July 25, 2013
For astronauts and personnel at the Kennedy Space Center, long work days had at least one saving grace: a hearty dose of Ivette Jones’ home cooking. The safety instructor’s empanadas and Cuban sandwiches became a launch day tradition and endeared her to NASA staff from Cape Canaveral to Houston.
It all started with STS-116, the December 2006 launch of Discovery (now on view at the Air and Space Museum). Jones was a NASA critical processes instructor, training staff in Space Shuttle hardware, safety regulations and emergency egress. For STS-116, Jones was assigned to learn the duties of the “closeout crew,” a seven-member team that helps strap astronauts in and attends to last-minute launch needs. The closeout crew went above and beyond to teach Jones the entire process, and on the day of her final presentation, Jones thanked them with homemade Cuban sandwiches and flan. “That exploded,” she says with a laugh.
The closeout crew enjoyed the food so much that they asked her to cook for the launch. She cooked for astronauts. She cooked for her three- and four-day training sessions. She cooked lasagna with sofrito, a Latin American sauce of blended vegetables; arroz con pollo, rice with chicken; asopao, Puerto Rican gumbo—which she describes as “the most delicious thing you ever tasted on the planet”—and much more.
Tonight the Smithsonian community will have a chance to sample Jones’ cooking at “Yuri’s Night,” a 21+ after-hours party sponsored by Smithsonian Associates. The event, which takes place at the Ripley Center, celebrates the 52nd anniversary of the first manned space flight by Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, as well as the 44th anniversary of the moon landing. Jones’ menu includes guava and cream cheese pastries, coconut cranberry cookies and, of course, her famous Cuban sandwiches and empanadas.
The Cubans and empanadas stuck, she says, because they were the perfect meal for hectic launch days. Jones explains: “You want to give them something that in case something happens and the crew has to go back to the pad, they can just grab it with their hands, unwrap it and eat it quick. I would bring a basket with all the food and they would just go at it!”
Word of Jones’ culinary prowess quickly spread across NASA. “People in Houston know it, the Launch Control Center knows it, everybody at training knows it,” she says. “Every time somebody wants something special, guess who they call?”
For Jones, it was a labor of love. “Working at the Kennedy Space Center did not mean a job,” she says. “It became a personal thing. You’re doing stuff that is important for somebody’s life. You’re doing stuff that if something goes wrong, you pray that [the astronaut] remembers so he can go back to his children. . . . When an astronaut goes to space, he goes with a leap of faith. That’s the kind of commitment you get when you love this thing.”
Twelve years ago, Jones made her own leap of faith to pursue her lifelong dream of working in space flight. As a kid growing up in Puerto Rico, she was inspired by television broadcasts of the Apollo 11 lunar mission. She wrote a letter to NASA and one month later received a package full of pictures and information about the space program—a package that has stayed in her family.
“That little space thing never left me,” Jones says, even after she grew up, got married and divorced, had a son and took a job at Disney World. At age 40, Jones decided to get her college degree, juggling school, work and single parenthood. “It was a burning thing that I just had to do,” she says. “If I didn’t go to school and pursue working for the space program, I knew I was going to have that regret for a long time.”
Jones was accepted into the University of Central Florida’s co-op program, which allowed her to intern part-time at the Kennedy Space Center. NASA recruited her as an instructor immediately after her graduation in 2004. “I’m 52 now and I feel like I’m 20!” she says.
Jones, who is now a human factors coordinator for the Navy, worked at the Kennedy Space Center for 11 years, until the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011. She wants people to know that it’s not all about the high-octane drama of launches. “There is so much love and care behind all that to put those six people in the ship,” she says. Her cooking is a part of that close-knit community.
The recipes come from all over—her mother, her Puerto Rican heritage, her favorite cookbooks and television programs—but she likes to give each one her own “twist.” Her empanadas, for instance, are distinguished by two secret ingredients. Will she reveal them? “No,” she says flatly. “But I can tell you that it has meat and cheese.”
July 17, 2013
The American painter Charles E. Burchfield once said of handwriting: “Let the mind rule the writing not the eye … someone will decipher your hieroglyphics.” Whether impeccable cursive or illegible chicken scratch, an artist’s “hand” is never far from hieroglyphic. It is distinctive, expressive of the artist’s individuality—an art form in and of itself. The handwriting of more than 40 prominent American artists is the subject of “The Art of Handwriting,” a new exhibition by the Archives of American Art.
