New residency at Gemini telescope in Chile

•October 31, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I am going on a new residency – to the Gemini telescope in Chile. See my new blog at

Breakfast before 14,000 Feet

•November 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Base cradle of the telescope (inside the observatory dome)

Up early again for a seven AM departure for Mauna Kea, breakfast and acclimatizing at Halepohaku (the stone house). Grant Matsushige, ever-smiling Senior Instrumentation Specialist (engineer) was the driver for the team: Instrumentation Manager (engineer) Kevin Ho and Detector (engineer) Jeff Ward.

The conversation in the vehicle on the ride up was illuminating. I asked them about whether or not they’d always wanted to be engineers. They all recall having the same need, as children, to pull apart their toys to see how they worked. And they all claim to still have that ‘let’s solve the puzzle’ feeling about their work. The mood became somewhat hilarious as they spoke of making things ‘astronomer proof’ referring to world-class astronomers in much the same way you’d speak of over-sugared two year olds. Grant had just made a switch, which was completely idiot proof and much safer to use, and Jeff was both impressed and grateful at this new innovation. Grant himself is Hawaiian and spoke about growing up without the benefit of anyone suggesting he could be an engineer. So now he is committed to visiting schools and asking little Hawaiian kids things like: ‘so you like computer games — do you know who designs them and makes them?’ He likes to get them on their own home ground and talks with them, planting seeds of ‘maybe someday when you grow up you might want to be an engineer.’ Kevin was quite busy dealing with a conference call meeting on his phone during the car trip up — this was to prove problematic later in the day.

Kevin and Jeff sort out the optics

Bolstered with safety advice from Sharon, I chugged water, coffee and tea like no tomorrow and also had some chocolate. It was a very important day for the telescope as all the final arrangements for going from day observing to night observation had to be sorted out  — different imaging equipment had to be installed and other stuff detached. It was all go and I got all of it on camera. As well, I went up in the blue cage to the very roof of the dome and got a bird’s eye view of something not a lot of people ever see — the heart of an internationally famous telescope. Jeff was my designated ‘keeper’ for the day and he was very friendly and explained everything as things unfolded. He was a roofer and sort of shuffled his way into being an electrical engineer. He is from New Orleans and played in a blues band as a professional musician. His partner, Nadine is an astronomer working at the telescope as well.

Man in Machine

With more liquids and sugar, I did fairly well, although I was certainly feeling the altitude once again as I roved around with the camera. I had to take rest breaks from time to time so as not to be too dizzy on the internal catwalk as I moved around the telescope. On one of my breaks in the kitchen/lounge area, I ran into a very green Kevin, who had been up in the two- man cage with Jeff, working on optics when he suddenly got hit with nausea and had to come down. He took some oxygen, aspirin and strong coffee and rested for a short time before getting back to work. Kevin has been up to the summit hundreds of times — it just goes to show you — you never know when the altitude is going to hit you. On consideration, Kevin thought it was the conference call in the bumpy four-wheel drive ride up the mountain, constantly reading and looking at a small screen, which was the precursor for the incident up in the cage when he felt ill.

World famous Mega Cam up close

The day was fairly challenging for the team in that several technical problems HAD to be solved before nightfall when the astronomer observers do their work. Time on the telescope is carefully meted out to various scientific teams from around the world. Even a half hour of telescope time costs thousands and thousands of dollars and if the technology isn’t working, that time isn’t recoverable, either in terms of optimal celestial observation or money. If a specific heavenly body is only going to be in range for a short period of time, that time must not be wasted. It is an amazing feat to keep everything working properly — mechanics, electrical systems, software, optics etc. And doing it with about half as much oxygen as the brain needs. Yes, all these people, who started out as curious children, pulling apart their toys, are the heroes of the ‘scope. Generally, we don’t often think of the support people who keep a telescope going — we think of astronomers gazing up at the night sky. But the people who keep everything chugging are heroic and amazing. It was quite moving to be there on a hard day and watch as everyone solved everything. Way to go, CFHT!

