makes it so exceptionally compelling, both visually and intellectually, is that he has been very deliberate in a number of the choices that he’s made.

J.D., I’m just going to pick up the gauntlet that you’ve thrown down here for a moment. You focused on the question of medium, which I think is really important and interesting; I think that would be very exciting to ask you to unpack further, Tim, because you are an experienced photographer. And yet you have chosen not to present photographs, you’ve made a very deliberate decision to interpret photographic material, to make particular choices about what you include in an image, how you center an image.

For example, there’s a beautiful drawing now on view at the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Acoustic Test Chamber.” It’s stunning visually, and at the center is, it looks like, a portal of some sort. But it’s no accident that you placed that circular element so prominently in this composition. Another thing that I find really exciting about some of the choices you make is the choice, specifically, of going with a square format, a format that evades the traditional use of a horizon line in landscape painting, particularly, but you defy some of our expectations about how these images might be intrinsically oriented, specifically by going with this square format. I think that’s really exciting, given the fact that space is one of the things that you’re evoking now. I think J.D.’s point about your use of charcoal, which is, and this is a point that you make about your own work, one of the most ancient of human mediums, to depict one of the most sophisticated tools of our era, this telescope, is incredibly exciting.

It becomes even more exciting when we realize that one of the explicit purposes of this telescope is in fact to allow us to peer back into the origins of the universe. There’s this really interesting way in which your choice of the medium, of drawing, in and of itself provides this really beautiful connection between history, the present moment, and of course, what might be possible in the future. Really, I’m just amplifying J.D.’s question. But I did want to comment for a moment on the beauty of the choices I see you making, and to emphasize the significance of those because of course, that’s what makes your work art.

Makepeace: The drawing that Anna’s referring to is a drawing of the acoustic test chamber, it’s this room where they tested the telescope for vibrations, higher frequency vibrations, and it is a specialized room, but it’s just a very basic thing. It has a couple interesting things in it, this big circular tweeter speaker, and it has gantry and some high beams and stuff. But it is not something that Goddard is particularly proud of—they don’t bring tourists there to show them this, you know, beautiful room. It’s just a tool. It’s just a boring, besides a special use, it’s just a tool.

But I liked it because I’m interested in the working elements and finding beauty in everyday things, and particularly in structural things and mechanical things. And so this was a perfect subject. It’s just a derivative element of the fabrication of this telescope. It’s just a tool that they use for the telescope, but the picture does not have the telescope in it. The picture has a large circular tweeter in the center left and then it has a bunch of other structural elements or gantry elements that they can lift things up with, but the net result is this composition of lines and triangles—it’s a very classic composition. And it’s something you could find in the Renaissance, you know, force perspective, all these elements of classical painting or art.

They were there. I didn’t invent this, I just saw it, and I compose this picture to bring these elements out. And one of the intents of that is to, in a way, glorify the mundane, glorify the workaday. That’s what I was focusing on. I just love the architectural elements, the geometry, I love the purity of it, the Euclidean geometry of it.

That’s what drew me to it, and I drew it in the most precise way I could. It’s not just bold, gestural, rough ideas of these formal elements. It was a combination of those things, because this work is an exploration of the relationship between sculpture, photography, and abstraction—finding abstraction in the real world and finding those sculptural elements and putting it all together in various ways. Some of them are more photorealistic, some are less.

It’s this combination of the exquisite and the mundane. This telescope is as exquisite an object as you can imagine. And yet, I’ve included in the image the reflections of the telescope, some of the structural elements of the room—there’s high beams, there’s railings, there’s fluorescent light—things that the telescope was not intended to image. But I liked it because it showed the architectural elements of the environment it was in. It’s an odd contrast.

And then to the point of, why did I use charcoal? Why didn’t I just leave it as a photograph? Whenever you draw something, there’s always an element of simplification, amplification, streamlining, and you’re able to more easily emphasize what the point of that image was, you know: Was it about the sky? Or was it about the land? Or the wall? You can, subtly or not so subtly, amplify those elements and heighten either the emotional content or the physical content of it. That’s one reason I draw them.

And then pencil makes a lot of sense. Only a fool would use charcoal to try and draw something so precise. Charcoal is very hard to control; pencil is much easier to control. But a pencil is really designed for making lines. And I’m not really interested in lines, I’m more interested as a photographer in tones, and particularly black and white tones. And so with charcoal, you can smudge it, smear it, and you can get tones very easily. It’s sort of inherent in the media to get tones from black to dark gray, medium gray, light, just by smearing it. That’s what’s attracted me to photography. So I’m able to bring that part of it into these drawings. And that’s inherent in charcoal. The trick is, how do you control it? You figure out a few tricks and making masks and so forth. A side interest is how primitive the idea of using charcoal is. People have been using charcoal to describe their environment for 50,000 years. And here I am, describing the most advanced engineering thing that they’ve made, with charcoal.

Goodyear: I find it so exciting, as an art historian who has looked at the history of the emergence of the NASA art program in the 1960s, that we actually are talking about a telescope that is named for James Webb, who I believe was the second administrator of NASA. At any rate, James Webb was definitely the initiator of the NASA art program in 1962. And so I also find it really exciting that almost to the day, it is 60 years later, we are reflecting upon his legacy, with respect to creating an expectation of programmatic strategies by which artists can, and could, and perhaps even should reflect upon the emergence of space technology.

If I may, maybe I’ll just share a comment—this was actually in 1963, so it’s a little bit after the program was begun. But Jim Webb said, in June of 1963, that “an artistic record of this nation’s [program] of space exploration will have great historical value for future generations and [may] make a substantial contribution to the history of American art.” So I think Webb recognized, as did some of his contemporaries, the important ways in which it actually took the vision of an artist, perhaps, to create ways of picturing and recording space exploration that could bring together the sense of wonder that these extraordinary, ambitious technological undertakings stimulate in our souls. It is exciting to imagine—right now it’s hard to—but it’s exciting to imagine what it will be like to see those first images that come back.

