The Spirit of Innovation

I had the pleasure to meet Margaret Nazon at the opening of the Cosmos exhibition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. Margaret is a contemporary artist and delightful woman from the Gwich’in First Nation in the Northwest Territories. Tsiigehtchic, the small (150 people) remote community where she lives, is situated on the Mackenzie River south of Inuvik.

As a child, Margaret learned beading and sewing skills from family members and at residential school. These traditional crafts are often used by northerners to embellish clothing and household items with regional designs.

But Margaret Nazon loves to experiment. She has taken her skills to the next higher level by blending traditional techniques with her love of astronomy. Her craftsmanship has been adapted to brilliantly depict auroras, constellations, galaxies and nebulae. Each of her works of art involves stitching thousands of glass beads of various sizes and colour onto black velvet in pointillism style – an exacting process that can take 70 hours to complete.

It was a joy for me to meet Margaret. We shared our knowledge and wonder of the universe. She impressed me with her child-like curiosity about the night-time sky. She has re-imagined her traditional craft in new ways – demonstrating an admirable spirit of innovation – to bring the heavens down to earth.

Below are the descriptions that I wrote for six of Margaret Nazon’s contributions to the art exhibition Cosmos: Gathie Falk, Margaret Nazon and Erik Olson. The exhibition continues at the Glenbow until January 6. You need to see Margaret’s beaded textiles up close – the intricate beadwork is often so layered that it appears three-dimensional.


Margaret Nazon, Galaxy Cluster, fabric with beading, canvas backing, private collection. Image: Courtesy of Glenbow.

From the themes in Margaret Nazon’s artwork, it is evident to me that she is a big fan of the Hubble Space Telescope. So am I. This Telescope has made some of the most dramatic discoveries in the history of astronomy. Galaxy Cluster is Margaret’s interpretation of a famous Hubble image known as the Ultra Deep Field – one of the most comprehensive images of the universe ever taken.

Off and on since 2003, astronomers have pointed Hubble at a dark region of the sky. This region is so small that it could be covered by Queen Elizabeth’s eye on a coin held at arm’s length. Within that tiny area of supposedly empty sky, astronomers discovered 10,000 galaxies of various sizes, shapes and colours. The age of some of these galaxies extends far back in time to within a few hundred million years of the Big Bang.

Margaret’s elaborate beadwork of planets, star fields, nebulae and galaxies makes us feel like we are observers of cosmic creation.


Margaret Nazon, Mask Galaxy, fabric with beading, canvas backing, private collection. Image: Courtesy of Glenbow.

The Mask Galaxy beadwork is appropriately named. It certainly resembles a decorative mask that one might wear to a masquerade ball. However, I interpret Margaret Nazon’s image differently – as a prelude to a cosmic ballet.

In Margaret’s exquisite creation, I see two galaxies that have just commenced a pas-de-deux. As the dancing duo is drawn together by massive gravitational forces, their constituent dust and gas will begin to swirl around as a whirling dervish. The resulting maelstrom will trigger new star formation, switch on quasars, and even detonate supernovae. The two spiral galaxies will dance together for several hundreds of millions of years before rebirth as a single new galaxy of different form.

Galactic mergers are common occurrences – a normal part of the universe’s evolution. In fact, The Milky Way is itself headed for a collision with Andromeda, our closest neighbor. The two galaxies are currently speeding together at 100 kilometers per second. That ballet is expected to start in about 4 billion years. By then, humanity will have migrated to intergalactic destinations so that future astronomers will be able to watch the performance – a spectacle of colour and light – from a safe distance.


Margaret Nazon, Milky Way Spiral Galaxy, fabric with beading, canvas backing, cariboo horn, collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Image: Courtesy of Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

No one has ever taken a photograph of the entire Milky Way. From our position within the galaxy, it’s not easy to envision what it looks like from the outside. But by making internal measurements, astronomers have determined that our Milky Way is a large barred spiral galaxy, just as Margaret Nazon has artistically depicted.

Margaret‘s Milky Way Spiral Galaxy makes me think about a question that I am often asked – “Do you believe in aliens?” I do. Having said that, I must clarify that I have never met an alien nor seen credible evidence that they have visited Earth. But the size of our galaxy suggests that aliens could exist. The Milky Way is made up of approximately 100 billion stars. Many of these stars are likely orbited by one or several planets. In fact, recent findings from exoplanetary research tell us that there are more planets than stars in our galaxy. So, other rocky planets somewhere out there with just the right conditions could’ve spawned life, as happened on Earth billions of years ago.


Margaret Nazon, Tadpole Galaxy, fabric with beading, canvas backing, collection of the artist. Image: Courtesy of the Artist.

I love this artwork because the appearance of this galaxy is distinctive … unlike that of conventional galaxies. Scientists have named this galaxy Tadpole because of its head-and-tail shape. But to me, this odd-looking galaxy resembles a runaway pinwheel racing through space like a firework with a long streamer of stars in its wake.

If Margaret Nazon’s Mask Galaxy depicts the prelude to a cosmic collision, then her Tadpole Galaxy depicts the aftermath. The Tadpole Galaxy’s distorted shape results from the gravitational interaction between a former large spiral galaxy and a smaller blue one. Under the influence of strong tidal forces, the spiral shapes of the original galaxies became twisted into knots, creating a long tail of stars and gas that stretch out more than 280,000 light-years.

Margaret has used blue beads in the spiral arms and long tail to depict the numerous young blue stars that were spawned by the galactic collision. Each of these beads represents clusters of up to a million young blue stars. Their colour is blue because they contain very massive stars 10 times hotter and one million times brighter than our Sun.


Margaret Nazon, The Blue Marble, 2018, beads, shells, cotton twill fabric on canvas, collection of the artist. Image: Courtesy of Glenbow.

In The Blue Marble beadwork, Margaret Nazon has entwined a strand of DNA through our home planet. With this symbology, she reminds us that Earth is the cradle of humanity… home to billions. Within our solar system, Earth is the solitary oasis of intelligent life.

In the coming decades we might detect life elsewhere in our galaxy. That would be sensational … the news event of the 21st century. But it very well could be that we are the only intelligent life in the universe.

The recent rhetoric and posturing between nations worries me. Considering the slow, arduous progress that civilization has made over the last millennia, wouldn’t it be the ultimate calamity if humanity ceased to exist at our own hands?

Survival of our species is not a sure thing. I hope that humanity will still exist 1000 years from now. But on our present trajectory and with our current mindset, that’s uncertain.


Margaret Nazon, Milky Way Starry Night, fabric with beading, canvas backing, collection of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Image: Courtesy of Glenbow.

Our home galaxy is called The Milky Way. It gets its name from the milky band of starlight that we see stretching across the sky on a dark night. Its appearance results from viewing a disk of billions of stars from our position within the galaxy. Margaret Nazon has well depicted the variety of galactic constituents – stars, planets, gas and dust; all bound together by gravity – with an assortment of bead sizes, shapes and colours.

Since I live in a city, I don’t often see The Milky Way in all its glory. But on those occasions when I am in the countryside far from city lights, the shimmering swath of starlight is visible to my naked eye. Seeing it still gives me goosebumps.

As light pollution from urban centres encroaches on our outlying areas, we cannot take dark night skies for granted. I’m proud that Canada is leading the way to protect stargazing sites with more dark-sky preserves than anywhere else in the world.

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