Kevin and Greg during an engineering crisis

Back down at the CFHT offices in Waimea…

•November 4, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Back down at the CFHT offices in Waimea at a reasonable 2,500 feet above sea level, we all get our brains back — sort of like the Straw Man at the end of the Wizard of Oz. I have been given a generous office area to convert to a studio space for the month and Roger Wood, resident mechanic and maker of anything for any purpose helps me staple gun plastic up the walls and over the floor to protect the general office-ness of the area. Once the area has been ‘secured’, I get to work prepping large canvases, measuring, cutting and priming as about fifty pictures from my first day up at the observatory are being printed out in the printing room down the hall thanks to Ferd, software specialist.

I have a delayed safety presentation from the safety officer, Sharon Potter, who was miffed that I did not have the presentation prior to going up the mountain yesterday. I guess in the flurry of introductions, this fell through the cracks. I learned a lot about the physical symptoms of being at altitude — some of which I’d experienced. It is really important to spend at least an hour at the halfway point to acclimate. As well, it is recommended to drink sixteen ounces of fluid each hour — that was why I got a headache at about four in the afternoon on the first day — I was dehydrated. Also, the kidneys operate differently at altitude and you have to pee every forty minutes or so. And because the brain is dying from lack of oxygen, you have to feed it on what it runs — sugar, simple carbohydrates — and avoid complex proteins and fat that take energy for your body to digest. Yes, a get out of jail free card to eat all the junk food your brain needs…

I have been asked to give a short presentation at the all-staff meeting on Monday and so I work on my talk and pictures for my talk in preparation. It tells the story of my first tour of the telescope a year ago (see earlier in this blog) and how I couldn’t get the place out of my mind. Making art about what I find here is a huge opportunity and I am excited at the prospect. I also point out that I would like the residency to be a dialogue, not just one-sided. With this in mind, I describe several art exercises which are on offer in my studio for whoever wishes to participate. This is a bit of a gamble in that the audience is composed of people whose lives revolve around left-brain activities of analysis and judgment —  not useful in the initial stages of art production. We artists tend to ask the judge to leave the room while we made art. I invited them to try out a different part of their brains for a short time — the exercises I proposed took from five minutes to ten minutes to twenty-five minutes and could be scheduled at everyone’s convenience. Interestingly by the end of the month, almost everyone at CFHT participated in one or more of the activities. There were four activities on offer.

First, cyanotype or sun printing is an easy and dramatic print making method. Paper saturated in photosensitive chemicals is laid flat and various objects are placed quickly on top of the paper. Then the paper is exposed to direct sunlight (making art with star watchers using our own big star — the sun) and any area blocked by an object comes out white and any part of the paper exposed to the sun comes out a deep, rich ultramarine blue. If objects are jiggled during this process, you produce ‘ghost’ images in light blue within the larger white areas. Then the paper is rinsed in water to stop the processing and dried. This process produces very striking images easily and quickly. It requires people to make quick, intuitive creative choices and gives them instant gratification. What I learned from working with the staff is that asking an engineer to empty their pockets usually produces really interesting objects for sun prints! What they learned, in part, is that mistakes (accidentally jiggling their compositions while running out to the central courtyard to expose them to sunlight) makes for better art sometimes. Yes, mistakes are our friends in art production.

Next, sumi-e. I have studied sumi-e, which is Japanese ink brush painting in Kyoto years ago and was keen to share some of the techniques with the staff at CFHT. The basics of the method include very specific processes such as making the ink with an ink stick upon an ink stone, holding the special sumi-e brush vertically as one paints and the focusing upon a specific Japanese character as one attempts to replicate it. There are no do-overs or going back to ‘fix’ the piece. It is a very Zen like practice about being in the present and very focused. The person making a sumi-e painting is encouraged to smell the aroma of the incense added to each traditional Japanese ink stick to inspire the painter. Again, this practice takes however long a person wishes to continue but a single attempt can be made in less than five minutes. As well, personal deviations from the classical character only make the work richer and more prized — again, you cannot screw this up — screw ups are part of the process of producing a unique piece of art.

