The Stars Look Very Different Today

This week’s Art Journal Adventure prompt was to include song lyrics or the title of a song in the art journal page.  You may recall that I enjoy vague prompts that allow my imagination to wander off in all sorts of directions but with music I did not know where to start.  We listen to a lot of music as a family and have very eclectic tastes.  When doing chores, I have music playing so I can karaoke my way through the house and I also always play music when I am at my art table drawing or painting.  I, therefore, could have chosen any number of songs as the inspiration for my page this week.

I thought about springboarding from the last piece of music I had listened to before reading the prompt.  That was Danse Macabre by Saint-Saens which had massive potential as a subject for illustration (and, in fact, I had illustrated it when I was in High School) but I knew I did not have the free time available this week to take on something with that degree of detail.  The last album I listened to in its entirety was Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Rumours’ so I pondered that for a bit.  Meanwhile I asked my kids for suggestions since they are always a great resource for inspiration.  Elvis, Prince, The Beatles, The Beastie Boys, Elton John, The White Stripes and Frank Sinatra all featured in their suggestions but one idea immediately gave me a strong visual: Space Oddity.  As soon as my 10 year old said it, I knew that was going to be the song I depicted on my journal page, perhaps because David Bowie was always so strongly and uniquely visual.

I kept my illustration simple partly out of choice – I do love just plain old pen and ink – and partly out of necessity – my old nemesis, time.  It depicts David Bowie (I hope that is clear even though I am not a good portraitist) floating through space in spacesuit, untethered but calm. I obviously did not use any reference images in creating the spacesuit.  It is definitely more ‘Lost in Space’ than NASA, that’s for sure.  I swithered over including either the song title or the lyric “the stars look very different today” in the illustration but decided against it because a) my calligraphy is not the best and b) I could not work out the placement for the words in the composition.  I hope the song reference is clear without the words.

5 - David Bowie - Space Oddity - Art Journal Page

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A Sense of Wonder

This week’s Colour Me Positive theme was all about Wonder.  The supporting quotation was one Plato attributed to Socrates: “Wisdom beings in Wonder”.  I really engage with that idea, that knowledge and wisdom emerges from the exploration, diligent learning, and experience that is driven by wonder, inquisitiveness and curiosity, the need to search for answers.  As a bookish nerd, that really speaks to me.  An additional prompt suggested adding bubbles to the page somewhere.

I was at my monthly art journalling meet up group on Sunday and decided to work on my prompt page.  I have no idea why the idea popped into my head but I do know I was feeling in an illustrative mood so I sketched out this little figure of a child floating in space, awed and amazed and in wonderment at the universe.  I hope the facial expression suggests wonder.  The helmet can be a nod to the bubble prompt.  As I was in a coffee shop and had my limited travel art supplies with me, this was drawn with micron pens and watercolour pencils which I activated with water once I was home.

Dare I say it myself but I think this is a pretty charming little illustration and I am really rather pleased with how it turned out.

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Spring Break Day 4 – Air and Space Museum

After a leisurely start to the day, we set off on an expedition to the Udvar-Hazy Center at Chantilly – an extension of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum housed in two old aircraft hangars.  The incredible space afforded by the nature of the buildings means that it can house some of the most significant aeroplanes in American history – in world history in some instances.

The kids were handed Scavenger Hunt sheets that instructed them to find about eight aeroplanes across the collection which all had a name or nickname associated with an animal.  That was a good means of pulling them through the space to see various highlights.  Our oldest son accompanied his grandparents to undertake a more thorough tour with a bit more science and engineering focus while Mr Pict and I took the other three children around.  Our 8 year old can be very difficult to engage in even arts and humanities subjects at times but trying to engage him in science and technology was pretty much mission impossible.  I think there were two things in the entire Museum that he showed a particular interest in.  I am intrigued to discover, in the weeks and months to come, how much information he actually managed to absorb from osmosis or subliminal learning.

The boys liked the Blackbird because it features in the movie ‘X Men: First Class’.  In the film, one of the mutants designs it and it can transport the whole team.  It was interesting for them to note, therefore, how miniscule the cockpit actually was, especially in proportion to the scale of the rest of the plane.  They also enjoyed seeing various aircraft from Nazi Germany which they knew from the Indiana Jones movies.

