Harvard Magazine

Gallery High Art

Since its founding, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has commissioned artists to depict explorations of the upper atmosphere and of space.  Norman Rockwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, and Annie Leibovitz are among those who’ve done so.  Another is Barbara Ernst Prey, M.Div. ’86, who has painted four watercolors for NASA since 2003.

An art-history graduate of Williams, Prey did line drawings for the New York Times to help pay her way through the Divinity School, where she also cross-registered for fine-arts courses.  At the time, she was considering an academic career in church history, and also “looking for a context for my art work,” she says.  Regarding her later NASA paintings, Prey notes that “having a theology background gives you a different perspective when you’re looking at the cosmos.”

Prey (www.barbaraprey.com) has been painting for nearly 40 years and doing watercolors for 35 of them.  “I’m mostly a landscape painter,” she says.  Much of her non-NASA work depicts rural landscapes in Maine; the artist herself lives in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York.  “I try to push the medium and colors as far as they can go,” Prey says.  For example, witness the deeply saturated blues – a tricky achievement in watercolor – which light up the skies of her NASA pictures.

For these paintings, Prey can spend months on research, talking with scientists, meeting astronauts.  She flew to Edwards Air Force Base in California to study the X-43 (below), a tiny unmanned aircraft only a few feet long that can fly at mach 10.  Her Columbia Tribute (right) celebrated the successful launch of the space shuttle that disintegrated during re-entry in 2003.  NASA gave prints of Prey’s image to the families of the astronauts who perished, and also used it on the cover of the brochure for the memorial service at Arlington National Cemetery.  “I wanted to make something positive for a very sad event,” Prey says.