Who Am I? Exhibition
Josh Simpson (American, b. 1949)
Blown glass with glass canes, metal foils, silver bromide, powdered glass, cased and polished
Commissioned by the University Museums on the occasion of its 25th Anniversary. Purchased with funds from Arthur Klein. In the permanent collection of the Brunnier Art Museum, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa.
When I started blowing glass, I had no idea that someday I would become known for making large glass spheres that captured my childhood fascination with outer space. How I got to that point is a combination of accident, intense amounts of work, and, of course, some amazingly good luck.
My first spheres were actually just little marbles that I created for different groups of eighth-graders that visited my studio regularly for several months back in the 1970’s. At first, I showed them everything I could think of to keep them interested: huge glass bubbles, long strands of glass that stretched across the room, even goblets (boring!). I quickly learned that eighth graders are people who will suffer no boredom in their lives whatsoever! Knowing they were coming the next day, one evening I thought of the iconic photo taken by the Apollo Astronaut Bill Anders of our Earth floating like a little blue marble in the black void of space. I also thought of Astronaut Jim Lovell’s comment that looking out the window of his spacecraft he could cover the Earth with his thumb. The next time the kids arrived I tried making marbles that resembled planets, and I made up stories about these little spheres looking like faraway worlds no one had ever seen before. My thought was to keep those kids entertained, but also to give them another perspective.
Eventually I started adding little pieces of complex glass cane that I had made for my other floral vases and paperweights – now to suggest cities, mountains, forests, and other landscape features. Later I took segments of my favorite canes, heated and twisted them to resemble tiny spacecraft, and set them floating into orbit around the little worlds I was creating. Again, I made up stories to entertain the kids about the possibility that the planets were inhabited. I was my own Captain James T. Kirk, with my crew of eighth graders debating whether a planet had enough oxygen to support life forms. Pieces without spaceships became “possibly inhabited” planets, but a planet with a spaceship or bubble trail was surely inhabited.
The rest of the story simply flowed from there. In time, I figured out more and more about how to add extra layers of glass to increase the depth and intrigue of each world I was creating. I introduced more complex spaceships and mysterious effects in the atmosphere of these worlds, and I developed a way to get very large spheres of molten glass to cool, without slumping or cracking, from 2,100 degrees down to room temperature. All of these complicated techniques and details are just the backdrop for what I love to do with Planets (as in most of my glass): to hint, suggest, and create infinite possibilities that invite the viewer’s own imagination to complete the story.
Even as a child I had an affinity for water. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in my adult life I am a biologist who studies aquatic organisms and my research often requires many hours in the field in or near the water. My research has taken me to locations around the world observing and studying aquatic animals. The earth differs from other planets in the solar system in that it has liquid water and its surface is composed primarily of water. It is generally agreed that life on earth could not have become established without water and the fact that organisms are composed largely of water supports this. The glass sculpture Megaplanet certainly calls to mind a planet covered in water. For me, this sculpture evokes the gorgeous crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean and in particular the shallow sand flats that I have explored while engaging in one of my hobbies – fly fishing. The composition of the work and its spherical shape allows it to be viewed from a distance, as if you were wading through the shallow water which distorts the appearance of the objects below the surface. The alternating electric blue and turquoise that indicate the changing depth of the flats and the different clusters of shapes look like groups of coral heads, sea fans, and eel grass beds from above. A closer inspection of the globe and you are diving below the surface and are swimming with the schools of yellow and black Sergeant Major fish as they forage around the coral reefs. A small group of bluish-grey Jacks patrol the flats looking for crabs or smaller fish to make a meal, their silver sides reflect the blue of the water. The smooth white sand is sometimes interrupted by a Queen Conch’s shell, its rose-colored opening exposed indicating that it is empty. Scattered around there are serpentine Brittle-stars and the miniature volcanic cones that mark the burrows of sand worms.
Dr. Kevin Roe
Associate Professor, Natural Resource and Ecology Management
When I first saw Josh Simpson’s planets in 1988 at the Brunnier Art Museum, I loved the idea of satellites circling the glass-enclosed planet. I was thrilled when University Museums acquired his Megaplanet in 2001.
For me, those satellites gave the planet an element of being an egg about to hatch: This alien planet obviously has a space program that may not yet have sent people far away, but that has at least gotten out of the atmosphere and into orbit. We ordered some globes for ourselves, specifying that we did want the satellites to be included.
The satellites resonated with me in a variety of ways, as my interest in astronomy was stoked by the launch of Sputnik in 1957. For a brief while I thought I might become an astronaut, until I realized that this was impossible for several reasons, including that there were no female astronauts at the time. I became an astronomer instead. Later, my yearning for a connection to outer space was satisfied by serving on NASA committees. The first of these was the “Users Committee” for the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite. This NASA/ESA/UK joint mission provided humanity’s first sight of the universe in wavelengths that do not penetrate to the ground.
Now, when I look at Simpson’s sculpture, there are some darker thoughts that it brings to mind. The satellites that intrigued me then now also remind me of the cloud of debris that surrounds our planet. Because each piece is orbiting at four miles per second, when the orbits intersect at any angle greater than about ten degrees the impact is like a bullet shot from a gun – it can do substantial damage. I also think of the huge number of small satellites currently being launched for communication purposes – the Constellation-X fleet being one example – that threated to render some of astronomy’s most powerful instruments mostly unable to do what they were designed to do. Large telescopes in space are far more expensive than similar ones on the ground, so these satellites are a serious threat to the future of astronomy.
The glass around the globe also triggers another thought: Glass windows let me enjoy the light from our Sun while remaining warm or cool indoors. They protect me from the weather while allowing me to see outside. Our planet is warming because, like the glass in a greenhouse, our atmosphere lets light through but captures the resulting heat (infrared radiation). As we add more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere it becomes like having thicker glass, and it retains more heat. The atmosphere on the Simpson planet is all glass, trapping, immobilizing and protecting what is inside.
Lee Anne Willson
University Professor Emerita, Physics and Astronomy