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Art from above

PA Art Center looks up to 'The Sheltering Sky'

The sky helps give us life and light, surrounds us day and night and serves as an endless source of wonder, both scientifically and artistically. The Palo Alto Art Center is pondering the cosmos with its current exhibition, "The Sheltering Sky," which incorporates the work of 18 sky-gazing artists in a variety of media.

"This show is really about how humans look to the sky for meaning, for inspiration, for perspective, and these artists have really embodied that," curator Selene Foster said at the exhibition's opening gala.

Several of the artists were present at the opening, including Chris McCaw, whose unique photography process chronicles the Earth's rotation and directly involves sunlight in his capturing of a full day's cycle.

"All the work involves collaborating with the sun," McCaw said, describing how he created his piece "Cirkut #05, North Slope, Alaska, within the Arctic Circle" by working in the midsummer arctic sunlight using a 1913 panorama camera he adjusted with the help of astronomy students. By replacing the century-old windup motor with a hybrid electric and (appropriately enough) solar-powered one and adjusting its speed every 15 minutes, McCaw's camera was able to make a full circle once a day, capturing the Earth's full journey. In the negative image on display, the viewer can track what appears to be the progression of the sun, the light literally having burned the image into the negative paper.

"It's a really tangible thing that photography doesn't usually get to have with the subject that it's photographing," McCaw said. "I just love that."

Though he joked that looking back over his work, which took place over five weeks during which he slept very little, "makes me feel very tired," the experience was most rewarding in terms of giving him a profound sense of perspective.

"You did get the sensation that you're on this object that's slowly spinning," he said. "Highly recommended."

Stanford resident and environmental artist Sukey Bryan, who created the large vinyl installations ("Sky Front" and "Sky Windows") on the front and sculpture-garden exteriors of the Art Center, used photographs she took of the sky right over her own backyard during the recent drought, capturing the bright blue sky and puffy, rainless clouds.

By turning viewers' attention to the beauty of nature, she hopes to also inspire concern to protect it.

"My goal," she said, "is to help us have the energy and the heart for environmental work."

San Rafael-based photographer Linda Connor discussed her experience working with antique plate-glass negatives from San Jose's Lick Observatory, which she called one of the first observatories to integrate photography with science. Also included in "The Sheltering Sky" are images taken through open skylights in a Turkish caravanserai. (Connor, McCaw, and Tony Misch from Lick Observatory will give a talk at the Art Center on March 31).

Stanford University faculty member Ala Ebtekar used ultraviolet light emitted from the stars and moon to create his "Nightfall" series, cyanotypes printed onto pages from science-fiction author Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall," a short story set on a planet with six suns, where the stars are only seen once every 2,000 years. When faced with a star-studded night sky for the first time, the inhabitants go mad.

"Is madness being enlightened or is madness something else? They can't really get over the fact that there's more than themselves up there," Ebtekar said.

Val Britton's "Upper Air," housed in the Glass Gallery adjoining the main exhibition space, is a site-specific skyscape installation made of paper, string and ink. Visitors are encouraged to lie down on the floor and look up at the cloud-like assemblage for the best view. Britton, whose "Celestial Wandering" is also on view, turns maps and charts into abstracted, physical sculptures of imaginary locales.

Petaluma's Jenifer Kent's detailed, hand-drawn ink-on-clayboard pieces "Still" and "Refuge" consider dichotomies of stillness and speed, noise and quiet.

Looking up at the night sky, she said she was "struck by the vastness and immensity of the space. It's overwhelming but also incredibly comforting and peaceful and still ... both of those things existing at the same time." Though abstract, her drawings suggest both a zoomed-in, microscopic view and a zoomed-out look at the expanding universe.

Demetrius Oliver's mixed-media "Orrery," hanging in the center of the gallery, uses old umbrella frames and other found objects to create his own personal orrery, a mechanical model of the solar system (or in this case, of the artist's life).

The most striking art in the exhibition may be Vanessa Marsh's chromogenic photograms, created using a combination of darkroom techniques, collage, drawing and painting.

"It's a photograph that was created by a painting. No camera," she explained.

The final negative prints have an eerily dark presence dotted through with light, resembling a photograph but also full of magic.

In her "Cave" images, she imagines the cosmos as viewed by early humans, living in dark caves and pondering the universe. The viewer peers out at distant mountains and up at sparkling stars through a cave entrance, its dark walls framing the view.

Marsh said she was inspired by prehistoric cave painters and their perspective on the cosmos. Creating the work, she said she thought about the night sky and "how connected we have been to it in the past and how disconnected we are now."

Other work featured in "The Sheltering Sky" includes representations both surreal and scientific, in techniques including painting, video, textile art and more, from Matthew Baum, Sarah and Joseph Belknap, Adrian Landon Brooks, Eiko Borcherding, Anna Von Mertens, Pieter Laurens Mol, Katie Paterson, Dario Robleto, Camille Seaman and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Storms, sunspots and satellites are just a few of the topics explored.

As always, the "nook" area of the Art Center's lobby is dedicated to community participation. In conjunction with "The Sheltering Sky," community members are invited to submit their best "sky shots" to artcenter@cityofpaloalto.org or by using #paloaltoartcenter #skyshots. A new winning photograph will be selected based on votes from the public each month during the exhibition's run.

What: "The Sheltering Sky."

Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road.

When: Through April 7, Tuesday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Thursday open until 9 p.m.; Sunday 1-5 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Info: Go to PA Art Center.

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