Rendezvous of the Arts and Sciences

A new art exhibition entitled Cosmos opened Saturday at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. The exhibition features intriguing works by three esteemed Canadian artists – Gathie Falk, Margaret Nazon and Erik Olson – on the subject of space.

A few months earlier, Melanie Kjorlien, Glenbow Vice President, approached me to submit a narrative about her upcoming exhibition. Wow! I am certainly no art critic but couldn’t pass up an opportunity to tap into my artistic side and submit personal commentaries. I accepted Melanie’s invitation and reviewed 14 of the exhibition pieces.

At the weekend opening, I had the privilege to meet two of the artists, curator Mary-Beth Laviolette and many of Calgary’s stalwart art patrons. Viewing the artworks up close for the first time, I was impressed with their ability to convey the wonder of space exploration. Through Cosmos, the Glenbow Museum has found an imaginative way to bring the arts and space sciences together for public inspiration.

In conjunction with Cosmos, the Glenbow has also developed the exhibition The Arctic: Real and Imagined Views from the Nineteenth Century. The Arctic features historical works of art from 1818 to 1876 documenting attempts to navigate the Northwest Passage and the search for Sir John Franklin and his crew. The juxtaposition of these two related exhibitions presents visitors with thoughtful perspectives on exploration and discovery.

Anyway … below are the descriptions that I wrote for five of Erik Olson’s contributions to Cosmos. Erik is a young painter with an astronaut’s sense of adventure (he regularly tours the world’s most exotic regions on his motorcycle) who is growing a reputation as a portraitist. He is originally from Calgary and now lives in Dusseldorf. In the following days, I’ll share how the works of Margaret Nazon and Gathie Falk spoke to me.

If you live in Calgary and are fascinated by the notion of space exploration, I urge you to run – not walk – to the Glenbow to view a captivating exhibition that adeptly melds the arts and sciences. Cosmos: Gathie Falk, Margaret Nazon and Erik Olson will be showcased until January 6.


Erik Olson, Earth, 2011, oil on canvas, private collection. Image: Courtesy of Glenbow.

We first saw images of the whole Earth from space in the late 1960s when the Apollo astronauts made their way to the Moon. Their photos revealed the beauty, vulnerability and isolation of our home planet. Within the vast cosmic void, Earth is alone for hundreds of millions of kilometers. We clearly grasped that our natural ecosystem is multifaceted and intricate, and our resources are finite.

This new world view also heightened our social consciousness and spurred an interest in environmental stewardship. Many astronauts describe a spiritual feeling that comes over us when we view the borderless Earth from above for the first time. We better appreciate that everything on our planet is one, and that we are all connected. We become more impassioned about global cooperation and more diligent in preserving nature and humanity.


Erik Olson, Mars, Phobos & Deimos, 2011, oil on panel, private collection. Image: Courtesy of the Artist.

I love the intense colour and texture used by Erik Olson in his portrayal of Mars. The red colour of the actual planet in our solar system is certainly striking. Mars is red because its entire surface is covered by a layer of iron oxide dust – the same compound that gives blood its hue. It inspired the ancient Romans to name the planet after their god of war.

And Mars features some distinctive geography. Valles Marineris is an extended system of canyons that spans 4,000 kilometers. At some points, the canyon is 200 km wide, dwarfing Earth’s Grand Canyon. Mars also has volcanoes that are so large that they deform the planet’s roundness.

For an astronaut, Mars is the ultimate destination and a goal achievable in our lifetime. Exploration of Mars will help answer some of humanity’s fundamental questions: Was Mars ever home to microbial life? Can Mars teach us how life began on Earth? Could Mars one day become a second home for humans?


Erik Olson, Saturn, 2011, oil on panel, private collection. Image: Courtesy of the Artist.

There is no other planet in our solar system quite like Saturn. The planet is a giant enigma, consisting largely of gaseous hydrogen and helium and featuring a magnificent ring system of ice and dust. Over 50 moons have been identified orbiting Saturn and more are waiting to be discovered. One of these moons, Enceladus, harbours a liquid ocean under its frozen shell and features geysers that spew ice crystals and organic compounds into space.

Saturn’s liquid metal core generates a powerful magnetic field that is responsible for spectacular auroras in the polar regions. And for such a large planet, its spin rate is astonishingly fast (one rotation every eleven hours), driving hurricane-force winds.

There is much more to Saturn than meets the eye. For this reason, spacecraft that visit the giant planet are often equipped with instruments to probe planetary secrets that lie hidden beyond the visible spectrum. Erik Olson’s use of brash colours and rapid brush strokes in this painting brings to mind a false-colour image – the kind of image captured by a hyperspectral camera from one of these spacecraft – delving further into the ringed planet’s complexities.


Erik Olson, Venus, 2011, oil on panel, private collection. Image: Courtesy of the Artist.

Automated spacecraft have now visited every planet in our solar system, including the dwarf planet Pluto. Early in the space age, we sent a probe to Venus and discovered surprisingly high temperatures. The average surface temperature is 460oC degrees – hot enough to melt lead – and much hotter than anyone had expected.

It turns out that the thick atmosphere of Venus is largely carbon dioxide which behaves like a planetary thermal blanket. The sunlight that reaches the surface of Venus warms it. The enveloping blanket of CO2 then prevents the heat from radiating back into space. In other words, the planet is experiencing a runaway greenhouse effect which drives up surface temperatures. Venus’ hellish atmosphere serves as an omen for Earth’s changing climate.

What a stunning depiction of Venus by Erik Olson! My techie sense interprets Erik’s arrangement of colours as a temperature map with higher temperatures (red) corresponding to lower altitudes, and lower temperatures (blue) corresponding to higher altitudes. On the other hand, Erik’s choice of colours might simply have struck him as the best way to represent a hothouse planet.


Erik Olson, Pluto & Charon, 2011, oil on panel, collection of the artist. Image: Courtesy of Glenbow.

As a student, I learned that Pluto was one of our nine planets. Millions of laypeople were therefore dismayed when the International Astronomical Union demoted our beloved Pluto out of the planetary club. I suppose the astronomers had their reasons … but does everything need to be scientific?

Nevertheless, there is still great interest in this dwarf planet. In 2006, NASA launched its New Horizons probe to the dim and frozen outlands of our solar system. Five billion kilometers and ten years later, the spacecraft flew by its targets, Pluto and the moon Charon. The images captured by New Horizons were astounding, revealing beauty and complexity that were unexpected.

I note that Erik Olson completed his painting Pluto & Charon four years before the flyby – at a time when we had no idea what the Pluto system looked like. It’s amazing how much Erik got right about Pluto – mountain ranges of ice, patches of colour and vast craterless plains. The moon Charon is also correctly depicted with a textured geography and a striking reddish region. Well done, Erik!


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