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The space section was probably the most successful in terms of holding the kids’ attention.  I am not massively interested in space travel and exploration but even I was excited to see the space shuttle Discovery up close and my husband – who is very much into astronomy and outer space – was absolutely thrilled.  I have been to Cape Canaveral before so the scale was something I was familiar with but for some reason I felt I could see the detail more on this shuttle – or maybe I was just a bit more interested this time.  I noted the smoothness of the design and even of the component parts.  The same area also housed various space modules and re-entry pods and glass cases full of astronaut artefacts including some vomit-inducing foods inside squeezy tubes and some underpants for collecting urine.  Somewhat incongruously but excitingly for me, there was also a model of the mother ship from ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ on which the model makers had hidden various real world items such as a submarine, sharks, a VW minibus, a graveyard and R2D2 – which our 8 year old found right away.

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I had seen part of the Enola Gay in the regular Air and Space Museum back in 1995 but it really was quite something to see the entire thing reassembled.  I had not appreciated how large it was before seeing it in its entirety.  It’s impact, of course, is not so much what it is in itself but the role it played in the Second World War and consequently in the history of the modern world and in the history of ethics.  Apparently our 11 year old took part in quite an in-depth discussion with his grandparents about the efficacy and ethics of the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan.

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We saw aircraft on every scale – from tiny little things even I, at my height, could be hard pressed to fit into to Concorde – and of every colour – from plain varnished wood to dazzlingly shiny chrome –  and from every era – from pioneering aircraft to modern engineering.  We also saw items linked to specific pilots, such as Amelia Earhart’s jumpsuit and a whole series of glass cases filled with souvenir trinkets and toys celebrating Charles Lindbergh.

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New York, You Nork – Day 3: Central Park and the American Museum of Natural History

This was a first ever President’s Day for the boys and myself and we decided that our mission for the day should be to absorb some learning by heading off to the American Museum of Natural History.  Our first stop, however, was less educational: the red steps at Times Square.  Our 8 year old actually has a pretty good handle on Manhattan geography because of having his little lego superheroes run around in his Marvel Lego game on the PS3 and so it was at his request that we locate the “red steps”.  These turn out to be a flight of red steps or bleachers that form the roof of a booth selling reduced price theatre tickets on Duffy Square.  The 8 year old seemed happy to have had the chance to run up and down them.

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Central Park looked wonderful in the snow.  The last time I was there was on a sultry day that made us feel sticky and lethargic as we trudged across it.  We were not there to see Central Park but were just crossing it to get from A to B.  This time we decided to spend a little bit of time there.  Of course, Central Park is vast.  I remember when I went up the Empire State Building late at night it was just this massive black oblong, like a hole cut out of the cityscape.  There was no way we were even going to skim the surface of all the things we could see or do in the park.  I would have personally loved to have taken a route that walked us past the wonderful sculptures, like Alice in Wonderland or the Pilgrim, Balto, Hans Christian Andersen, but that was not to be for this trip because we were still using Central Park to get from A to B but were just being a bit more leisurely about it.

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The boys had a blast playing in a snow covered playground, scuffing up the snow as their legs moved back and forth on the swings and speeding down the slide to be dolloped into the pile of snow at the bottom.  We were adjacent to Umpire Rock so the children were directed to clamber up that to gain a view of this sector of the park.  Except they didn’t.  They got half way up and scurried off instead into this moulded concrete bunker that looked like something out of the Cold War. I think it might be called Hecksher Playground and that the bunker they were running around in like rats in a sewer is, in warmer months, a water play area with the sewer structures becoming wading pools.  Once the children were retrieved, we continued to wend our way through the Park.  We encountered lots of friendly squirrels – probably because they were on the make for some of the hot roasted nuts being sold on the street – and our six year old was delighted to see some mounted police officers because he is horse daft.  We also saw the Imagine mosaic, the memorial to John Lennon who was murdered outside the nearby Dakota Hotel.

