The Naked Eye

You know you have the astronomy bug if you keep checking if the sky is clear when the sun begins to set. During observing season, which in Montreal is anytime when there's no snow on the ground, heading for the driveway and craning your neck in the direction of the ecliptic becomes second nature. Even in a downtown setting there's always something to see if you get a reasonably clear sky: the Moon, planets, the Orion Nebula, and various star clusters are great targets for the urban stargazer. I now live in an apartment, and even there I managed to set up my 8" Dobsonian on the fire escape to get a good view of the crescent Moon.

RASC, transit of Venus event 2012, left: Bettina Forget

However, if you really want to get some great vistas of the night sky in Montreal you should head out to the Morgan Arboretum, especially on weekends when the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada (RASC) Montreal Center is holding one of their famous star parties. The RASC do an outstanding job in engaging with the public. Their events calendar includes outreach activities such as lectures, stargazing events, and sidewalk astronomy sessions on Astronomy Day. I served on the board of the RASC for many years and even did a stint as president of the Montreal Centre. The RASC board are an enthusiastic group of astronomy evangelists and love sharing their passion for the night sky. It was a pleasure working with them, cooking up new ideas to serve our members as well as the general public.

Treasure Hunt #2, 2007, acrylic on canvas, 48" x 48"

My efforts to get more people to look up at night also sparked an idea for a series of artworks. Titled "The Naked Eye," this body of work comprised of a series of four large-format paintings which are, basically, star maps. Each painting is a diptych, measuring 6' x 8' when hung together. It was important to me to create an artwork which felt immersive, as though you were going to fall into the painting if you got too close. Once installed on the gallery walls, the canvases looked like slices of the night sky.

Painting process of the Naked Eye series

When I look through my telescope's eyepiece the sky does not appear velvety black to me, but rather it vibrates as though it is alive. That meant that the background of my paintings needed to echo the shimmering depths of a night sky. When I paint I work in translucent layers of glazes, creating complex colour structures rather than a uniform expanse of paint. I used this technique for the Naked Eye series. After an underpainting of vivid hues I added about a dozen layers of blue and purple glazes until I achieved just the right level of inky darkness without loosing the colour's liveliness. To represent the Milky Way I added dry Titanium White pigment to the painting medium, spreading stars as I worked across the canvas with my palette knife.

Production process of the Naked eye series

While the canvases dried I created giant print-outs of star maps using the planetarium software Starry Night and the graphic design software Illustrator. I then chalked up the backs of the star maps and transferred the positions of the stars and deep sky objects onto the (now dried) canvases. After I dotted in all the stars came the long process of painting tiny representation of the deep sky objects. Hidden on each canvas are nebulae, star clusters, and supernova remnants.

Treasure Hunt #4, 2008, acrylic on canvas, diptych, 6' x 8'

I decided to exhibit the Naked Eye series in my gallery during Nuit Blanche à Montréal, an annual event where cultural venues remain open all night long. Theatres, galleries, and museums keep their doors open until 3am, sometimes even 6am, and offer free events. And all this when it's freezing cold outside: Nuit Blanche à Montréal takes place on the last weekend in February. Still, the Belgo building, where my gallery is located, received 8,000 visitors during the last Nuit Blanche event, so it's a great opportunity to set up an exhibit which includes audience participation.

Installation photo of The Naked Eye exhibition during Nuit Blanche à Montréal 2008 at Visual Voice Gallery

Installation photo of The Naked Eye exhibition during Nuit Blanche à Montréal 2008 at Visual Voice Gallery

For the Naked Eye exhibition I recreated the experience of a lazy star-gazing session on a warm summer night - in the midst of winter. Two teak lounge chairs and two folding chairs were set up in the middle of the gallery. Nearly all the spotlights were removed from the tracks, plunging the gallery into near-darkness. Attached to each chair was a flash light and a star chart corresponding to the star chart of each painting. To complete the atmosphere I created a sound track featuring frogs and cicadas, chirping and buzzing together as they would on a typical night in August.

Installation photo of The Naked Eye exhibition during Nuit Blanche à Montréal 2008 at Visual Voice Gallery

It was fantastic to see gallery visitors sink into the chairs and explore the night sky paintings using the flash lights and star maps. I called it "the treasure hunt." "Try to find the Trifid Nebula" I would prompt a visitor while crouching next to a chair. It felt like being out with the RASC during a star party. We had visitors staying for half an hour, going from painting to painting, trying to spot all the deep sky objects and constellations. People could take home photocopies of the star maps and try to find the constellations again at home, from their own driveways. Of course, the Naked Eye series has an advantage over the Montreal night sky: they never cloud over!

For more information about the RASC, head over to:

RASC Montreal Centre

RASC national office

Check out Nuit Blanche à Montréal:


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