Artists rise to 'Rocket Girls' challenge
As watercolor artist Beth Verheyden made her way through the pages of this year's Lake Oswego Reads pick, she began to imagine what the female characters must have been thinking and feeling.
The book — Nathalia Holt's "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars" — tells the true story of the women, called "human computers," who launched America into space, breaking the boundaries of both gender and science along the way.
"It really kind of hit me ... the risk that these women were taking, because there were lives dependent on the accuracy of their calculations," Verheyden says. "That was really heavy to me."
The Boring resident set to work creating artwork that reflected her interpretation of the book. Her final piece, "Calculated Risk," uses watercolor, watercolor pencil and gouache to capture the elements of fear and fearlessness that she saw in the characters.
"I don't know if they overcame the fear, but they countered the fear with fearlessness, and I admire that," she says. "Whether they're men or women, I just admire that character quality of being fearless in the face of fear; they weren't crippled by it."
Hers is one of nearly two dozen local artists' pieces that will be on display all month as part of the Lake Oswego Reads Art Show at Lakewood Center for the Arts. During a reception on Feb. 6, the artists will visit the center to explain how they created the pieces inspired by the book.
The show is among more than 30 events taking place throughout the month of February as part of the 11th annual citywide reading program.
"Rise of the Rocket Girls," based on extensive research and interviews with all living members of the team, offers a unique perspective on the role of women in science.
In the 1940s and '50s, when the newly created Jet Propulsion Laboratory needed quick-thinking mathematicians to calculate velocities and plot trajectories, the company didn't turn to male college graduates. Instead, it recruited an elite group of young women who — with only pencil, paper and mathematical prowess — transformed rocket design, helped create the first American satellites and made the exploration of the solar system possible.
The book looks not only at where the U.S. space program has been, but also into the far reaches of space where it is heading.
The art show's exhibition coordinator, West Linn artist Jan Rimerman, says many artists look forward to the challenge of creating artwork based on each year's book. Some may choose to work in a new medium — since large three-dimensional pieces aren't included in the show — and others may have to think beyond their typical inspirations.
"You need to have a visual image that makes sense for people who have not read the book, yet is meaningful for people who have read the book," Rimerman says. "Over all the years, there have not been two images or two bits of inspiration that have been alike."
While each piece is unique, many of the artists incorporated equations and mathematics into their pieces as a nod to the computing work done by the "Rocket Girls."
West Linn artist Dave Haslett etched the Fibbonacci Series into one end of his scratchboard piece, "Reach for the Stars."
"Math is the tool that we use to understand everything," he says. "We talk about stuff, but in order to understand mass or density or volume, we come up with these formulas."
Lake Oswego artist Lisa Wiser used jet propulsion formulas from her brother, an aerospace engineer, to surround Saturn in her "Pinnacle" painting.
She says she fell in love with the idea of using Saturn to depict the book after seeing a photo of Saturn that had been taken by one of the Voyager 1 space probe cameras.
The image, and the book, left her with a feeling that "really hard, diligent work pays off."
"This spacecraft was like the pinnacle of all of the work that the 'computers' had been doing for years," she says. "That camera is up there on a spacecraft that these gals helped develop and engineer and maneuver."
The art show will include work from Lake Oswego artists Stuart Adams, Bill Baily, Mary Burgess, Susan Greenbaum, Jani Hoberg, Sue Jensen and Wiser; and West Linn artists Bonnie Garlington, Haslett, Ann Munson, Rimerman and Barbara Wagner. Other local artists will include: Leslie Cheney-Parr of Boring; Susie Cowan of Portland; Dyanne Locati of Gladstone and Phoenix; Vicki Mintkeski of Portland; Debby Neely of Woodland, Wash.; Kara Pilcher of Silverton; and Verheyden.
At the end of the month, the Lake Oswego Reads Art Show gallery will hit the road, stopping for a month or more at libraries throughout the state. The artwork will be on display at Lake Oswego Library in March, Silver Falls Library in April, Concordia University Library in May, Oregon City Library in June, Sandy Library in July and August, Stayton Library in September, Scio Library in October and Wilsonville Library in November.