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Finally we were at our destination: the American Museum of Natural History.  As a family, we love museums.  Going to a museum was one of my favourite treats as a child and that enthusiasm of learning through objects and archives is something I hope I have imparted to my children.  The boys were familiar with a version of this museum from the movie ‘Night at the Museum’ so that was an additional hook for them as it provided them with some sort of indication of what things they might see during our visit there.

After a brief pit stop in the basement for packed lunches to be devoured, we headed off to the space section. Mr Pict is into astronomy and for years owned a massive telescope that looked like a giant toilet paper tube.  We decided not to ship it so we sold it before moving to America but I am sure he will buy a replacement at some juncture, though perhaps a smaller one.  He hopes to engage the kids in the subject of outer space probably because I am a dead loss in that regard.  I like the pretty pictures of galaxies and that’s about it.  The kids were immediately drawn towards a massive meteorite in the centre of the room.  This was the Williamette meteorite and even I found it striking because of all the shapes created in it, curves and crevices.  The Native American tribe who lived near where it was found, in Oregon, used it in ceremonies and then, at the very beginning of the twentieth century, a white man found it and dragged it onto his land which led to a dispute between him and the company who owned the land.  So, between its strange history, its appearance and the fact that it was found at a location other than the original impact site, it transpires this was one of the world’s most famous meteorites.  I thought it was pretty. Thankfully our 8 year old is definitely an Arts and Humanities kid whose areas of interest are more akin to my own so, while Mr Pict and the other boys took a while to wander around the universe timeline that spiralled above the hall, my 8 year old and I swirled a sun around and looked at gorgeous images of galaxies.

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We then went into the Hall of African Mammals.  Stuffed animals were displayed in dioramas around the sides of the hall.  I loved how antiquated everything was as I had the definite impression that nothing about these displays had changed in a century, as both the wood and the brass lettering had a rich patina to it.  I actually thought the dioramas were very well done.  It was almost as if the original taxidermists and display team had looked at photographs in National Geographic magazines and decided to reproduce them in three dimensions.  Obviously seeing stuffed beasts does not come close to the impact or educational value of seeing living ones, even in a zoo setting, but for the kids to have the ability to get so close to a representation of a small herd of elephants, for example, was great and at least the dioramas placed the animals in their habitat contexts rather than just mounting them in stark cases.

Now to my mind a Museum of Natural History is about animals, plants, fossils and geology.  It is not about human evolution or civilizations.  That is anthropology.  However, this particular Museum had lumped them together.  I don’t necessarily object to that because some of my most favourite museums – the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum – have diverse and eclectic collections, stemming largely from Victorian eccentrics scouring the world for things to pillage from far off places.  However, it struck both Mr Pict and I that the anthropological sections were devoid of any European or white exhibits; they were all focused on what might once have been termed “primitive cultures”.  I’m not one for po-faced, broad-brush political correctness by any means but sometimes it does become necessary to revisit how things were once presented by a group of long gone people who, even if they ought to have known better, were not obligated to do so.  It just seemed a bit crass, if not distasteful, to lump the history of African, South American and Pacific peoples along with the history of animals while not including the history of any Caucasian cultures to balance the anthropological section out.

That being said, my kids loved seeing all of the different costumes on display in the African section and I liked seeing the masks.  Our youngest later said that his favourite exhibit in the whole museum was a diorama of a pygmy tribe hunting.  I rather suspect he liked the idea of firing a bow and arrow.  The South American section was a big hit.  The ten year old and the six year old spent ages sitting in front of the Aztec sun disc studying it and the four year old and the eight year old loved all of the carved faces and representations of gods.  The six year old could, as per usual, be relied upon to giggle and chuckle at all of the genitalia.  It was in this section that I found two little sculptures that were to be among the highlights of my trip to the museum.  They were from Venezuela and one was a figurine of a pregnant woman and the other was a little phallic fellow.  Together they were just adorable.

