Meet me under the stars

From the moment humans began sharing in the power of story, we have shared in stories of the stars. Some of the earliest carvings, stone circles and cave art—dating tens and even hundreds of thousands of years—depict super nova, comets, constellations, lunar cycles and accurate star charts.

Spherical star cluster Messier 13; Photo credit: NASA/Hubble

Gazing up at the starry universe has sparked awe and wonder across time, giving rise to worldviews, cosmologies and traditions, motivating art, literature and architecture, and guiding traditional knowledge, philosophies and science. As far back as we can see in the material remains of our species’ lineage, cultures have looked to the stars to answer some of the most fundamental human questions, whether to locate and understand our place in the universe or to reflect on the meaning of our lives.

Our stories are the cultural evidence of what we hold as meaningful in our hearts and minds and sharing them allows for a kind of social remembering. Story roots us in personal, social and cultural experience and has the ability to move beyond time and place. Studies in neuroscience have shown what traditional knowledge and cultural making practices have known since their onset: that story can guide us toward empathy, social justice and personal transformation. When telling our story to others, the part of the brain that regulates moral sensibilities and empathy are illuminated in both speaker and listener.  The constellations of our stories are as wondrous as the constellations of the stars.

I’ve been a longtime stargazer and advocate for dark sky preservation. In 2013, I began researching and writing about the many deleterious effects that light pollution is having on our view of the universe and why that matters (for a brief interview from 2014 with The Cultural Landscape Foundation on my thoughts about dark sky stewardship click HERE). My research made clear that nurturing our relationship with the starry night—and preserving and restoring the natural night—is critical to the health of all Earth’s systems. To achieve natural and cultural sustainability we must enter into a dialogue about those things that threaten our cultural wellbeing, ecological stability, species biodiversity and biological health. The research on the vanishing night sky indicates that each of these are in peril due to our over-illumination of the night, and go beyond the tangible, visible effects—the veiling of the night sky also threatens the more intangible aspects of our cultural continuity and traditional knowledge as well. As a diverse and a creative species, if we lack a view of the universe, a view that has connected us with a sense of awe and left an imprint of wonder on our hearts and minds, what part of us wanes?

In 2013, I also initiated the Sky Scrolls project, an evolving archive of our star stories with the hopes of collecting thousands of written stories recounting people’s personal and heartfelt experiences while stargazing and what it meant to them at that moment in their lives. Incredible, thoughtful and deeply moving stories have been submitted from all over the globe and I am now creating sculptures, community-embedded installations, and a forthcoming interactive website to archive your stories of the stars.

Full Moon through 8-inch telescope; Photo credit: Blumenfeld

In marking our current personal, social, national and global moment through our story under the waxing and waning of our Moon’s light, under the rare glimpse of passing comet, under the breathtaking surprise of a bright falling meteor, under the imaginative constellations that shift seasonally in the sky and under the orbits of the planets we share the solar system with… stars and story can be reflections of each other.

Stargazing is something we can do from our backyards, front stoop, rooftop or windows. Whether in solitude or with your quarantine circle, stargazing can connect us even when we are apart. Looking up at the stars together, our eyes become its own constellation of the stars. For every time we look up at the stars our eyes are literally absorbing starlight photons into our bodies. A part of the star’s own story meets yours in the very moment you gaze upward at them. Will you meet me under the stars?

Jupiter with its 4 Galilean moons aligned; Photo credit: Blumenfeld

Over the next few weeks we have so many wonderful stargazing events, all of which you can see with the naked eye and you won’t want to miss them! Comet NOEWISE is now visible in the evening an hour or so after sunset, a once in a lifetime change to meet this little icy world! Jupiter is at its brightest phase and visible all night, and if you happen to have some binoculars (or telescope) you can see Jupiter’s 4 biggest moons—known as the Galilean moons—aligned! Saturn is also at its brightest phase and visible all night just behind Jupiter. Mars glows its beautiful reddish hue throughout the night as well, as the Mars 2020 mission prepare to launch the Perseverance rover there later this month. Scroll below for a list I compiled for you of night sky events we can share over the next few weeks!

If your experience stargazing moves you to write the story of your moment under the stars, please use the form below to submit your story to the Sky Scrolls project. Submission is open to everyone–Sky Scrolls is meant to eventually be a global archive of people’s experiences of the night sky everywhere. Please feel free to write your story in your native or chosen language.

If you live in the Houston metro area please see below for details about my current public art project. All Houstonians are welcome to submit a story to be a part of the Sky Scrolls: Houston Constellation, but District D residents are invited to be a part of a special community-embedded sculpture: the first 30 stories submitted from District D residents be etched in a spiral form inside of a 4-inch solid crystal sphere that will then be mailed to the story’s author as part of this free public artwork (photo and more info below).

You can submit a night sky story from a past experience or a current one and your story can describe an experience you’ve had in any part of the world. Once I have collected your stories, this website will become an interactive 3D re-envisioning of all the stories and will appear as a constellation of your words. Stay tuned as this project progresses!

