Reaching for the stars

Tara Bradbury
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Newfoundland artist finds her way to NASA

Artist Renate Pohl has posted a warning for visitors to the website showcasing her work in stained glass.

"Exposure to the stained glass eye candy may result in mystical event horizons, 'Twilight' daydreaming, and your dork-o-meter going through the roof. Enter at your own risk," she has posted.

Pohl creates custom stained glass pieces in themes from the "Twilight" series of books, "Star Wars," "Doctor Who" and "Charmed." Her love of science fiction stems from her fascination with all things having to do with space. This summer, she'll attempt to merge her two loves - art and space - when she becomes a member of a group of only 125 people from around the world selected to study at the International Space University's Space Studies Program.

A native of Gander, raised in Centreville, Pohl, 37, works mainly as a theatre designer, designing lighting, sets and costumes for stage productions. She often teaches in the theatre department at MUN's Grenfell College, and is currently working with the Resource Centre for the Arts theatre company in St. John's. It was when she was finished her theatre degree in 1996 that she first became interested in space.

"I was in a play called 'Arcadia' and it was a play partly about science. It just wouldn't leave me," Pohl explained. "I decided I wanted to become an astrophysicist because I thought that's how you get to do space stuff."

Pohl enrolled in astrophysics at University of Toronto, but dropped out after the first semester, realizing it wasn't exactly what she had been looking for. She didn't want to be a scientist, she concluded; she just wanted to find a way to better understand science from her own artistic point of view.

Last September, Pohl participated in an astronaut training experience at NASA Kennedy Space Centre, gaining some first-hand knowledge of what astronauts go through to prepare for a mission, and how a mission is launched. She was appointed flight director for the exercise, she said.

"I found it really amazing how it's actually really similar to theatre," she said. "I've been through the process of building a show and what it takes to get a show on its feet, and I found the launching of a mission was similar to that."

In an effort to explore ways artists can contribute to science, Pohl applied for the space studies program, and was thrilled to be one of only a small percentage of people with a background in humanities to be accepted. As far as she knows, she's the first person from this province to ever have been admitted.

Over nine weeks, Pohl will work with the other international students to learn and discuss space issues. The first three weeks of the program will consist strictly of lectures, on topics like space education, space and society, engineering, biology, and a bit of everything, presented so it's understandable to all participants no matter what their professional background.

After that, the students begin a major group project in one of four areas: space debris removal, next-generation space stations, what space can contribute to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, and spaceports.

"At the end of that time, what happens is a lot of these final projects, once they're polished up and put together, do get presented outside of the school environment in the actual space industry or government arenas, at global astronomical places and the UN or large policy-making bodies," Pohl said. "There's an opportunity to possibly go as a team and be the creative voice for those. It's really exciting; it feels very large. I feel like it's a great step into doing something big."

Pohl hopes to gain some insight into how artists can contribute to science. She said she already has some superficial ideas - using skills like drafting and drawing to help with presentations or putting fundraising skills to use, for example - but would like to explore what she feels is a disconnect between science and art.

She'd also like to help find a way to make space accessible to more than just rocket scientists.

"When I decided that I wanted to be involved in the space industry, I thought that I had to be a scientist to do that, and you don't," she explained. "What I spent a long time doing is trying to figure out how you could do that as an artist. If you go to the NASA (website) and look under jobs, most people aren't going to be able to apply for those. A lot of people might get discouraged at that point and think, I'm not a rocket scientist so therefore I'll never be able to get involved in anything to do with space. I feel like that's not fair; space should be open to everyone and the space industry can develop faster and more fully with everyone's input."

Pohl doesn't plan to ever go to space; it's not her ultimate goal. Ideally, she'd like to establish some kind of space and humanities program, allowing artists and scientists to work together.

Attending the space studies program isn't cheap, but Pohl has been offered a scholarship from the Canadian Foundation for the International Space University to cover most of her expenses. With the scholarship and some fundraising, she has managed to raise about $27,000. She has set up an Indiegogo website to try and raise the remaining $1,500 she needs, and is about halfway there, offering perks to donors like a custom-made stained glass pendant, a stained-glass lesson in person or by video, and a signed postcard from NASA. Her website can be viewed at . Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Grenfell College, NASA, International Space University Resource Centre Arts theatre University of Toronto UN Canadian Foundation

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Gander, Centreville St. John's

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Recent comments

  • Renate Pohl
    April 14, 2012 - 10:01

    Since this interview, I have discovered that there will be about 145 people attending SSP2012 this year - the biggest group yet! Also, at least two other SSP attendees have indeed come from Newfoundland - Trevor Morris and Mark Lipsett, both living in St. John's, attended SSP2011.

    • Phillip Keane
      April 15, 2012 - 11:16

      Hi Renate, how is the funding going? I have just received a scholarship for 15000 Euros for the MSc course this year, and am now in fundraising mode also!