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Art in the Cosmos

Illustration alumnus Forest Stearns is spreading his powerful message of peace and inspiring a new artistic generation with his work at Planet

Forest in Space Suit holding Dove Satellite

Academy of Art University School of Illustration alumnus Forest Stearns holding a Dove satellite. Photo courtesy of Planet.

In a time when world leaders are threatening nuclear war with the push of a button, one Academy of Art University alumnus is spreading peace with art and not just globally, but into the cosmos. 

A little over a year ago, Forest Stearns got to watch his enormous, peace-bearing symbol, the white dove, shoot into the sky on a rocket launched into space carrying 88 satellites; a rocket that was once used as a vehicle of war—a ballistic missile. 

The 2010 M.F.A. alumnus of the School of Illustration is the art director for Planet, an aerospace company which is designing, building and launching satellites faster than any company or government in history. The satellites, which Planet calls Dove satellites, are designed to capture the most detailed imagery of the earth available to date. This imagery is used throughout the science community and beyond for a variety of purposes that usually have the same goal: Bettering the planet and its biospheres.

Although what seems an unconventional place for a fine artist to end up, Stearns is right at home, while spreading a powerful message of peace, acting responsibly toward Mother Nature and making space accessible to all by inspiring a new generation of artists. 

For four-and-a-half years, Stearns has been painting on satellites, radio and communication domes and just last year, rockets. Each piece of art produced is part of what Stearns called: “The biggest art show ever created in Earth’s orbit.” 

More than 200 satellites currently orbiting the Earth are adorned with Stearns’ graphic-style of acrylic artwork. Black and white laser-etched images of animal migrations, winter landscapes with a flowing river and bare trees and snowy mountains are among just a few of his works of art in space. 

According to Stearns, the purpose of putting artwork on space equipment is to “beautify the whole process by making something that would otherwise be sterile more human and giving it more of a soul.”

Some of the largest pieces Stearns has completed for Planet have been on the outside of a rocket. His most recent work was displayed on Planet’s Minotaur rocket, which launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California back in October 2017 as well as the PSLV rocket that launched out of India in February 2017.

Dove Satellite 2016

A Planet Dove satellite. Photo courtesy of Planet.

Adorning the PSLV rocket is a 4-foot-by-4-foot white dove with its wings spread against the background of a blue earth. The dove looks to be almost embracing the earth or maybe as if it’s protecting it. 

“We are a peacekeeping mission, so I wanted to make the coolest, most boss dove ever,” said Stearns of the inspiration behind his work.

For the Minotaur rocket, Stearns chose imagery that was a little more powerful. He painted a 4-foot-by-6-foot macaw parrot beside a dove against the background of a labyrinth maze, which in Greek mythology, includes a minotaur that resides in the center. To Stearns, the macaw symbolizes gregariousness and intelligence, while the dove represents, again, peace.

“I want every piece of art to have secret meanings,” he said. “As an artist, I have to tap into which prevailing winds I want to visually accent and speak on.”

This idea of bringing artistic culture to space is one he wanted to spread to other artists through Planet’s Artist in Residence program, a program that was entirely Stearns’ idea. Four times a year, Stearns hires an artist to create a variety of art for three months at Planet. Guided at times by Stearns, the artists have complete creative autonomy to produce any kind of art they want or as Stearns explained it, “celebrate their creative permission.”

Minotaur-C Rocket. Credit_OrbitalATK (1)

Liftoff of Orbital ATK’s Minotaur-C rocket. Photo courtesy of Orbital ATK.

One of these artists was Eriko Yamada, a 2010 Academy alumna, who began her residency in 2014. Yamada now lives in Japan as a visual designer at Amazon Devices, designing for products like Echo and Kindle. She first met Stearns in a printmaking class at the Academy. 

“Forest is like a big brother to me,” she said. “He was always telling and showing me how to do better, but to have fun at the same time. His creative process is very collaborative and open, which makes everyone feel welcomed.”

The most prominent project Yamada completed during her residency was a portrait of astronaut Koichi Wakata who helped deploy the Dove satellites. She painted him singing karaoke on the moon with doves soaring above. 

A recent Planet residency was filled by Richelle Gribble, who was inspired by Stearns to develop a deeper understanding of the interconnectivity of  Earth’s systems.

“After leaving Planet, I feel more motivated to promote our interconnectivity as a planet,” she said. “Being able to see the transformation of our Earth from above is a way we can communicate global change, and as an artist, I want to continue to incorporate the view from above to inspire wonder about the world we live [in] and also encourage the protection of what we have.”

Stearns’ mentorship goes beyond the Artist in Residence program. He additionally hosts quarterly art nights at Planet. Family and friends of Planet employees, along with community members, gather at Planet for one mission: To create art. 

The work from these art nights was used on the 88 smaller Dove satellites that filled the PSLV rocket with Stearns’ artwork on the exterior. 

“We want everyone to have access to express themselves and the vehicle we happen to use to do that is space,” he said. “We want to continue to get people to be creative, think outside the box, think bigger, better and bring more diversity to the conversation.” 

For some of Stearns’ former instructors at the Academy, witnessing him apply his skills to an art show in outer space is pretty amazing. 

“Watching him blossom after leaving school has been like watching a supernova,” said School of Illustration Director Chuck Pyle. “He has explosively expanded into space.”