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The Hall of Human Origins was fascinating.  Seeing the range of scientifically important human remains – fossils and casts – in the collection made it especially captivating.  Our six year old loved all the Neanderthal displays, from the adult and child skeletons to the diorama of some “cave men” and their pile of picked clean mammoth bones.  Just to be able to see even casts of the skeleton of Turkana boy and the Flores skull, the “hobbit” species found only a few years ago, was incredible.  But for me the highlight was to see Lucy.  The real Lucy was returned to Ethiopia last year but even seeing a cast of her skeleton was a treat because I have been hearing about the importance of her remains to the study of human evolution my entire life.  Being able to see the proportions of the cast up close, I could actually appreciate some of the information I had read about her.  Our oldest loved the Hall of Human Origins and is now hopeful that someone at some point in his lifetime will find another early human species, perhaps even an actual “missing link” species.

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As I have explained before, my 8 year old is my magpie child.  He is instantly drawn to anything that sparkles or shines.  We sometimes call him “bling boy” as a consequence.  The Hall of Gems and Minerals therefore had his blue eyes on little stalks.  While the others watched a movie about, I think, a meteorite, he and I wandered around looking at all the amazing colours and formations of gemstones.  He especially loved the massive boulder of azurite and malachite and a glowing lump of topaz.  He also loved the massive amethyst geode.  We saw the Patricia Emerald but failed entirely to locate the Star of India which was frustrating to say the least.  We wandered through the gem galleries but it eluded us and we had to admit defeat.

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We were starting to flag a bit at this point so we decided to be less thorough and attempt a tour of remaining highlights.  We did a whizz past the Great Canoe, which was even more massive and impressive than I was expecting, and then stopped for cupcakes and brownies to recharge our batteries.  Our intention had been to scoot quickly through the hall showcasing North American mammals but ultimately we decided it was a great learning opportunity for the boys to see the type of critters to be found in America that they would not have seen back in Scotland.  The youngest two especially liked the bison and the moose dioramas and were astounded by the scale of the bears.

We then slowed down to an idle again for the Dinosaur Halls because they were just too completely awesome for us to rush through.  There were toothily ferocious carnivores and long-necked gigantic herbivores.  Our six year old was thrilled to see an archaeopteryx because he likes the theory that some dinosaurs did not become extinct but rather evolved into birds.  My favourite dinosaur is the triceratops and my husband’s favourite is the stegosaurus so we were both delighted to encounter fossils of those.  All of the boys loved the section of mammals from the ice age because they love the ‘Ice Age’ series of movies.  They loved running from exhibit to exhibit to identify the fossil critters they knew in cute animated form.  Our six year old, as a fan of all things equine, especially loved the display of early horse evolution.  We all loved the mammoths and the rhino creature with the double-pronged horn.  Our oldest son was excited to see the size of the giant sloth.

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Our final stop was to the Pacific section of the Museum.  We really did not have any time left but we were adamant that we could not leave the Museum without seeing the moai from Easter Island – or Rapa Nui.  I have seen one before – at the British Museum – but this was an opportunity for the boys to see one in real life and appreciate its vast scale and density.  Sadly it turned out that the one in the Museum was a plaster cast rather than being a basalt original – though I am obviously glad that that means fewer moai have been purloined from Easter Island than might otherwise have been the case.  However, the fact it was merely a cast did mean the boys were permitted to get really close to it and still appreciate the scale of it.  All of the children, not just my own, were excited to see it at least because of it being a fun character in ‘Night at the Museum’.

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It then really was time to leave so there was no chance to even pop into the ocean life sections of the Museum.  Instead we decided to give the boys a new experience and take them on the New York subway.  They found this to be quite underwhelming perhaps because it is so very similar to the London Underground.  Still it was another experience to chalk off and they at least appreciated the fact that they were not having to walk all of the way back to the hotel.

I would like to report that we had an uneventful trip back but unfortunately, though the journey itself was smooth, we got waylaid by a wrong turn off the turnpike and then the littlest Pict spewed spectacularly and with little warning which required another pit stop to clean him up, strip him down and dress him in fresh clothes and then we arrived home to find out drive was pretty much impassable because of the snow that had fallen during our weekend away.  Nevertheless, despite that slightly irritating end to our trip, we declared our first family trip to NYC to be a roaring success and one we will definitely repeat.  But maybe when it is warmer.