Housed in the Lawrence A. Fleischman Gallery at the Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture, “The Art of Handwriting” is guided by the notion that artists never stop being creative. “Being an artist carries through in all aspects of your life,” says curator Mary Savig. “Their creativity is lived and breathed through everything they do, and that includes writing letters.”
For each letter, note and postcard in the exhibition, a scholar explains how the formal qualities of the artist’s handwriting shed light on his or her style and personality. Curator Leslie Umberger of the American Art Museum finds in the “pleasant and practical” script of Grandma Moses her twin roles as artist and farmwife. For National Gallery of Art curator Sarah Greenough, Georgia O’Keeffe’s distinctive squiggles and disregard for grammar reveal the spirit of an iconoclast. And author Jayne Merkel observes that Eero Saarinen displayed as much variety in his handwriting as he did in his architecture.
In some cases, an artist’s handwriting seems to contradict his or her artwork. Dan Flavin, for instance, was known for his minimalist installations of fluorescent lights but wrote in a surprisingly elaborate, traditional cursive. Art historian Tiffany Bell attributes the discrepancy to Flavin’s interest in 19th-century landscape painting. “Artists don’t live in vacuums,” says Mary Savig. “They’re really inspired by the art history that came before them.”
They are also shaped by their schooling. Many artists learned to write and draw by rote, practicing the Palmer method and sketching still lifes until they became second nature. Jackson Pollock is one exception that proves the rule: according to Pollock expert Helen Harrison, the artist’s messy scrawl had as much to do with his sporadic education as with his nascent creativity.
Handwriting may be a dying art, now that nationwide curriculum standards no longer require the teaching of cursive. Some have criticized the omission, citing the cognitive benefits of cursive instruction, while others argue that the digital revolution has rendered cursive obsolete. But for now, most visitors can still wax nostalgic over the loops and curlicues left behind by American artists.
Savig admits that her own handwriting looks more like Jackson Pollock’s than, say, the precise script of fiber artist Lenore Tawney. The variety of styles in the exhibition suggests that artists really are, she jokes, just like us: “Hopefully there’s a letter in here that is for every single person.”
July 16, 2013
Since October 2012, more than 140 Smithsonian volunteers and staff have worked together to create a panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated community art project commemorating the AIDS crisis. The Quilt was last displayed in full at the 2012 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, when it covered 1.3 million square feet of the National Mall.
Smithsonian’s panel measures 12 x 12 feet and weighs more than 20 pounds. The top half is a fabric representation of the Smithsonian Castle with knitted and crocheted foliage, while the bottom is made up of personal memorials to loved ones and miniature versions of existing panels in the Quilt. This labor of love will be on view only on July 17, 11:30 to 4:00, in the Kogod Courtyard of the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery, after which it will be transferred to the NAMES Project to join 48,000 other panels in the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
July 12, 2013
The full title of Rina Banerjee’s latest work, now on view in the Sackler Gallery, is 71 words long: A world Lost: after the original island, single land mass fractured, after populations migrated, after pollution revealed itself and as cultural locations once separated merged, after the splitting of Adam and Eve, Shiva and Shakti, of race black and white, of culture East and West, after animals diminished, after seas’ corals did exterminate, after this and at last imagine all water evaporated…this after Columbus found it we lost it imagine this. Since Monday, the artist has been assembling the work in public view in the Sackler Gallery pavilion. The site-specific installation, part of the gallery’s tenth annual Perspectives series, consists of a horned, inverted dome suspended over a river of shells, coins and rope—an imagined world that reflects upon our own.
Bridging worlds both real and invented has always been an essential feature of Banerjee’s work. The Indian-born, New York-based artist was a polymer chemist before she completed her MFA at Yale in 1995. Since then she has exhibited her work at the Whitney Museum, the Queensland Art Gallery and the Venice Biennale. Banerjee’s sculptures combine many different materials—from feathers and skulls to lace and plastic wrap—with as many different cultural points of origin, challenging the divide between natural and synthetic, here and elsewhere. One of her most well-known works is a floating pink Taj Mahal.
Sackler curator Carol Huh was drawn to Banerjee’s work because of her imaginative use of space and “attention to the dynamics of migration and cultural transformation.” Huh adds, “The way she’s also thinking about discovery and travel resonates with the museum.”
