Artist Reaches New Heights

PICTURE THIS It was an honor, but a bit daunting as well, says Barbara Ernst Prey of her commission from NASA.  The artist, a New York native who summers in Maine, was asked to do the official portrait of the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated during reentry a year ago.  (Other painters who’ve worked for the space agency include Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella, and Andy Warhol.)  “It was an international tragedy, and I knew prints [of the painting] would be given to the astronauts’ families,” Prey said.  “I wanted to do something very positive.”  The finished product, to be shown for the first time at that National Air and Space Museum in Washington Feb. 2, is a vivid watercolor of the shuttle lifting off at the Kennedy Space Center.  Prey, who received her master’s degree from Harvard, is getting accustomed to high-profile commissions.  She did the White House Christmas card this year after President Bush and his wife Laura, saw – and bought- a few of her paintings of Maine.  (The Christmas card depicts the Diplomatic Reception room and fireplace at the White House.)  “It was sent to 1.5 million people, including heads of state all over the world,” Prey said.  “If you think about what you’re doing and who’s seeing it, it can get overwhelming, so I just don’t think about it.”