It’s no secret that Ringling College of Art and Design asks its students to aim high. So it came as no surprise when astronaut-turned-artist Nicole Stott, who crewed the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery and was the first person to paint in space, arrived to inspire students to reach for the stars. SRQ sat with “The Artistic Astronaut” to talk science, art and why she’s ditching the flight suit for the painter’s smock.  

Why space travel? Stott:Initially it was about a love of flying. I grew up with a family that hung out at the local airport and my dad built and flew small airplanes, and so that flying thing got in my blood. But, more importantly, I wanted to know how things fly. In the back of that, was, as a kid, watching the first moon landing. I have colleagues that watched that landing and from that moment forward they wanted to be an astronaut. For me, it was, “That’s really cool. What other people can do.” It never crossed my mind that it was something I could do. Thankfully, no one ever told me I couldn’t do it.  I grew up in Clearwater with the Kennedy Space Center right across the state. That was the thing that led me to it. I worked in Kennedy for eight or nine years before starting to think about this astronaut thing as a potential. I was helping prepare space shuttles for other crews to launch, so I was seeing astronauts come through and what they did as their job 99.9% of the time—which is not flying in space—and realized it was a lot like what I was already doing for NASA. And I did it. And I pinch myself every day. In the end, what I did was pay attention to what I enjoyed, and let that guide me. 

Were you always artistic as well? Growing up, there were artsy-crafty kind of things. I loved woodworking and I helped my dad work on his airplanes. I liked painting. I liked building things. It was always in the background. I never thought of myself as an artist. I liked ballet too. I did do a little in space.

ORIGINAL WATERCOLOR PAINTED FROM THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION BY ASTRONAUT NICOLE STOTT, COURTESY OF RINGLING COLLEGE OF ART AND DESIGN.

What was it about your experience in space that caused this shift, from astronaut to artist?   When you get to look at something from any new perspective, it opens up ideas for you in new ways. To look back on the Earth from space—that is certainly a ‘wow’ moment and it never stops being that. From the first time you look out the window and every time after that, there’s something surprising, something new. It’s day; it’s night. We’re going around the planet every 90 minutes and these beautiful sunrises and sunsets happen every 45 minutes. Looking at what’s familiar to you—like wanting to see Florida—versus just not caring because it’s really beautiful. It evolved. I knew, even before I flew, that, when I finally retired from NASA, I would want a unique way of sharing the experience. There’s so much about it that we need to communicate. Art became that, because I had the opportunity to paint while I was in space.

How does watercolor work in zero gravity? I actually think it was better than acrylics or something like that, because it would be difficult to be cleaning brushes. I would squirt out of my drink bag just this tiny little ball of water, and then I’d take the tip of the brush and touch it to the water. Because of the way surface tension worksin microgravity, you touch the tip to the ball of water and it sucks it into the brush. You look at the brush—down here, it almost looks like the brush and the water are mixed together. Up there, it looked like this ball of water was floating around the brush. Then I would take the brush and touch it to the paint and it was like the paint wanted to suck the water in. You mix it around a little bit, put the brush back in and it sucks it back onto the brush—a little ball of colored water now—and then the paper wanted it. It was so cool. It flowed so nicely. Like everything up there, it’s different, but in some ways even more fun.

 

With all that to see, what did you paint?   I only got to paint once while I was there, and what I painted really and truly is my favorite picture that I took through the window. It’s this little chain of islands on the northern coast of Venezuela and it looks like a wave. When you look down on it, it looks like somebody else has taken a brush and painted a wave in the ocean. And that’s one of the things about looking at Earth—it becomes a work of art. These expansive salt lakes in Australia look like Georgia O’Keefe was at work. The patterns in the Bahamas are gorgeous, and the Sahara almost looks like little birds have run across the sand dunes. All these patterns are in the planet. Every time you look out the window, there’s a surprise. And part of the Amazon,
if you float just right in the window, looks like a big, tusked elephant. I think we’re meant to discover it.

Can art ever capture this experience?  As human beings we’re trying very hard to do that. There’s the photography and video that’s coming from astronauts on-station, and that gets better and better, but there’s always going to be something to seeing and feeling something with your own eyes and heart that is just a little bit different. A lot of us have been working through traditional artwork—painting, photography—but also collaborating with artists in the digital world doing virtual reality and augmented reality experiences where you can surround yourself in some way with these views we’re capturing from space.