In A world Lost, Banerjee revels in allusion on a monumental scale. Originally inspired by the rivers and mountains of Asia, the work has since taken on a constellation of references that span the globe. African feathers, a Chinese temple and the horns of an American buffalo adorn the central dome—itself a twist on the Flemish inverted funnel, a symbol of madness. Figurines enmeshed in the river on the floor were found on Germany and India’s eBay pages. The goal was “not to divulge to you what is China, what is Africa,” Banerjee says, “but what parts of those worlds interest me. It’s a kind of fabrication, invention and creation of…individual identity.”
Banerjee’s own experience of Hurricane Sandy played an important role in the development of A world Lost. She was evacuated from her Brooklyn home for nine days. “We could see the sea coming in towards the high rises,” she says. “In that moment it was very clear the connections we have to the rest of the world, which is this water that surrounds every place.”
A world Lost also has its dark side. Sharp black horns and a mangled wire frame give the dome a sinister aspect, and splashes of red on the (real) ostrich eggs convey death as well as fertility. Light bulbs, vials, coins and plastic cups coexist with the sculpture’s organic forms, but as the flotsam of human civilization they also represent the exploitation and destruction of nature. This duality of meaning is suggested by the work’s elaborate title, which Banerjee describes as an “access point” that has changed and evolved alongside the work itself.
Banerjee did not create a drawing of A world Lost before she began installing it on Monday. “When you’re making larger works, your body only allows you to see the space in which you are making it, and then to see the whole is very hard,” she says. “Instead of fighting that, I really rejoice in the ability to be participating in the sculpture, so to speak, because you’re not in control of all of it. You’re somehow part of it.”
Today is the last day to view the work in progress before it debuts on Saturday, July 13.
June 27, 2013
When editor Arthur Brisbane first observed the Wizard, the man sworn to be greater an inventor than Edison himself, Brisbane was as impressed by what he saw as what he had heard. The Wizard, otherwise known as Nikola Tesla, had already earned a reputation for his daring experiments by the time the two met at a restaurant in Manhattan in 1894. His most shocking performance had been in an effort to demonstrate how safe his alternating currents were when Tesla allowed 250,000-volt shocks to course through his body before a disbelieving public. Noting his slim frame and tall stature, Brisbane noted, “He has big hands. Many able men do–Lincoln is one instance.” Better still were his even more prominent thumbs, after all, “the thumb is the intellectual part of the hand.” Little of Tesla was left unremarked upon, including his pale eyes, which Tesla told Brisbane had once been darker but through years of mental concentration, Tesla had lightened at his will.
“In writing about Tesla,” explains W. Bernard Carlson, author of a new biography on the inventor, “one must navigate between unfair criticism and excessive enthusiasm.” In his new book, Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, Carlson examines Tesla’s many achievements and his tumultuous life that earned him the reputation of mad scientist.
In recent years, Tesla has come back into vogue. A Drunk History episode had John C. Reilly portray him as a man constantly frustrated and eclipsed by bigger names. The flashiest of futurist car companies, Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors, borrowed the inventor’s name for its high-tech models. He’s even getting his own opera, created by Jim Jarmusch and commissioned by Dartmouth College. When Matthew Inman of The Oatmeal published a comic titled “Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived,” Forbes came to the defense of Thomas Edison–slammed by Inman as a CEO, rather than a geek–and fueled a debate that is still going strong. Inman found plenty of pro-Tesla allies and helped crowd-fund the purchase of Tesla’s Long Island laboratory by the non-profit Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyffe group, with plans to turn it into a museum.
Born to Serbian parents in 1856 on the outskirts of the Austro-Hungarian empire in what is today Croatia, Tesla showed an early interest in math and mechanics. After surviving a bout of cholera, he enrolled in a polytechnic school in Austria, where he instantly stood out for his achievements. But the success was short-lived. He developed a gambling problem, dropped out of school and suffered a nervous breakdown, eventually moving to Budapest to work at a telegraph company. After working at Thomas Edison’s company in France, Tesla relocated to New York City to work more closely with Edison. He arrived in the United States with just four cents in his pocket. Once in New York, Tesla took up the challenge of improving Edison’s direct current motors and generators but received none of the $50,000 Edison had promised him to do so. Edison claimed it was a joke and gave him a slight raise instead. Tesla quit and formed his own company.
