Seeing Space at the Astronomy Library

17 student-made paintings now permanently adorn the astronomy library in Strawbridge Observatory.

What do Chinese scroll paintings, Greek mythology, the Big Bang, and Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam all have in common? Astronomy and space. At least that’s what the six fine arts students in Professor Li’s advanced painting class thought. 

The project started last summer when head librarian Terry Snyder and science library Carol Howe were brainstorming ways to improve the Astronomy Library. They decided to leave the top two shelves of the library shelves unused since they were too high to be practical, and Howe thought about putting art in that space. The librarians then asked Professor Li if she would be interested in having her students create mural style art for the space. Despite already having a curriculum set for the fall semester, she was excited to take on this new challenge.

Professor Li viewed the project as a great opportunity for her advanced painting class particularly because of some of her students’ interest in astronomy and physics, including one fine arts and astrophysics double major, and a fine arts and astronomy double minor. Especially knowing the students’ background, [I thought] this would be a great experience for them,” said Li.

Unlike previous assignments, the Astronomy Library project posed new challenges for the class. ln addition to being the largest artistic project they’d ever taken on students also had to fit their canvases to the upper shelves of the Astronomy Library, where they would be viewed from below. Early in the class they measured the dimensions and drafted their ideas on differently-sized canvases. 

Yi Ren BMC ’23, who contributed three paintings of different sizes, chose to explore astronomy and space by drawing inspiration from triptych Chinese scroll paintings that depict the transition from the mountains to the sky. She said, “While painting the canvas it felt big but when we put it on the wall the painting looks just the right size.” This installation was also a unique opportunity for the class to develop their art around a theme. and required them to do some research about space and astronomy. Throughout the process, students collaborated to develop their ideas from sketches to the final canvases. 

Sophie Frem ’23, who created images of the Big Bang and the Orion constellation, enjoyed the collaborative nature of the class and the opportunity to “have [my work] evolve from different drafts and see that evolution.”

Peter Deng ’23, who took inspiration from moon motifs in Charles Baudelaire’s poetry and Greek mythology for his two paintings says the process of integrating astronomy and art was a great way to discover the interdisciplinary nature of art. At the opening event, visitors enjoyed the new installation. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology Jia Hui Lee commented that this student work expands his traditional thinking about astronomy by presenting the content “not through telescopes, but through myths, stories, and art being able to locate those.” 

Professor Li also invited her introductory painting class to the opening. Said Andrew Johanningsmeier ’25 that “Having student artwork in places where we’re being taught is empowering and cool to see.”