Colleen McLaughlin Barlow

Making Art at 14,000 feet in the sky

By Colleen McLaughlin Barlow

We were bumping along a dirt road in a four-wheel drive, four engineers and me, headed for the Canada France Hawaii Telescope Observatory dome at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii. I was wearing a parka, gloves, hat and thermal underwear, as I knew it was about 10 below at the summit. And most of the observatory dome and the telescope itself are kept at a constant temperature below zero for optimal performance of the extremely precise engineering. The other interesting element of the experience is the fact that there is less oxygen at altitude. The effect is like swigging three cocktails and trying to get down to work!

I am an artist based in Vancouver, Canada, and I was in that vehicle because I had made a proposal to the director of the telescope. The proposal was to have a one-month residency during which I would have access to the telescope and also have a studio space down at CFHT headquarters in Waimea plus living accommodation for the month of March. During this time I would make art and notes for various projects suggested by the experience as well as offering art exercises for those employees of the telescope corporation who wished to participate. At the end of the month I would curate an exhibition of works in progress by me as well as art made by the employees -- mostly astronomers, astro-physicists, engineers and software people.

The director, Christian Veillet, is from France and has a great appreciation of the arts. He assessed my proposal and gave it the green light. I had to come up with airfare from Vancouver to Hawaii but everything else, including transportation up the mountain, some of my food costs, my studio space, various materials and access to the carpentry shop was all provided. I applied for a Canada Council for the Arts grant as well, but unfortunately was refused.

The first few weeks, even after I gave a short descriptive talk about the residency at the all-staff meeting, I was continually greeted by people who were friendly but curious and dubious. 'Why are you here?' they asked. Several pointed out that this was a place for science nerds to do their thing and they had no idea why an artist wanted to spend time here. The journey continued through several of them signing up for art activities such as cyanotype printing sessions, using the sun, the big star of our own solar system, to make art. There were a number of very different art activities designed to be done quickly and with minimal skills but with large aesthetic pay offs.

The final exhibition offered completely different reactions. A number of people were in tears, shaking my hand and kissing me and telling me that they had never seen themselves as I was presenting them -- that they didn't realize that they could be subject matter for art and that they now saw themselves differently as a result of my work. They were also very happy about making art themselves and wanted me to come back and offer more exercises and show them my final work. Over fifty people from the staff attended the exhibition and most of them showed their own work, which they had made with me in the studio. I was presented with a ginger lei and a traditional Hawaiian pau hana party and kissed on both cheeks by each department head. I have been invited back next spring to present the work and lead them in some more creative workshops.


The telescope director made an extremely positive report to the board of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope Corporation at their meeting in Paris and it is felt that this might become an ongoing artist-in-residence program for the future.
 

Some of the work and description of my adventures can be viewed on my blog (which is ongoing as I work through all the material gathered during my time there) at cfhtartresidency.wordpress.com.