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Reflections on a Tool of Observation: Artwork Inspired by the James Webb Space Telescope

Work by Tim Makepeace

October 4, 2021 - January 5, 2022

NAS Building, 2101 Constitution Ave., N.W., Upstairs Gallery

Free. Photo ID, proof of full COVID-19 vaccination, and masks required.

Download the exhibition e-catalog.

In 2017, Tim Makepeace was one of several artists selected by NASA to create artwork inspired by the construction of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Makepeace was captivated by the telescope itself, which is an orbital infrared observatory. The most powerful space telescope ever built, it will succeed the Hubble Telescope when it launches in late 2021. Seeing the instrument in the terrestrial environment where it was being constructed set up a dichotomy with its exquisite engineering, as well as with the transcendent knowledge of the universe that it will eventually help us gain. This contrast of the mundane and sublime is a theme that guides Makepeace’s resulting work.

“Since 2017, I have continued working on a series of drawings based on the photographs I took during my visits, trying to convey some of the awe evoked by this engineering marvel,” he writes. “I have been thinking about the telescope’s intended purpose, once it reaches its location orbiting the sun, as a break-through tool for imaging objects which we have never seen, or knew existed, and events that happened at the beginning of time.”

The drawings, rather surprisingly, are rendered in charcoal and pastel. “One thing I have come to enjoy about this process is the counterintuitive idea, and the technique, of using a very imprecise medium, like soft charcoal, to render the image of one of the most technically advanced and precise objects ever devised and constructed by mankind,” Makepeace explains. “Charcoal is also one of the most primitive and ancient tools for drawing, and I'm using it to describe an extremely advanced tool for science that will be shot a million miles into space to help unlock some of the mysteries of our galaxy and the universe. It's an interesting juxtaposition.”

Makepeace is a Washington, D.C.-based artist who explores the interaction of engineering, science, architecture, and nature. His subjects range from decaying industrial structures in the natural landscape to the newest NASA space telescope bound for solar orbit.

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