During my time as an eight-year-old supernerd, I never felt more in my element than during my frequent visits to the Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium. The local astronomy club held meetings there, and on those nights, I’d cajole my father into bringing me early and letting me stay until his (or the planetarium curator’s) patience was entirely exhausted. When we weren’t gazing up at the planetarium’s starry sky, or listening to an astronomy lecture, I could, without exception, be found wandering the exhibit hall just outside the sky theater.
Many of the artifacts in the planetarium exhibit hall seemed enormous to eight-year-old me, which seemed fitting for a place dedicated to planets, stars, and galaxies. I’d spend ages hovering over a large mechanical model of the Solar System. It was almost always stuck or broken, but that never mattered because, “DUDE! CHECK OUT THESE RAD BLACK LIGHTS!” The hall’s giant Earth globe was another popular favorite. Its creaky, clunky motor made the globe’s escape seem marvelously inevitable. When the ball started rolling, I’d finally be able to perform my well-planned, Indiana Jones-style dash as it chased me through the museum’s Gaslight Village. I was a weird kid.
One item in the exhibit hall was even larger than the Earth globe. It was a giant painting; one that stands out in my memory, although at the time I rarely if ever spared it more than a passing glance. That piece, Fra Mauro by Lumen Martin Winter, is the artifact I recently spotted at 54 Jefferson and immediately chose for ArtifactGR.
Lumen Winter, as I’ve recently learned, developed his love of painting, horses, and painting horses during a childhood in the early 20th-century American West. Decades later, as spaceflight entered the forefront of U.S. American consciousness, he too turned his imagination–and subject matter–skyward.
When Apollo 13 lifted off in 1970, astronauts James Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise were wearing Lumen Winter-designed mission patches on their arms. His design depicted three horses soaring high about the Earth, along with the phrase ex luna scientia, or “from the Moon, knowledge.” An oxygen tank explosion cut their mission short, but in place of luna scientiam they brought us an inspiring tale of bravery and ingenuity in the face of overwhelming odds.
In the years following the Apollo program, Lumen Winter focused his creative efforts on commemorating the triumphs of human spaceflight. Fra Mauro, a blue and green abstraction of the Moon’s face, is one such painting. Dedicated to the Apollo 13 astronauts–a flat lunar plain called Fra Mauro was their intended landing site–Winter donated this giant work directly to the Grand Rapids Public Museum collection, and it’s regularly been on display since.
Unfazed by an eight-year-old’s indifference, this painting watched over my own early explorations of space; museum experiences that cemented my lifelong love of astronomy. Over the next seven years, it silently observed my path from planetarium intern to part-time production assistant and show presenter.
The museum’s mid–1990s transition to the newly built Van Andel Museum Center (and with it, a brand new planetarium) was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, but as we worked to clear out the old exhibit hall, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of loss over the familiar objects I knew I wouldn’t be seeing for a while.
While I haven’t run across that old mechanical, black-lit Solar System, the immense Earth globe did find a home in the new museum. It’s still a popular attraction outside the current Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium. Occasionally, when it is surrounded by kids, a little part of me hopes that one of them is secretly hatching an Indiana Jones escape plan down the museum’s grand staircase.
It took slightly longer, but Lumen Winter’s blue-green Moon also reemerged from the collection, joining us at the new building. From a prominent location near the new sky theater’s entrance, Fra Mauro saw another million-or-so planetarium visitors. And, of course, it continued to keep an eye on me as I worked and learned, developed, produced, and presented content, and had a blast every step of the way.
It’s been twenty-five years since eight-year-old me first started making a pest of himself around the planetarium. Today I manage planetarium operations, which I’ve come to learn–when done correctly–mostly means giving young, talented, passionate people the freedom, encouragement, and resources to make magic. I was–and still am-extremely lucky that my predecessor and mentor here at the planetarium knew that secret better than anyone.
Fra Mauro has been suffering in recent years; a little too much wear and tear from environmental factors and visitor traffic. A few months ago, it was taken down to be inspected, cared for, and safely stored at the Community Archives & Research Center (at 54 Jefferson; very appropriate, as the CARC offices were built on the site of the old Chaffee Planetarium).
I’ve been too familiar with the painting for too long to wager delving into any kind of serious art criticism. I wouldn’t know where to start. However, if you were to catch me in an unusually candid mood, I might admit that, speaking personally, as a work of art, Fra Mauro has never done much for me. I mean… I don’t hate it, but… Well, at this point, more than twenty years into our relationship, does any of that really matter? One way or another, I’ve come to care a lot about that mottled blue-green ball; perhaps more than I care about any other work of art. And in some strange, over-anthropomorphizing-like-crazy way, I like to imagine that painting cares a little for me.
Wherever the next chapters of our stories take us, I probably won’t be seeing much of Fra Mauro for a while. But you never know. We’ve developed a knack for walking into each others’ scenes.