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Artist Creates a Picture-Perfect World : Technology: With the help of science and computer experts, Tom Van Sant creates a remarkably detailed image of the Earth as it appears from space.

December 13, 1990|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The globe on your bookshelf was never like the GeoSphere.

Instead of man-imposed borders and artificially colored countries, there is a picture-perfect, remarkably detailed, cloudless image of the Earth's land masses and oceans, pretty much as they appear from space.

As the globe rotates, light from an artificial sun throws some continents into shadows or "night," and then tiny optic fibers wink on to mark the light show of the world's major cities after dark.

The image is a complex mosaic of thousands of satellite photos pieced together by a team of artists, computer experts and scientists under the direction of Santa Monica artist Tom Van Sant. He financed the project first with a $30,000 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, then by using the proceeds from the sale of his Los Feliz home, then by stretching his credit to the breaking point.

Computer-graphics experts from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena joined Van Sant's team, mostly in their spare time, to create the technology that made the image possible. Before they were finished, they had not only invented methods for Van Sant to correct color distortions in satellite pictures but also devised a program that permitted Van Sant to see through the clouds that perpetually blanket parts of the Earth.

The "globe" the team produced could revolutionize the globe industry when it enters the market, as early as next year, says Jon Hultman, an executive with Replogle Globes Inc., an Illinois-based firm and major globe manufacturer. Hultman is negotiating distribution rights to Van Sant's creation, which may be the biggest thing in globes since the 1950s, when bumps were placed on them to symbolize mountain chains.

For Van Sant, the project is more than the realization of an artistic dream. It is a necessity, he says, a potential cure for mankind's predilection for failing to treat the Earth as a fragile, organism-like entity.

"The Earth is like a person," he said. "You might not appreciate how much you would be affected if something happened to a small part of you, like your big toe. But everything is connected, interrelated." An untreated infection in one small place could imperil the entire organism, he says.

Van Sant says the GeoSphere can make this point forcefully. GeoSphere technology can go beyond creating what its makers call a "reality image" of the Earth. The technology has the potential to generate computer pictures of the Earth, past and future.

Such projections already exist in the form of tables and charts, the dialect of scientists. The purpose of a three-dimensional globe is to translate scientific data into a picture that can be understood by policy-makers and ordinary people.

"If the World Bank is deciding whether to support dam building or a deforestation project in the Amazon, they are not now able to see all the ramifications of this decision," Van Sant said.

Ultimately, GeoSphere technology will be able to project "what the Amazon region looked like in 1972, 1982, and show what it looks like in 1990," Van Sant said. "With risk projection, we can show what the rain forests will look like in 2010 given the same rate of deforestation."

"Earth-resource studies and Earth sciences are no longer territory for scientific inquiry alone," he said. "They are essential ingredients in the formation of public policy."

It makes perfect sense for an artist to be heading a scientific project with that goal, Van Sant says. "Artists are tremendously needed in the world of technology to be able to take these issues and communicate them effectively." Besides, he said, "I'm comfortable with large things."

Van Sant has crossed between art and science before. In 1980, he placed sunlight-reflecting mirrors in the Mojave Desert to overexpose picture panels in a satellite passing overhead. The overexposure created what appeared to be a drawing of a giant eye, about 2.5 kilometers across, or 100,000 times the size of a human eye.

And, he has used a stream of electrons to etch a microscopic eye, 100,000 times smaller than normal, into the side of a salt crystal.

Van Sant, 59, has also produced more traditional art--paintings, murals and sculptures--all across Southern California. The former Marine and Korean War veteran has supported himself as an artist since earning a master's degree in fine arts in 1957 from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.

Van Sant has accepted virtually no commissions, however, since March, 1989, when an eye infection after a cornea transplant nearly blinded him.

"The only thing that could save my eyes was the administration of five different antibiotics in my eyes every half-hour for 10 days," he recalls. "That's a treatment that made everyone crazy, even the nurses. I emptied my mind of all thought and resided there for 10 days. When that period was over, the GeoSphere made a choice on me. Nothing else would reside in my mind."

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