Perhaps in sharing our stories under the stars together in this virtual way, we can source new connections with each other despite this time of physical distance. Will you join me? ~Erika Blumenfeld, 15 June 2020

ARTIST BIO

Artist Erika Blumenfeld has a research-based interdisciplinary practice weaving the knowledge realms of art, science, nature and culture. A Guggenheim Fellow and Smithsonian Artist Research Fellow, Blumenfeld is currently artist-in-residence at NASA Johnson Space Center. Click here to see full bio.

STARS, PLANETS & COMETS ON VIEW RIGHT NOW!

  • July 15, 2020: Jupiter is closest to Earth! Having just reached opposition over the last two days, the largest planet in our solar system is brightest for the year. Easy to spot with the naked eye in Houston, Jupiter is visible in the night sky almost all night and will be bright for many weeks to come. After sunset, before sunrise or in the middle of the night be sure to catch a glimpse of this wondrous gas giant. If you happen to have some binoculars (or telescope!) you can see Jupiter’s 4 biggest moons: Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto—right now they are aligned! Click here to learn how to find Jupiter!
  • July 19, 2020: Saturn, our solar system’s second largest planet, is at opposition and brightest for the year—it will be visible almost all night and bright for many weeks. It will be traveling just behind Jupiter–the pair are beautiful to see together. Click here to learn how to find Saturn!
  • July 22, 2020: Newly discovered and now double-tailed comet known as NEOWISE will be closest Earth on its journey around the sun. Comet NEOWISE, a visitor from the outer solar system comprised of early solar system material, is a small icy world that was first seen in March. For the rest of July it will be bright and visible to the naked eye in Houston and Click here to learn how to find Comet NEOWISE!
  • August 2020: Mars is getting brighter each day as it approaches opposition over the next few months (exact on October 13) and is visible every night, rising in the late evening before midnight in the early part of the month and up by 9:30pm toward the end of the month. Click here to learn about the brightest planets visible in August!

Check back for more night sky phenomena updates…

THE SKY SCROLLS: HOUSTON CONSTELLATION COMMUNITY-EMBEDDED SCULPTURE

Houston-based artist, Erika Blumenfeld’s public artwork for Houston’s District D has just made a radical shift: rather than producing a sculpture installed outside in the urban environment, she has decided to embed the sculpture within the community itself. Blumenfeld’s Sky Scrolls: Houston Constellation artwork envisions collecting written personal narratives of people’s experiences of wonder gazing up at the stars.

A Sky Scrolls story 3D sub-surface etched in a spiral form inside a 4-inch crystal sphere; Photo credit: Jake Eshelman

The first 30 stories received from Houston’s District D residents will be etched inside a 4-inch sphere of crystal glass in one of several spiral designs inspired by galaxy forms. Originally these glass spheres were to be installed into a fabricated steel “star” wall and installed in a park in District D. In considering the vast changes occurring in our lives because of Covid-19, Blumenfeld felt inspired to re-envision the piece:

“Working on this project while watching our community face new ways of interacting within our city environs, I felt that I must shift the direction of my project. I believe that public art must be in service to the public. By shifting the work to become a free interactive public sculpture that is embedded within the community itself, Sky Scrolls: Houston Contellation becomes a constellation of our shared experiences under the stars.”

Throughout Blumenfeld’s career she has occasionally launched comparable free public art projects, where she invites community members to receive a small artwork which is then visualized as a poetic map of the embedded sculpture. She has created such embedded sculptures in Houston in 2004, Santa Fe in 2005 and Dallas in 2015.

Now, Blumenfeld again invites the Houston community and metro area to participate in a new free public artwork for her Sky Scrolls project. The first 30 Sky Scrolls submissions from Houston’s District D residents will be 3D etched inside a 4-inch crystal sphere and mailed to their respective storytellers—the sphere will be theirs to keep! The relative placement of each sphere will be logged and the cumulative locations will be symbolically plotted to create a constellation of the Sky Scroll’s stories as an artwork within the community. All Houstonians and metro area residents are welcome to participate in having their story showcased on the interactive Sky Scrolls website, which is currently in development to share each submitted story as well as the project as a whole. However, please note that only residents of District D can receive a crystal sphere for the embedded sculpture.

3D spiral design iterations for Sky Scrolls stories, which will be subsurface etched into 4-inch crystal spheres; Credit: Blumenfeld in collaboration with Protolab

SUBMIT YOUR STORY NOW—the free 30 glass spheres for the District D embedded sculpture is on a first-come-first-served basis and will go quickly! To be included in the premiering Sky Scrolls website, an opportunity that is open to all of Houston and metro area. DEADLINE EXTENDED: Please submit your story by September 30, 2020.

The Sky Scrolls: Houston Constellation public art project is part of the citywide Insta11ations initiative, a partnership between Art League Houston and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs.

Discover what district you live in using this map:
https://www.houstontx.gov/council/whoismycm.html

View Map of District D here:
https://www.houstontx.gov/council/maps2020/d.pdf

SUBMIT YOUR STORY TO SKYSCROLLS: