Cosmic art: Ancient process used to capture views from space

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By M. Scott Morris

Daily Journal

TUPELO – Artist Jean Russell can draw a line from Homer’s epic poetry to the United States’ space program.

She was at Cape Canaveral on Oct. 15, 1997, when the Cassini spacecraft launched. Its destination was the ringed-planet Saturn and its moons.

The invitation to see the launch was made possible by her husband, Clark Russell, who worked for a company that made parts for the rocket that fired Cassini into space.

“I looked at him,” said Russell, 73, “and told him, ‘I will never be able to wait seven years for it to get there.’ I was so excited.”

The pair lived in Napa Valley, California, at the time, where Russell was, indeed, able to wait until 2004, when Cassini beamed back three different views of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons, and activated her imagination.

“It was the same view, really, with different filters to get different colors,” her husband said

Russell has worked with oils, acrylics, charcoal and more, but eventually decided those media didn’t fit her artistic approach.

“I’m a minimalist,” she said. “I like to do abstract paintings, using one or two or three colors. Or you use one color and different shades.”

More than a decade ago, she dove into encaustic painting, and here’s where the story goes back in time.

“This is one of the oldest art forms known,” she said. “It was mentioned by Homer in 800 B.C., talking about great sailing ships. They would paint the ship in wax so it would be buoyant and wouldn’t sink. They actually added pigment and had beautiful paintings on ships.”

Such beeswax paintings migrated to Egypt, where artists captured portraits of the dead to stay with their mummies. Some of those richly detailed paintings have survived 2,000 years underground.

It was a similar process of beeswax, resin, pigment and heat that Russell applied to the three colored versions of Titan.

“It probably took three or four months just to do the three of them,” she said.

Once finished, there was the obvious question: What should she do with them?

“For years, I have been wanting to donate them to NASA,” she said.

But that plan seemed far-fetched after she spoke with a fellow artist whom she respects a great deal. He’d tried in the past to donate to NASA, but couldn’t get past the review committee.

Russell decided to take “No” for an answer without actually asking the question.

But times changed.

Some five years ago, she and her husband moved to Mississippi, which is somewhat centrally located between family members in New Orleans and Atlanta. They moved to Corinth first, then to Belden.

Clark Russell started what he called his “third career” teaching science at Tupelo Christian Preparatory School. He wanted to take the eighth-grade class to Huntsville, Alabama, to visit the U.S. Space & Rocket Center.

In setting up that trip, he asked that delayed question about the three paintings, and the eventual answer from the review committee was “Yes.”

He delivered the paintings during the field trip in April, but it will be a while before anyone gets to see them.

“They’re working on a new display that will have images of planets and moons that have been sent back by space vehicles,” Clark Russell said.

A spokesman with the Space & Rocket Center confirmed that Russell’s paintings will be included, but said no date had been set for completion of the new display.

Thankfully, Russell is used to waiting because of the seven years from when Cassini launched until the first images returned to Earth. She also had a roughly eight-year lag from when she finished her paintings and they were accepted into NASA’s care.

Russell said she’s just happy things have moved forward this far.

“I wanted to give back,” she said. “I was so impressed and excited at the launch. I didn’t want to sell them. I wanted to give them back to my country.”

At the studio

As she waits for the chance to see her pieces on display, she has more work to do at her studio in downtown Tupelo.

There’s an electric fan in the window that constantly drones on, and every so often Russell has to plug her ears when a Burlington Northern Santa Fe train blows by a few feet away.

Under the watchful eye of Captain Jack Sparrow, a cardboard cutout her husband saved from a trash bin, Russell is once again turning beeswax and pigment into another view of the cosmos.

She uses electric skillets to melt colored blocks of beeswax, then mixes it with resin.

“Some people use paraffin, but that makes it a little more brittle,” she said. “Besides, I want to do it the way they did it in 800 B.C. with the resin.”

Heat must be applied to each layer of wax to make it stay in place. Sometimes, she uses a heat gun to shoot out warm air; other times, she reaches for a torch.

“The torch is what I fuse it with when I want something really smooth,” she said.

Encaustic is a slow, painstaking process that’s almost equal parts art and craft. It’s also expensive. A block of colored beeswax that fits in the palm of Russell’s hand can cost $40 or more. That’s why she scrapes off her mistakes to be melted down and used again.

There shouldn’t be any problems once a piece is completed unless temperatures drop below freezing. That causes the wax to pull away from the support.

Since it’s wax, people often ask about melting, and Russell has a ready answer.

“The melting point is 150 degrees,” she said. “If the painting melts, you have bigger problems than the painting melting. Your house is on fire.”

The encaustic process means her artwork has a dollop of history, and her choice of subjects adds science to the equation, but religion underlies it all, including the opportunity with the Space & Rocket Center, Russell said.

“I don’t believe in coincidences. I honestly believe in my heart this is all God-driven,” she said. “But for the glory of God, this would have never happened.”

scott.morris@journalinc.com