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Drawn to the Power of the Night Skies

Russell Crotty translates his backyard view of the heavens into drawings, oversized books and globes.

March 04, 2001|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Russell Crotty ponders the universe. Literally. Night after night, he peers through the telescope in his backyard observatory in Malibu, noting detailed observations of the moon and planets. These later are translated into drawings, books and Lucite globes.

His work can be seen in "Russell Crotty: The Universe From My Backyard," an exhibition on view through April 22 at the Williamson Gallery at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Organized by curator Stephen Nowlin, the exhibition features eight globes as well as Crotty's 2-by-4-foot books and large drawings documenting the ever-changing condition of the night sky. Crotty will conduct a free walk-through of the show Thursday at 7:30 p.m.

The 44-year-old artist is tanned and tall, blond and blue-eyed, looking every bit the surfer that he has been since the age of 13. With his wife, graphic designer Laura Gruenther, he moved to Malibu eight years ago as caretaker of a property on a bluff overlooking the Pacific. Leaving his former digs in L.A.'s Rampart district meant a vast transition--from dealing with urban gangs to dealing with blistering windstorms. "It had a profound influence on the development of the work," Crotty says, sitting with a cup of coffee in the dining room of his house and looking out to sea.

Between 1990 and 1993, Crotty had developed a reputation for his repetitive, sketchy drawings in ballpoint pen of tiny stick figures surfing enormous waves. Ironically, moving to Malibu where he could look at the coastline all day and surf whenever he desired, dampened his drive to continue those drawings. One night, after moving into the house, he stepped onto the front porch and looked up to see the crystal necklace of stars and planets arrayed on velvet darkness. "It was like 'Aha!' " he recalls. "I knew I could make work out of that for a long time."

A member of an astronomy club as teenager, Crotty had a basic familiarity with the positions and appearances of stars and planets. He could identify Jupiter in the constellation Leo by its whiteness, for instance. In order to pursue drawing the universe, however, he dedicated himself to a program of study. He read books about astronomy, learned how to make scientifically appropriate visual observations and detailed annotations.

"It was a challenge for me, like a discipline I needed, like something lacking in my life," says Crotty, who says he has no aptitude for science or math.

Once mentally prepared, Crotty built a corrugated metal shed about 500 feet from his house and commissioned Ed Grissom, a well-known local amateur astronomer, to build a telescope facing away from the lights of L.A. and toward the deep black sky over the ocean. His Solstice Peak Observatory cost some $3,000. He was admitted to the Assn. of Lunar and Planetary Observers, an organization of amateur astronomers who assist professionals. He met fellow members for star parties on Mt. Pinos in the Los Padres National Forest, far from any city light reflection and perfect for stargazing from high-powered portable telescopes.

This sort of visual observation of the stars dates to the Neolithic Age, but these days, astronomers rely less on looking at the sky and more on looking at computer data produced by high-powered telescopes. Crotty is committed to the astronomy of the 19th century, a discipline still suffused with romance and mystery.

"I am going back to the origins of visual astronomy," he says. "I like being out in the cold, with my paper on a clipboard, making drawings of planets."

He makes straight scientific illustrations that are published in the journal of the Assn. of Lunar and Planetary Observers. These serve as a departure point for his artwork. He began by making grids of drawings of the galaxies, similar in format to his surf drawings. Then he focused on a circle format that gives the viewer the impression of looking through the eyepiece of a telescope, a point of view that includes them in the experience of discovery.

In the mid-1990s, Crotty began commissioning giant custom-made "sketchbooks" in which to make his planetary drawings. Similar to oversized atlases, the books, which are chronological, allow the viewer a chance to experience the observations and the changing celestial view from Malibu--in a surprisingly intimate way: just by turning the pages.

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