The Artistic Astronaut Conquers the Canvas

Visual Arts


In her time with NASA, former astronaut Nicole Stott marked a lot of milestones. She’s flown on two spaceflights and spent more than 100 days working and living aboard the International Space Station. She’s spacewalked, crewed the final flight of the Space Shuttle Discovery and became the first person to fly the robotic arm to capture a free-flying HTV cargo vehicle. Earning the moniker The Artistic Astronaut, Stott was also the first astronaut to paint in space, an experience that sparked a second career post-NASA. Returning to her Florida roots as the 2017 Ringling College Commencement Speaker, Stott took a moment with SRQ to talk the difficulties of painting in space but also why it’s important.

SRQ: How did your time as an astronaut lead to painting? Stott: To look back on the Earth from space—that is certainly a ‘wow’ moment and it never stops being that. 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.

What kind of paint did you decide would work best in space? I took a tiny watercolor kit. And I left it there. That was silly. I did bring the painting back, but I left the paints thinking that someone else might want to paint.

Watercolor is surprising. How does that work in zero gravity? Keeping track of your stuff is a difficult thing in space, when it all just floats around you. Painting with watercolor, you can’t just keep it in a cup and dip your brush in. I would squirt out of my drink bag this tiny little ball of water, and then I’d take the tip of the brush and just touch it to the water. Because of the way surface tension works in microgravity, you touch the tip to the ball of water and it just sucks it into 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. I had a little watercolor kit with the squares of color, and I would take the brush, touch it to the paint and it was like the paint wanted to suck the water in. You mix it around, put the brush back in and it sucks back onto the brush—a little ball of colored water now. And then the paper wanted it. It flowed so nicely. Like everything up there, it’s different, but in some ways even more fun.

Do you see commonalities between the artistic and scientific disciplines? Absolutely. I don’t think you can find more of a believer in the fact that these two things intersect so nicely—science and art, space and art, technology and art. I love it. We’re starting to realize that we need to go back to more of a Renaissance approach to education, where we don’t sacrifice the humanities for the science and technology. We’re at Ringling College and look at this place. The artists and the designers here are very creatively talented, but look at the tools they’re using. Ultimately, art is the universal communicator. The zeros and ones don’t always do it.

For the full interview with Stott and more musings from space, check future issues of SRQ magazine.

Pictured: The Artistic Astronaut, Nicole Stott. Photo by Wyatt Kostygan.

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