For those people who enjoyed sumi-e and are very kinesthetic or physically fit and enjoy sports, I offered shodo. Shodo is sumi-e writ large. The characters are made on large pieces of paper laid out on the floor and the shodo-iste uses a large broom and a bucket of ink to paint their character while walking backwards, in a crouch, while looking hard at their proposed character on the wall in front of them. The way the broom/brush is held is quite awkward and forces the artist to use their entire body to complete each stroke. This was particularly popular with a number of engineers and astronomers. Like sumi-e, there is not a big time commitment as the work is made quite quickly.

My final offering for an art exercise was a 360-degree continuous shared landscape drawing. It is a process I have enjoyed with several artists, including the one who gave me permission to use this idea. This activity required four people (five including me) to take about 25 minutes to accomplish. The general method is to commandeer a small hill or other viewing area and divide it into five pie ‘wedge’ sections, fanning out from a common central point. In each wedge segment is a person and a five-page blank paper accordion-style book, a pot of ink and a twig from the property. We used yardsticks to delineate our segments. For five minutes, participants draw what they perceive looking out to the landscape from their vantage point and attempting to draw the view from their segment only. Then, we all sprinkle dry sand (from a common pot in the centre) across the wet ink and the books are closed and passed to the next segment to the right and the person moves their body to the next segment to the left. This is repeated five times so at the end you have five different books of the same scene drawn by five different artists from five different positions. When pulled out as accordions, they look like ancient Oriental scrolls. The sand adds texture and interest as it embeds into the wet ink. I made hard covers for the books and black silk ribbon ties and we all signed the fronts with our names and the date of the cooperative drawing project. I found the resultant drawings fascinating — the astronomer had no horizons! The accountant drew every detail she could in five minutes, even blades of grass. The software guy made small, code-like observances about the landscape and the engineer made the loveliest sketches of tangible things, a bench or the structure of a tree. It was a challenge in that the morning that we pulled everyone together was very windy and we had to grasp our books, twigs and inkpots firmly as we worked. The twigs force people to work less precisely than they might with a pencil or pen and this leads to looser, more interesting work.

First Day on the Mountain

•October 15, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It is a chilly day on Mauna Kea — near freezing. I am in a four-wheel drive with three engineers and we are cruising towards the Canada France Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea at 14,000 feet in the sky.

The engineers are chatty and friendly and haven’t the faintest clue as to why I am with them. Why does an artist want to spend time in a scientific community? We all try to make the best of the situation and discuss real estate prices in Hawaii and Vancouver. We arrive at Hale Pohaku, the stone house, at about 8 AM, an hour after leaving the warm, sunny offices in Waimea. Hale Pohaku is a facility for the feeding and acclimatizing of the telescope workers. It would be very inadvisable to roar up to 14, 000 feet without spending an hour or so getting used to about half that altitude. So we have a nice breakfast and enjoy the stark, desert-like views out to the famous Silversword plants.

These plants look like Dr. Suess designed them for Who-ville. They have a bushy base of silvery green knife like leaves with large stalks of yellow flowers, which only flower every 50 years. They are rare — only found on Mauna Kea at the vegetation line.  The silversword is protected and one is not allowed to touch it. They are very striking and I have plans for them — I wish to render them in ink made from the ground up particles of their dead leaves. I have permission from the director to collect the dead leaves lying on the ground for this purpose. And so, in the final moments before our final ascent, the engineers and I hop around the sacred plants, gathering wizened silversword leaves from the sandy soil.

When we arrive at the telescope, it is bright and sunny and freezing — about minus 10 degrees. Everyone tells me to ‘take it easy’ because oxygen deprivation can be quite debilitating. Steve, one of the engineering team decides he will be my ‘buddy’ for the day. This is a safety system to ensure you don’t go wandering off and pass out from the altitude. He hands me a walkie talkie and shows me how to use it to check in with him.

