Seven miles west of Flagstaff, found along Interstate 40, is the U.S. Naval Observatory. The telescope dome—stark white—is easily spotted in the vast sea of green-brown piñon pine. It is sometimes known as the “other observatory.” It does not attract thousands of tourists every year; it doesn’t have a historic namesake like its counterpart, Lowell Observatory. It is also where Christian Luginbuhl spent most of his 30-year-long career as an astronomer.
Many might presume being an astronomer is an isolating experience. Astronomers spend hours in observatories, peering through telescopes and writing complex equations. For most of us, the horizon represents a boundary between the known and unknown—below it is the realm of humans—the world of trees, rocks, iPhones, suburban homes—and above it is a terrifying infinity, our tiny perspective on the universe.
Luginbuhl argues exactly the opposite: that boundary line is easily blurred, and this is far from terrifying. Being an astronomer, he argues, is one of the most humanizing experiences. It helps us understand our place in the galaxy, reminds us of our unique existence, and gives some understanding to difficult topics. Astronomers, who have been contemplating the stars for thousands of years, seem to fill in a few of the blanks of our collective story: how we got here, where we are going, and why the hell we are here.
“The initial impetus for getting into science, at least for me, was that sense of wonder and inspiration,” Luginbuhl says.
This is why Luginbuhl, with the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition, has partnered with the Coconino Center for the Arts for the biennial multi-media exhibit, NightVisions, for the sixth time. The goal of the exhibit is to frame the night sky as something approachable and beautiful, while also being revered, protected and, ultimately, celebrated. The call for submissions has attracted local and international artists alike; the show is quickly becoming a household name.
Flagstaff is the perfect setting for the exhibit, as it was the first International Dark Sky City. Since 2001, the designation has placed limits on light pollution to ensure an unobstructed view of the night sky. One only has to visit Buffalo Park around midnight to understand what true nighttime darkness is: the Big Dipper and Milky Way galaxy sparkle against the velvet black dome of sky. Other cities across the globe have joined the list of Dark Sky communities, including places as close as Sedona and as far away as Møn and Nyord, two islands belonging to Denmark.
Here in northern Arizona, we are lucky. More than half of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way. In 1994, when the Northridge earthquake hit Los Angeles and resulted in a city-wide blackout, people called Griffith Observatory, panicked. They reported seeing a “strange sky” with an eerie, silver cloud stretching above their heads. The cloud was the Milky Way—many had never realized what a natural night sky looked like. For some of us that is hard to believe; in Flagstaff, seeing the stars is as familiar as our beloved downtown or the San Francisco Peaks.
“Even though I made a career out of [astronomy] and I clearly recognize the value of research, I’ve often said light pollution has a tiny impact on that compared to the impact on a child not being able to see the stars,” Luginbuhl says. “People’s perspectives can become so narrow—I think light pollution can narrow human experience. Our counterpart to that is to help people open their eyes to the night sky.”
NightVisions utilizes a variety of mediums to pay homage to the celestial sphere. The artwork ranges from Frederica Hall’s whimsical painting, complete with water lilies turned upward toward the sky, to Xanthe Miller’s found object masterpiece, including beads and plastic toys, all painted black. Yolanda Fernandez-Shebeko’s painting is equally reminiscent of Jackson Pollock and the Hubble Deep Field photographs. Through these artists’ works, the night sky can be interpreted as having divine qualities or even a lightheartedness to it. It is up to the viewer to decide what they would like to take away from it.
“I think there are some really different abstract interpretations of the beauty of the night, like Elizabeth Bonzani’s ceramic piece,” says John Tannous, the executive director of the Flagstaff Arts Council. “I think it totally fits the theme of the show, but if you had taken it out of context and displayed it somewhere else, it might have given you a different sense. Here, it reflects some of the beauty of the night in a more indirect way.”
One of the most impressive aspects of NightVisions—beyond the sheer diversity of artwork—is the viewer’s ability to feel simultaneously in awe of the universe and integral to it. It reminds us that, while we have evolved as diurnal creatures, we have become increasingly accustomed to nightlife thanks to electricity and streetlights.
In Flagstaff, the need for lights on a dark path is actualized in yellow, low-pressure sodium street lights—the city’s glow is kept at a minimum, but we are still able to safely enjoy the nighttime hours. Even these familiar lights have found their place in the show: local photographer Joe Cornett artfully captured a trio of golden-hued street lights disappearing into the black night above a lonesome street.
There is an undeniably human aspect to the exhibit. It’s not just about observing the night from a distance, but interacting with and exploring our effects on it—just as Luginbuhl expressed feeling closer to humanity by peering through a telescope. The nighttime the show seems to emphasize is not some static, unchanging object, but something that has been molded by experiences over time.
This is most eloquently reflected in Theodore Greer’s depiction of the Jemez Historic Site in New Mexico, an ancestral site to the Jemez Pueblo people. A crowd gathers around an Indigenous drummer and costumed dancer—the orange glow of torches light up entranced faces, yet the curve of the blackened sky outlines the scene.
“That piece gives me goosebumps when I think about the theme of the show and what the artist is tying in—that feeling of being outdoors and a part of something,” Tannous says. “There’s a connection and it’s very real. At any moment, you could walk away from the light, look up, and get a completely different sense of your place in the world.”
Exploring NightVisions is an opportunity to enjoy the beauty of the universe, appreciate Flagstaff’s own dark sky, and remember that our Earth is also a star to some distant planet. It’s a reminder that even as we go about our day-to-day lives, the night sky is still there. The exhibition reminds us to look up and wonder about the night sky: it’s one of the most human things you can do.
NightVisions 2017 opens to the public with a free reception on Thu, June 15 at the Coconino Center for the Arts, 2300 N. Fort Valley Road, from 6-8 p.m. The exhibit runs through July 29. Opening in conjunction with NightVisions is A Part of a Larger Story in the Jewel Gallery and The Living Subject in the Hidden Light Gallery. Gallery hours are Tue–Sat, 11 a.m.–5 p.m. For more info, call 779-2300 or visit www.flagartscouncil.org.