An Artist on a Space Mission

by Caryn Eve Murray

An artist grounded for more than three decades in the watercolor landscapes of rural North America, Barbara Ernst Prey received her first request from NASA in 2003.

The agency’s challenge: Use her canvas to capture the International Space Station in deep orbit.

And so Prey, the wife of a Presbyterian minister in Oyster Bay, set about pondering the heavens somewhat differently than she ever had before.

For one thing, she said, “I needed an answer to the question, ‘What color is the sky?’”

She turned to NASA scientists for advice and soon learned “you can’t answer that properly.  It is layers and layers [of color]; it is not blue when you get that far beyond [the earth].”

With two more NASA commissions since then behind her – of an X-43 hypersonic “scramjet” and a memorial to the shuttle Columbia – she now has been asked for a painting of the shuttle Discovery’s emotion-laden liftoff, NASA’s first space flight since the loss of Columbia two years ago.

Working first in pencil sketches, then adding inspiration and research gleaned through scientists and her attendance at the Cape Canaveral launch, she plans to deliver the finished work by year’s end.

Prey, 46, who grew up in Manhasset, has made other artistic journeys: As a participant in the U.S. Arts in Embassies program, she has exhibited at U.S. embassies in Prague, Oslo and Minsk, the capital of Belarus.  She was selected in 2003 as the artist to create the official White House Christmas card.

This summer she also has been preparing for a quieter launch closer to home: “Works on Water,” an exhibit of her landscapes will be hosted beginning July 30 by the Blue Water Fine Arts gallery in Port Clyde, Maine.  In these works, she celebrates the traditions of lobstermen and others living close to land and sea.

“I explored the relationships of those whose lives depend on the water,” she said.

At the moment, however, the shuttle is foremost on her mind.  Prey was a schoolgirl when the U.S. space program was rising like a bright sun on the nation’s horizon.  She remembers the televised moon landing in 1969 – an achievement commemorated on canvas that year by Andy Warhol, working then in the same NASA art program that Prey, the daughter of fine artist Peggy Ernst, would later be invited to join.

“Somewhere in my mind,” she said, “that has to have had an influence of why I am so excited to be part of the NASA arts program.”