The first half hour I feel like I’ve had a few martinis and, after a cup of tea, I get down to work. I decide that the most oxygen my body will have all day is right now and so I tackle my landwork first. I carefully take snow from just outside the telescope and pile it onto the gravel of the ground surrounding the telescope into a large representation of the first famous imaging picture that CFHT produced. I go up onto the catwalk of the telescope and photograph my efforts from above with different filters. The image was supplied by Jean Charles Cuillandre, astronomer and master image creator of the team at CFHT.

Any physical exertions take a lot more out of you at 14,000 feet. After the landwork, I am somewhat dizzy and take a short break. I have some lunch with the guys in the lounge/kitchen area. Interestingly, since your brain starts to die at high elevation, the thing to do is feed it to save it. With sugar and salt. Really. Yes, up at altitude you are SUPPOSED to eat Doritos, doughnuts, beef jerky, ramen noodles — simple junk food type carbohydrates and salt to prevent dehydration. We are all so ‘good’ down at sea level and it is somewhat surreal to toss all those rules aside to save brain cells. Feeling better after a light lunch of junk food, I have a coffee — caffeine can help with the effects of altitude as well.

After lunch I take my camera out to the actual telescope itself, which is a large cavernous dome with engineering that resembles a James Bond movie set for an evil mastermind. The engineering team I am embedded with is changing the system from day observations over to night observation mode. There is a lot going on — cables to be switched and run, optic cameras to be exchanged and tons of machinery to be made operational before sundown. Frequently the engineers and software people have a short window in which to ensure everything is working properly. They work against time to solve some incredibly complex problems. It is absolutely fascinating to visually document their struggles and triumphs. If they don’t deal with the snafus, thousands of dollars of scientific time on the telescope will be wasted. They are heroes.

A telescope control room down at the corporate offices in Waimea at 2,500 feet means that observations can be done by remote. Dr. Christian Veillet, the director speaks of the early days of the telescope in the 1970’s when the observations had to be made up at the observatory itself. Apparently astronomers would get bored during the long, cold nights (the telescope is always kept at a specific degree of coldness to optimize the engineering precision) and decide to try and get some work done — handwriting their scientific papers. They’d have a feeling that all was well and that they were really getting somewhere. When they returned to sea level, they would find they had written gibberish due to oxygen deprivation. There is a quote, “Don’t ever work on the big problems at altitude.” With this story in mind, I have come prepared with a ‘tasks list’ for myself. I only get through about a third of it on my first day at the telescope.

Conversation with Jean-Charles

•May 9, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Jean-Charles Cuillandre, astronomer at CFHT

Stars in Snow and Gravel Land work at the CFHT Observatory
Working in snow on gravel from images given to me by Jean-Charles

It was a hurried morning of quick introductions by the Director, Christian Veillet, to some of the staff at the Canad France Hawaii Telescope offices in Waimea on the Big Island of Hawaii. Jean-Charles Cuillandre is not only a brilliant astronomer but is one of the world’s most important people in the field of imaging the cosmos. Working with the telescope’s famous Mega-Cam — a very advanced camera system for capturing astronomical images as well as conventional cameras for outdoor photos of the observatory and environs, he continues to produce award winning images. His startlingly beautiful pictures are not mere artistic whimsy. He works with an international team, including some image-savy Italians in the publishing business to produce the world famous photographs, some of which are featured on the annual CFHT Calendar. These images of the universe are true to the science uncovered by the far reaching telescope. For example, if a specific gas or solid captured in the image is colour specific, that colour will be truly represented. In other words, the astonishing colour range within these jewel-like pictures is solidly scientifically grounded.

