Translating words to images
Each year, the Lake Oswego Public Library unveils a new book for its program, LO Reads. As the community comes together through reading a common book, a select group of artists take the program a step further by delving into the selected book and creating original artwork inspired by the literature. Throughout the month of November, Wilsonville Public Library will play host to the 2017 LO Read's artists' collection and its interpretation of "Rise of the Rocket Girls."
The 2017 book, "Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, from Missiles to the Moon to Mars," is based on the true-life stories of the women who worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1940s and 1950s. During a time when women were systematically treated as less than men socially and professionally, author Nathalia Holt details the women's contributions to science as well as how they fought the stereotypes and prejudice of their era.
For former physician and LO Reads artist Barbara Wagner, the "Rise of the Rocket Girls" struck a personal chord.
"'The Rise of the Rocket Girls' was the perfect book for me," Wagner said.
The daughter of a scientist father and artist mother, Wagner spent her early professional life as an emergency room physician; but during her college years, Wagner did research in physical chemistry with NASA on particle activity and behavior in space.
"To go back into the scientific word through the 'Rise of the Rocket Girls' and also to return to the days when it really was unique for women to be in science, and medicine, I really identified with the women and could clearly empathize with them and their difficulties with raising children at the same time as continuing their careers," Wagner said. "There's also the prejudice held toward women. When I finished the research for my senior thesis on particle activity, the comment from one of the examiners was, 'This was really great for a woman.' That was the typical attitude at the time and you see that throughout the book."
Eighteen years ago, Wagner took a three-month sabbatical away from her position as an emergency room physician to pursue painting — a sabbatical that she jokes is ongoing. Now a full-time artist, her piece "Manicured Calculations" is the fifth she's completed for LO Reads.
A watercolor composition, the piece depicts a rocket launching with mathematical equations strewn in the exhaust, Saturn and Jupiter in the background — an artistic license on her part, placing her favorite planets next to each other — and manicured hands in the foreground, representing the female scientists in the book.
"There were these piles and piles of books of equations that they would write out, and they were cheaper than having men do it. So it was just an economical choice to hire them," Wagner said. "As I developed this painting, I also wanted to show that these women were expected to be feminine, coming with dresses and starched collars — prim and proper."
In preparation for the piece, Wagner read an entire book on aeronautical equations and physical chemistry equations.
"It was wonderful. It was like going back to college," she said. "It was so great to see all the calculous and physical chemistry. It was such a treat."
But this level of research and dedication to completing a piece for LO Reads isn't unusual for any of the participating artists. Wagner said that artists usually read the books more than once before composing a piece and venture into a variety of artistic styles and mediums.
"The fun part about creating the (LO Reads) art piece is that it's a different process for us to do a book," Wagner said. "Usually I will try to portray an emotion or something in nature, which I've already visually seen, but this is all mental stimulation. You're taking the words in the book and then translating the words into your imagination and transforming that into a visual art works, and that is really a challenge."
With the November showing at the Wilsonville Library being the final installment of the LO Reads 2017, Wagner and the other approximately 18 artists featured in the collection have already launched into the LO Reads 2018 book "Good Morning, Midnight."
An avid reader, Wagner usually reads true-life stories and historical novels. But despite that "Good Morning, Midnight" is a science fiction novel about the end of humanity, she said that she's thoroughly enjoying it.
"I think that's part of the process. You really want to push yourself as an artist," Wagner said. "I mean, for something as important as LO Reads, you don't just want to do something standard. Each one of us has internalized a book. And another reward of this is getting together with all of the artists and seeing what everyone else did."