Makepeace: Part of my excitement when I first saw the thing was knowing that I’m standing there, 30 feet from this telescope that soon will be a million miles from Earth for eternity. And this is a very brief moment in time when it is in this position, in this place on Earth, available to see—it was a very special thing to be part of. And so that also was super inspirational.

Talasek: I so appreciate that there’s so many threads here. That brings up a question in my mind, and I’m so glad that you brought up Director Webb’s creation of the NASA arts program. It’s actually one of the first things that I thought of when I saw Tim’s work—this ode to constructivism, which has influenced Tim’s work, and the Russian space program and the propaganda that was associated with it and space programs from other countries as well—I was thinking about the idea of this as propaganda versus the artwork with the artist’s voice. I was thinking about that in terms of what you both have referred to as the mundane and the marvelous, where we might think of propaganda as just a basic, single objective. Whereas the marvelous is where the artist reminds us of the humaneness and the wonder and the marvel. I wonder, Anne, if you could talk a little bit more about the role of the artist in that context. You quoted Webb talking about how the artist’s role was to help us to imagine the history of space and art in years to come. I’m reminded of a phrase that I heard: that it’s not the role of the artist to communicate or to teach or to be didactic, but to expand our imagination. I love that, and I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that in the context of the history of the arts programs within space exploration?

Goodyear: I couldn’t agree more that I think the role of the arts at the end of the day is always about expanding our imagination, no matter the medium in which that artistic vision is carried forward. This question of the relationship of art and propaganda, I think, is an extremely interesting one. Probably at the end of the day, it has a lot to do with context, both in terms of the circumstances under which artists may be permitted certain privileges of viewing something—that might be part of the equation. But perhaps more important is the context in which artwork is being framed—particularly by the state. I think most of us tend to associate propaganda with political outcomes.

One artist who we might immediately say has nothing to do with propaganda is the artist Jackson Pollock. I mean, here he is doing drip paintings that are totally non-objective. And yet even Jackson Pollock arguably gets pulled into the arena of propaganda during the Cold War, in the form of art exhibitions that are being organized by MoMA and other institutions, but with the support of the State Department. It’s a very subtle and nuanced question, what we mean by propaganda, but if an image is held up as being emblematic of a particular set of values for the sake of putting forward a political message, we might say that that image is being used for propagandistic purposes.

However, I think it’s really important to separate that from what individual artists are trying to achieve. Now, there may be artists whose goal it is to forward certain political objectives, and maybe they cheerfully engage in work that might be understood to be “propagandistic.” But I think that the very best art that has come out of the observation of the adventures this country and others have had in the realm of space exploration has been that art that on in its own right, has sought to break boundaries, has sought to reorient the way in which we see and understand the world. And I certainly see those values very much present in Tim’s work. I think what we never know about art, and I feel like this is why it’s so important that we sponsor its creation to the very utmost of our ability, is we never know how art, which conveys a genuinely creative vision—and I do think that, unlike propaganda, art understands the relationship of the mundane to the marvelous. I think things that are created specifically as propaganda often are only boosterism; they don’t necessarily also embrace the mundane that must also be a part of our existence.

That’s one of the reasons that I love, Tim, the fact that you very explicitly think about those the relationship of those two types of human experiences that we have. But ultimately, I think that the reason it matters so much to protect and incubate and nurture artistic expression is precisely because in the fine arts, in these creative moments, we see individuals who are seeking, ideally, to bring together ideas out of particles that may not previously have been fused. And ultimately, it’s that spark of the imagination, when it is transmitted to a viewer, to a reader, to a listener, that I think in turn, stimulates and elicits more creative responses. And ultimately, it is the creative imagination that allows us to see things in a new way. It is the creative imagination that opens up new realms of exploration. It’s the creative imagination that solves problems. And at the end of the day, I think what really differentiates art from any attempt at propaganda is, I think, even if art is functioning in a propagandistic culture, art becomes an illustration.

Whereas I think when art is functioning in its creative universe, it is demonstrating both the struggle and the glory of trying to forge a particular vision. Artists don’t make their images automatically. They are hard-won hard-wrought products that bring together inspiration with blood, sweat, and tears. And I think that that sense of passion that has brought somebody forward to create something truly marvelous and worthy of our attention—it’s that sense of that creative inspiration which is transmitted, and it’s transmitted across generations.

That’s why we still care about what Leonardo and Michelangelo were doing. That’s why we’re so interested in even the mathematics of Pythagoras. We may have moved beyond it, in some ways, but we’re still standing on the inspiration that was behind those achievements. So there’s not an expiration date on art. And actually, maybe in some ways, that distinguishes it from technology, which is a tool that is developed to solve a particular problem at a particular moment in time. Art is always going to transmit ideas across generations and continue to have that power to inspire, even if—and in fact, maybe we would say because—artists are so plugged in to the questions of their own era.

Talasek: Tim and Anne, I want to thank you so much for this conversation. And to everyone listening, thank you for joining us for another episode of The Ongoing Transformation. To see more of Tim’s work, visit his site at www.tmakepeace.com, and find out more about his exhibit at the National Academy of Sciences by visiting www.cpnas.org. You can follow Anne’s current work at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art by going to the college website, www.bowdoin.edu/art-museum. Check out our show notes for these links and much more. Thanks for joining us.

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Cite this Article

“Episode 6: The Marvelous and the Mundane: Art and the James Webb Space Telescope.” Issues in Science and Technology (January 18, 2022).