His preoccupation with astronomy began when he was a young child, fascinated with science fictions tales of space. He has retained his youthful enthusiasm as an adult and continues to work on both the science and artistic depiction of the stars. I asked for a ‘seminal’ picture — a picture with a graphic entity which would be immediately recognizable to the astronomy community. In spite of his busy schedule, he helpfully provided me with a printed image which I was able to use at the summit in a landwork involving snow and water in the gravel outside the observatory. In my hurry, I neglected to obtain an identifying title for the picture. I hope to remedy this in an upcoming posting!

•April 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment
Observatory 14,000 feet in the sky

The most beautiful telescope in the world

What am I doing here?

•April 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

An excellent question and one that I get asked a lot. Some time ago I was lucky enough to be on a tour of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope with visiting academics from the Peter Wall Institute of University of British Columbia in Vancouver. We were taken up to the ‘stone house’ Hale Puhaku, partway up Mauna Kea, to acclimate to the altitude somewhat before heading up to the observatory which is perched up at 14,000 feet. We hiked in to a sacred lake, just below the site of the observatory and after a half hour of very slow walking, we all felt like we’d run several miles. The oxygen is about 40 percent less than at sea level so the body reacts in interesting ways. My own experience was that I felt increasingly drunk — it was a sort of three martini tour for me. Through the haze of oxygen deprivation, I was astonished at the stark physical beauty of the landscape as it changed from grasslands, to patchy vegetation to no vegetation and exposed brilliantly coloured minerals, some deposited during the last ice age in large morraines.

We continued our tour up to the the telescope itself, which is one of an array of international telescopes up on top of the mountain. Inside, there is a glycol cooled cement floor upon which the telescope rests. There is an internal catwalk which can move as well as the enormous telescope itself. It was quite surreal and I felt like I was in a James Bond movie! Away from the actual telescope in its dome, there is a marvellous control room, with a twin control room down at 2,500 feet at the main offices of CFHT in Waimea. Now the observations, which used to be done from inside the freezing cold telescope itself are done by remote, down in the nice warm offices in Waimea.  Screens are constantly keeping track of weather patterns as well as internal and external views of the observation dome. And just down the hall is a very cozy lounge with a kitchen. The kitchen is stocked with the world’s most unhealthy foods — because the brain runs on sugar and the lack of oxygen is stressful, one craves sugar and salt (the kidneys go into overdrive at altitude and you need to visit the washroom frequently). As well, dehydration is a constant worry and visitors are encouraged to drink at least 16 oz of water or other fluids per hour. So, we gathered around the table and enjoy dried fruit, nuts, corn chips, beef jerky, ramen noodles and sweet pop — very civilized and sort of a funny contrast to the James Bond movie experience.

There is a door to the outer catwalk of the observatory which is like a belt around the middle of the dome. As the telescope is higher than anything else in the neighbourhood, there are excellent views of other domes as well as the surrounding peaks and valleys of the summit area. In addition the views down towards the lower weather means that there is frequently a snowy bed of clouds beneath the peaks. And speaking of snow, we were all wearing parkas, hats, gloves and boots because the temperature up at the top is usually around freezing or lower. There was fresh snow surrounding the dome and on our drive up we encountered hail, snow, rain and sunshine within about ten minutes. Yes, I’m the only person I know who was packing thermal underwear for my trip to Hawaii.

The drive back down to normal civilization was moonlit. Because there is no light pollution allowed on the mountain, we drove down without headlights on a dirt road (with the telescope director driving with 40 percent less oxygen than normal). Although it sounds terrifying, it felt sacred. It made me think of those Hawaiians from long ago, coming up to the lake for their rituals (still practised today).

I could not get the place out of my head. I dreamt about it, continued to think about it and bothered everyone around me with nattering on about it. Finally Martin, my husband suggested that I approach the director with the idea of an artist’s residency. I decided to do so, made a formal proposal and got a green light. I had several months to prepare for the residency and I researched the history of  Mauna Kea, the biology, flora and fauna and also the chequered and fascinating story of the Canada France Hawaii Telescope itself.


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