Shooting stars blazing on campus

Golden meditation on meteors by artist Erika Blumenfeld runs through Oct. 26

If you haven’t had a chance to see “Encyclopedia of Trajectories,” a work-in-progress by Houston-based transdisciplinary artist Erika Blumenfeld on display at the BioScience Research Collaborative, you’re in luck: The exhibition has been extended through Oct. 26.

“The response to Erika’s installation has been really wonderful and there’s so much to see in the work,” said Evan Garza, director of Rice Public Art, who opened the exhibition April 30.

Erika Blumenfeld, Encyclopedia of Trajectories (Work-in-Progress), 2018, 23.5k gold in gum arabic on Arches paper. Image courtesy the artist.

Erika Blumenfeld, Encyclopedia of Trajectories (Work-in-Progress), 2018, 23.5k gold in gum arabic on Arches paper. Image courtesy the artist.


Blumenfeld’s large-scale installation is comprised of 110 drawings based on meteor events recorded by the NASA All Sky Fireball Network, a system of 17 video cameras across the United States that record the brightest meteors shooting across the night sky. Between June 2017 and June 2018, Blumenfeld collected each night’s meteor event data with the intention to eventually draw them all — 5,763 in total.

Blumenfeld paints each trajectory on watercolor paper with a single, graceful stroke using 23.5-karat gold. She selected gold because of its celestial origins as the byproduct of neutron star collisions; gold arrived on our world aboard meteors that hurtled into Earth during the planet’s early formation.

“This piece is about discovering an embodied relationship with the cosmos and the romance of shooting stars,” Blumenfeld said.

Blumenfeld is currently an artist-in-residence at NASA’s Astromaterials Research and Exploration Science (ARES) Division, where she’s been creating three-dimensional virtual models of moon rocks and meteorites, a topic she addressed during the panel discussion following her multimedia talk, “Consequence of Wonder,” Sept. 6 at the Moody Center for the Arts. Alongside her for the panel were colleagues Cindy Evans, chief of the ARES Division, and Ryan Zeigler, Apollo Sample Curator and manager of the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office of the ARES Division.

“I want to point out Erika has fallen in love and had a personal relationship with every single one of these rocks,” Evans joked that evening.

Garza shares Blumenfeld’s passion for meteorites; that’s how “Encyclopedia of Trajectories” came to be exhibited in the BRC in the first place. They met at an Artists in Dialogue talk last April at the Moody in which Diana Thater and David Alexander discussed perceptions of outer space and the beauty of the night sky.

“We started talking about meteorites and we haven’t stopped talking about meteorites since then,” Garza said.

Blumenfeld has long paired a passion for the natural sciences with artistic pursuits, demonstrated in such efforts as The Polar Project, during which Blumenfeld lived in Antarctica for six weeks while documenting its natural phenomenon with photo- and video-based works and writing. But it was her move to Houston in 2016 to begin her project at NASA that eventually inspired her to take up a calligraphy brush and gilt ink for “Encyclopedia of Trajectories.”

Blumenfeld (Photo by Mark Poucher)

Blumenfeld paints each trajectory on watercolor paper using 23.5-karat gold. (Photo by Mark Poucher)


“I spent 20 years living under pristine dark skies in remote locations,” Blumenfeld said. “Houston is the first city I’ve lived in in a very long time where I haven’t had a clear view of the starry night.

“A pair of astrobinoculars will take you beyond the haze of light pollution,” she said, but it  pales in comparison to the big West Texas skies near Marfa, where Blumenfeld spent a two-month residency at the McDonald Observatory and Ballroom Marfa in 2004. Enamored with what are known to be some of the darkest skies in the U.S., Blumenfeld moved to Marfa in 2007 and lived there for nearly five years. Marfa, she said, “is a place where you can see the Milky Way from one edge of the horizon to the other.”

Today, the Milky Way is hidden from more than one-third of humanity, including 60 percent of Europeans and nearly 80 percent of North Americans. And for years, scientists have warned that the effects of light pollution are having a negative physiological impact on humans and other animal life, disrupting everything from natural circadian rhythms to migration patterns.

“The natural night has both intrinsic biological and cultural significance,” Blumenfeld said. “We are evolutionarily adapted to having natural darkness, and the natural night is critical to our physiological and emotional health, where illumination brighter than a full moon night can cause such a cascade of issues that the American Medical Association has named artificial light at night a major human health risk. The starry night has also connected us for eons to a sense of deep wonder and curiosity about our place in the universe, and it has been a wellspring of knowledge-seeking and cultural continuity across the arts and sciences.”

The question then, she said, is: “How can I activate a nightly intimate relationship and connection with the starry sky? And, knowing that I am actually made of star stuff, how can I learn to embody the stars as this tiny person in this huge cosmos? We are of and from this cosmos — and if we are able to acknowledge that at a deep embodied level, then wonder is with us always.

“Shooting stars — meteors — have evoked so many stories, wonder and longing across time and cultures, evidenced by the fact that we have for millennia engaged in sending our most intimate wishes to shooting stars,” she said. “As a subject of both deeply scientific and cultural significance, documenting by hand every shooting star for one year seemed a worthwhile challenge within my artistic practice.”

With “Encyclopedia of Trajectories,” Blumenfeld aims to ensure the integrity of the subject comes through the drawings, and looks for particular characteristics of each meteor every time she paints one of the gently arching paths.

“It’s a daily practice of learning from the stars,” she said. “I have an intimate relationship with the drawing while I’m making it, and when it is done there is still a resonance for me of that connection, but I equally become an observer. The work as a whole teaches me directly about certain aspects of our yearly interaction with meteor showers and the movements of objects in our solar system,” Blumenfeld said.

“This work is about seeking and discovering how we are connected to the universe across human, geologic and cosmic timescales,” she said. “I think it’s important to be reminded of this meaningful connection as often as possible, and consider taking time to look for it in the world around us.”

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.