He would go on to earn some 300 patents around the world, help cement the technologies that formed modern AC electricity as well as radio and television. He experimented with what he called “atmospheric electricity” and claimed he invented a particle-beam weapon at one of his annual birthday celebrations. His genius also had a dark side, as Matt Novak writes for Paleofture:
Like any man, Tesla was far from perfect and sometimes had very warped ideas about how the world should operate. One of Tesla’s most disturbing ideas was his belief in using eugenics to purify the human race. In the 1930s, Tesla expressed his belief that the forced sterilization of criminals and the mentally ill — which was occurring in some European countries (most disturbingly Nazi Germany) and in many states in the U.S. — wasn’t going far enough.
As a celebrity scientist, his enigmatic personality often received and receives still more attention than his many inventions and the processes behind them. Carlson’s book seeks to correct this with a technical breakdown of Tesla’s most notable achievements. “It’s all too easy to associate invention with imponderables such as genius, mystery, and luck,” writes Carlson. “In contrast, I view invention as a process that we can analyze and understand.”
Explaining the method himself, Tesla told a crowd gathered for his Edison Medal award ceremony in 1917:
I do not rush into constructive work. When I get an idea, I start right away to build it up in my mind. I change the structure, I make improvements, I experiment, I run the device in my mind. It is absolutely the same to me whether I operate my turbine in thought or test it actually in my shop. It makes no difference, the results are the same. In this way, you see, I can rapidly develop and perfect an invention, without touching anything.
Carlson points out that this approach is quite different from that of Thomas Edison, who was known to want either the plans or the device in front of him to manipulate. To create a portrait of an inventor and his inventions, Carlson relies on schematics, letters and original documents from Tesla’s life to map out his creativity. A former fellow at the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center, Carlson also called upon resources in the National Museum of American History’s collections to complete his research.
Though many of Tesla’s creations were destroyed in a lab fire in 1895, the American History museum still has a small collection of valuable items, including four motors–two of which are currently on display–that rely on Tesla’s alternating current, a generator and nameplate from the 1895 Niagara Falls hydroelectric power station and a recently acquired stock share from Tesla’s failed Electric Light and Manufacturing Company made out to Robert Lane, the company’s treasurer. Tesla received his own stock shares when the company decided to fire him and move away from invention and into the utilities business.
“It was a very tumultuous industry,” explains Carlson. Companies struggled to figure out how to make electricity profitable, particularly with inadequate means of measuring consumption. Wall Street bankers were uninterested in the Tesla’s idea of wireless power because they could see no way to commodify it. But Tesla recognized that the money would come from the receivers, rather than the sale of the power. When his own company cut him loose, Tesla was devastated.
“He arrives in America in 1884 and this happens within basically two years of his arrival, so Tesla’s heartbroken and he doesn’t know what to do,” explains Carlson, “He basically drifts and winds up digging ditches in downtown Manhattan.”
But in what would prove to be just one of many twists of fate, Tesla’s foreman at the Western Union Telegraph Company showed an interest in the patents Tesla was hard at work on each night and introduced him to a higher-up looking to invest in new inventors. “That’s how he gets the business partners that lead to great success with the motors,” explains Carlson.
Where Edison was an adept businessman, Tesla was less so. In 1888, when Tesla is hired as a consultant at Westinghouse Electric, he finds the support of George Westinghouse.
“The relationship between Tesla, the imaginative inventor and Westinghouse, the entrepreneur and capitalist, is a really good fit,” says Hal Wallace, curator of electricity at the National Museum of American History. Westinghouse bought the patents for Tesla’s polyphase AC motors and agreed to pay him $2.50 per horsepower of electrical capacity sold. Later, when Westinghouse was at the brink of demise after a costly battle for market share, Tesla tore up the contract, sacrificing his plentiful royalties so the patents would remain with Westinghouse.
Both in business and in science, Tesla proved a maverick. But Carlson cautions that this should not dissuade people from studying how exactly he came to his inventions. “Tesla always claimed that he could think through the entire invention in his head and then go and build it and it would work first time, every time,” says Carlson.
Carlson, who spent time with the American History Museum’s Kenneth Swezey Papers, which include letters, photographs and patent testimony, found that even Tesla’s genius can be analyzed and taught to future generations. “There are aspects of the creative process that remain true to this day,” says Carlson. “The number of parallels between Tesla, and say Steve Jobs, are significant and significant enough to say there are indeed patterns and things that we can learn from understanding the creative mind of somebody like Nikola Tesla.”