Portrait of Speed


A painting by Barbara Ernst Prey of Oyster Bay is part of “NASA | ART: 50 Years of Exploration,” a traveling exhibit marking the space agency’s 50th anniversary.

Her painting of the X-43 – an aircraft that traveled at 10 times the speed of sound- will be seen in at least 10 museums in the United States in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, along with 75 works by other artists, including Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol and Norman Rockwell.

Prey’s work can be found all over the world, including at the White House, the American embassies in Madrid and Paris, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The artist, who grew up in Manhasset, talked with Newsday about her career and the paintings she’s done during the past 35 years.  Here’s the countdown:


What do you enjoy about painting aircraft?

With the X-43, I was able to capture the high-energy of the world-breaking record going 10 times the speed of sound against a very clear blue sky.  If you look at the “Columbia Tribute” painting [one of four NASA commissions], I recreated the moment when the hopes and dreams of the astronauts were realized, as opposed to the tragedy.


Why do you paint aircraft?

I’m not really an aircraft painter, I’m really a landscape painter.  NASA looks for artists all over the United States to capture important moments.


What techniques do you use for your NASA paintings?

Because I’m more of a landscape painter, I really put anything I paint in a landscape, so it’s all the same.  I’ve been painting with watercolors for close to 40 years.

When I did a painting of the International Space Station, it was more of a mixed medium with watercolors and pastels.


How did your upbringing affect your paintings of aircrafts and space shuttles?

I remember when we landed on the moon, and that was so important, and I think that space always held an interest for me.  I grew up in a very artistic household.  My mother was head of the design department at Pratt Art Institute in new York, and she had a large studio in our house, with lots of art books and artwork all around.


NASA gave you one hour with the X-43 at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  How did you do it?

I drew pencil sketches of it, and then did the finished painting in my studio.  I was allowed to go on site right before takeoff to do the drawings, which gave me a lot of information, because I like to work from firsthand references.


How many paintings has NASA commissioned to you?

Four, and that’s a bit unusual because of their budget.  Twenty years ago they had more artists.  They don’t do many commissions lately.  So it’s been an honor that they’ve come back and asked me to do four paintings.  That doesn’t really happen- ever.


Which piece of work are you most proud of?

I think I’m the most proud of a painting I did for the White House Christmas card in 2003.  It is in the permanent collection of the White House.  You oftentimes have to be dead to get that honor.


What is it like working with NASA?

Doing NASA work has really been eye-opening because it has expand my world and my universe, and given me a greater understanding of the expanse of what is out there.  It was really fascinating.  What I love about working with NASA is that I work with some incredible people and scientists that have made NASA happen.


How does it feel to have your work displayed next to Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Annie Leibovitz?

I’ve just been very lucky and blessed in the past to have had that exposure and to be included in some very important collections and exhibits.  I’ve had a long history of being included with some very well-known artists.


What advice would you give to young Long Island art students?

To spend as much time working on what you do as possible so that you can do the best with the abilities you’ve been given.