Historians and writers regularly visit Purdue University Archives and Special Collections to research their work, but visits from visual artists are not as common.
With the 50th anniversary of Boilermaker Neil Armstrong’s landmark moon landing approaching in 2019, leaders at Purdue Galleries and Barron Hilton Flight and Space Exploration Archives sought a unique way to celebrate this important moment in university and world history.
“We thought, why don’t we have artists come in and conduct research in the archival collections to see what might inspire them?” said Tracy Grimm, archivist for the Hilton collection.
Over the summer, artists Jennifer Scheuer, Frances Gallardo, and Michael Oatman were granted access to the personal documents and artifacts of legendary astronauts like Armstrong and fellow Purdue alumnus Eugene Cernan that are housed in the archives. Those materials will inspire artwork for the exhibition, “Return to Entry: Interpreting Purdue’s Space Exploration Archives,” at the Robert L. Ringel Gallery in Stewart Center.
The exhibition will run from March 25 through May 11.
“We’re going to take a moment here and pause and kind of look back and really think about it a little bit, about what happened,” Purdue Galleries interim director Michal Hathaway said of the Armstrong-led Apollo 11 lunar landing on July 20, 1969. “We’re taking just that little moment in history and reviewing it a bit.”
That was the starting point for the exhibition, but it was up to the individual artists to determine what inspired them once they began to examine the massive volume of materials available. Grimm said the Neil A. Armstrong Papers feature approximately 450 boxes of his personal belongings — including 70,000 leaves of paper in the fan-mail section alone — and that others involved with the space program have also donated to the collection.
“We have the papers of other astronauts, not even limited to Purdue graduates,” Grimm said, “because once people knew that Neil and Eugene Cernan donated their papers to Purdue and that there was an endowment for the care of flight and space documentation here at Purdue, I think they felt most comfortable donating their papers here. We have developed quite an interesting research collection for human space exploration during the Apollo and shuttle eras.”
After receiving special collections grants from the Hilton endowment to cover travel and lodging, the visiting artists’ mission was to “bring art, engineering, and science together to imagine new horizons” informed by the archival documents, according to the exhibition’s description.
Oatman, an associate professor of architecture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, was well-versed in using existing artifacts for inspiration, as evidenced by his collages and installations built from found and handmade objects.
Gallardo, whose work Grimm described as having an “ethereal, sort of otherworldly” feel, also visited from New York.
Meanwhile, Scheuer was already on campus. The visiting assistant professor in the Patti & Rusty Rueff School of Design, Art, and Performance was already familiar with the archives, as well, having brought classes there to utilize its materials for research projects on anatomy.
Scheuer has, in the past, also turned to archival material to inspire art, creating prints that explore an ancient theory about plants and medicine, the “Doctrine of Signatures,” which suggests that plants physically resemble the body part they can treat. For instance, a veiny bloodroot could be used to treat a condition of the circulatory system.
“Often when I’m in the archive, I’m reading text-based works. The material is not necessarily something visual, but as an artist I am visualizing the information,” Scheuer said in June, shortly after beginning her research in the space collection. “I think that will be the case working with the Purdue collections.”
For the most part, Scheuer and the other artists were on their own to discover and create. Grimm willingly assisted the artists in finding archival materials that fit their individual interests, but she and the other organizers placed no requirements on what they could produce from there.
“I think it will just depend on what their muse is when they go and look at this and see what inspires them to do work,” Hathaway predicted. “We’re encouraging them to especially look at Neil’s stuff since he has a connection to the university and we’re celebrating that anniversary. But it’s kind of open to the artist, and they’ll be able to pull in their own experiences, as well.”
Scheuer wasn’t alive when Armstrong took those first steps on the moon, adding to the project’s appeal for her. Most young people possess a basic understanding of the Apollo 11 mission and its historical significance, but her archival research provided a rare glance at NASA’s mission preparations and Armstrong’s thought processes leading up to launch.
The opportunity to dig through those intimate details from one of the most ambitious achievements in human history made joining the exhibition a no-brainer, Scheuer said.
“I know a little bit about the moon landing and NASA from history classes and watching documentaries over the years,” Scheuer said. “What is exciting about the project to me is having firsthand access to this cultural experience through the archives and to consider what questions might be significant to ask as an artist.
“How do I express the historical and cultural significance of these events? Or how, visually, can I express cultural impacts of NASA and space?”
As the 50th anniversary of Armstrong’s “Giant Leap” arrives next summer, we will have the opportunity to see just how Scheuer and the other artists launch their own artistic explorations.