Until December, artist Barbara Prey’s best known works were watercolors of scenes in rural Maine – rowboats, farmhouses and ocean views. Then President Bush sent out a Christmas card featuring one of her paintings that was seen by more than a million people worldwide.
Next week, Prey’s work will be seen by a national audience again when NASA unveils her “Columbia Tribute,” a painting that serves as a memorial to the seven astronauts lost in the space shuttle disaster.
She had recently finished a painting of the International Space Station for NASA’s art program when its curator asked her to create a piece for the anniversary of Columbia’s destruction.
“She does beautiful illustrative work,” curator Bert Ulrich said. “She just seemed like the right artist to pay tribute to the mission, so we asked her again. We only do that occasionally.”
Columbia disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1, 2003. Prey’s painting will be unveiled a day after the first anniversary in Washington, D.C.
The hardest part of the assignment, Prey says, was interpreting the shuttle’s flight in a way that made her painting an uplifting memorial.
“I wouldn’t want to do something that really harped on the disaster,” she said. “You want to make something upbeat and positive because it’s a tribute.”
In the end, she and NASA decided on a painting that shows Columbia lifting off at the Kennedy Space Center. The shuttle blasts up from the launch pad’s gray scaffolding into a brilliant blue sky. Clouds of smoke and steam billow up and away and the scene is reflected in the water at the bottom of the painting.
This instant, with all its power and possibility, is one all shuttle astronauts cherish, Prey says.
“The energy and the excitement of the takeoff was something they had worked for all their lives,” she said. “They worked so hard to get where they were. This must have been a great moment for them.”
Prey also took into account the fact that NASA planned to give prints of the her painting to the astronauts’ families.
“I had the families in the back of my mind,” she said. “I was thinking,
‘What would I want to hang on my wall as a memorial?’”
Prey’s paintings already hang on walls from Oslo, Norway, to Washington, D.C. Several of her works have gone abroad with U.S. ambassadors to hang in their officials residences as part of a State Department program. And one piece, a picture of the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, hangs in the private quarters of the White House.
When first lady Laura Bush asked Prey to make a painting for the annual white House Christmas card, she gave the artist free rein over her subject matter.
“I had this wonderful opportunity to walk through the White House and draw, to sit on the lawn and draw, which was really fun,” Prey said. “To sit in a room and imagine all the history was such a treat.”
The painting on the card, which featured a fireplace in the White House’s Diplomatic Reception Room, was a change of pace for Prey, who focuses more on landscapes and still lifes of rural Maine.
“I often will just focus in on a small part of a scene and this was very different for me,” she said. “As an artist you always want to be evolving and challenging yourself.”
Prey, 42 is descended from the Calderwoods and Carvers who settled Vinalhaven Island, but she did not spend much time in Maine until she was 17. Since then, the state has been a major inspiration, she says.
“I fell in love with the midcoast,” Prey said. “The colors, the fog that makes the colors so brilliant. There’s something that really connects with Maine and draws me back each year.”
“Prey, her husband, a Presbyterian minister, and their two children live in Oyster Bay, on New York’s Long Island, but spend time in Maine’s Tenants Harbor each summer. She owns the Blue Water Fine Arts gallery in Port Clyde, where she holds yearly exhibitions of her work.
Although she has gained recent recognition for paintings that have nothing to do with Maine, Prey says there are still parts of the state she wants to visit and capture in paint.
“What I love about Maine is its very authentic,” she said. “I love the ruggedness. I’d love to go out to some of the outer islands.”