On Aug. 21, millions will trek from near and far to view the awe-inspiring phenomenon in which the daytime sky darkens, the temperature drops, birds and animals go silent and the sun disappears. Then, for mere moments, the sun’s corona becomes viewable, spewing magnificently brilliant plumes, loops and streamers into the surrounding darkness.
During the so-called Great American Eclipse, the path of totality — where the moon blocks the entire sun from earth’s view — will sweep across America in a 70-mile-wide stretch from South Carolina to Oregon, the first coast-to-coast total eclipse in 99 years. It’s the inspiration for Eclipse, a summer Art Center College of Design exhibition of artworks inspired by what many have called the most dramatic event visible on earth — the total solar eclipse.
While California families won’t be able to see the total eclipse from home — on the West Coast, it won’t be visible south or north of Oregon — the partial eclipse visible here still qualifies as one of the top family draws of summer. (Hardcore total eclipse lovers can watch it live at nasa.gov/eclipselive.) Families can enhance the experience by pairing it with a visit to Eclipse, which runs through Sept. 10 at the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery. The show, two years in the making, places eclipses in historical and cultural contexts and demonstrates their kaleidoscope of connections with the human mind.
Eclipse was co-curated by renowned astronomer Jay M. Pasachoff and Stephen Nowlin, Art Center vice president and founding director of the Williamson Gallery, who has focused his career on the intersection of art and science. Nowlin says the show spotlights ways eclipses have inspired great creative forces that spur both artists and scientists to investigate the mysteries of the universe in their work. “It’s nothing technical, like people would see if they were going to a science museum exhibit with a solar eclipse theme,” says Nowlin.
Indeed, Pasachoff has found the study of solar eclipses so essential he has traversed the globe to view 65 events, 33 of them total. That may sound like a lot, and it is, but eclipses are more common than you might think: A total eclipse is visible somewhere on earth about every 18 months, and totality generally lasts only two to five minutes. (This month, it will last two minutes and 40 seconds.)
The time is precious to scientists, because it affords them only moments to study and collect data on the sun’s atmosphere (a.k.a. corona). Such studies are crucial “because they help us to understand the universe, the laws of motion, the laws of how gases work” and the very nature of space and time. That hunger for knowledge stretches back to the beginning of human history, when earth’s inhabitants thought an eclipse signaled doom, with evil spirits trying to “eat” the sun and leave them in darkness. In later times, preachers assigned religious significance to the event. As science evolved, eclipses became tools to help understand the cosmos and earth’s place in it.
Pasachoff, a visitor in Planetary Science at Caltech and chair of the Williams College Astronomy Department, is a top science educator. He has written many books on astronomy and physics, including student textbooks and teacher guides, and has received the Education Prize of the American Astronomical Society, among many other honors. But Eclipse isn’t designed as science education, per se, Pasachoff says. “It’s art, and it’s for people to enjoy.”
He conceived the idea for the show “because I knew of three oil paintings that were made starting 99 years ago, the last time a solar eclipse path came across the whole United States from coast to coast.” He recruited co-curator Nowlin, who “had the brilliant idea of inviting Tony Misch of the Lick Observatory [Historical Collections] in Northern California to provide artifacts from their eclipse expeditions of over 100 years ago,” as well as other “very bright ideas about installations for the show. The whole thing has come together as a very beautiful and interesting exhibition.”
The exhibition includes an eclectic mix of vintage and contemporary paintings, sculpture, immersive installations, videos loaned by NASA, historic artifacts and documents, all created or inspired by eclipses, says Nowlin. He says one darkened space has projected images of “the three great actors — sun, earth and moon, each on its own separate wall, each moving slowly. It’s a video captured by spacecraft and provided to me by NASA sources. It gives a sense of the scale of forces that work together to create an eclipse, and it’s pretty spectacular.”
Another room offers a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall artwork, titled Eclipse, by Art Center core faculty member Lita Albuquerque, whose work deals with the realities of time and space. The installation is an 11-minute video with narration, Nowlin says, and it “approaches the solar eclipse symbolically through some of her experiences as a child and as an adult who observes natural phenomena.”
A different area is devoted to pages from rare 17th-century books and other documents Nowlin discovered in the Huntington Library. “I had them scanned and and blew them up large and put them on display. They all relate to a solar eclipse that crossed London in 1652 and caused a sensation and debate about whether the eclipse was a predictor of horrible plagues and other dire events or whether it symbolized religious significance.”
The three historic oil paintings that gave Pasachoff the idea for the show are also on view. They’re all by Howard Russell Butler, a Princeton graduate, lawyer and artist who was asked by the U.S. Naval Observatory to join its 1918 total solar eclipse expedition. “Cameras at that time couldn’t capture the extraordinary brightness and colors of an eclipse, and Butler was known as someone who could briefly sketch what he was seeing in those very few moments of totality and then transfer it onto an oil painting at his leisure,” Pasachoff says. Butler went on to view two more eclipses, and his accuracy depicting the events has been praised by astronomers.
Pasachoff will view this month’s eclipse from Oregon, along with his sophisticated equipment, his colleagues and eight students he’s selected to join him. He has support for the junket from NASA, the National Geographic Society and the National Science Foundation. His last eclipse trip was to Indonesia in March, and previous journeys took him to India, South Africa, Australia, New Guinea, Hawaii, Finland and dozens of other far-flung and often isolated destinations. Asked about the burden of traveling so far and so often to conduct scientific studies of an event so brief, he says, “It’s the only chance we ever have to see a whole major region of the sun in high detail. But you only get a minute or two minutes or five minutes every year and a half. So it’s like telling a heart surgeon that if you want to study the human heart you have to go halfway around the world for about two minutes, and you can’t do it again for another year and a half. Would that person do it? Of course he or she would. And they’d take as many instruments and as many colleagues as possible with them.”
Eclipse runs through Sept. 10 at the Alyce de Roulet Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design, 1700 Lida St., Pasadena. Hours are noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and Saturday, and noon to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is free.