Pat Musick and Jerry Carr make a good pair. Musick has built a career out of using stone, wood and other earthy materials to articulate the tensions between the natural and man-made worlds. Carr has seen the Earth from outer space.
For the past four years, the octogenarian Manchester Center couple have merged their respective perspectives on the planet — artist Musick’s close reading of nature; retired astronaut Carr’s galactic view — to create “Our Fragile Home,” a series of conceptual sculptures and works on paper that reflect on the vulnerability of life.
The works on display at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester have been on Musick’s mind for more than 20 years, she says. On Earth Day in 1990, Carr was one of 50 astronauts from around the world invited to speak at the United Nations General Assembly. Musick came with him and listened, through translation headsets, as astronauts from the United States, France, Russia, Germany, Saudi Arabia and Spain described the planet they had seen from afar.
Musick couldn’t believe what she heard. The astronauts spoke in their native tongues, and since they weren’t wearing headsets, they couldn’t hear each other speak — yet they all used the same words: beauty, sustain, harmony, nurture, steward, protect, fragile and balance.
Those words appear throughout Musick and Carr’s current exhibit — stenciled onto kozo paper, woven over a light box, jumbled up and deconstructed in paintings, and one on each of the eight waist-high steel pedestals that make up the work called “Our Fragile Home.”
On each identical pedestal, which Carr forged in his Sunderland, Vt., studio, is a stack of materials: first a block of wood, then several squares of slate, then a thick slice of Lexan — the plastic used in astronauts’ helmets — then more slate. At the top rests a gnarled, bronze-cast twig cradling a pair of alabaster eggs.
Carr revealed that the stacks are discreetly secured with two rods and a little glue, but their simple, elegant composition evokes a sense of precarious balance, a feeling that if any one element were missing, the whole thing might fall apart.
Among the works on paper, the recurring visual theme is black acrylic paint smearing the kozo paper as if by rain. This effect is especially lovely in “They All Said the Same Thing 2,” a painting in which the words, which have been stenciled into a triangle in the lower half of the composition, seem to be running down the speckled paper. Musick flecks the kozo paper with brown paint and coats it in beeswax, giving it a curled, aged quality.
In the six paintings called “The Source of Their Words,” Musick arranges the astronauts’ words tightly into orbs, which are entangled in dark tree boughs. Here the dripping black paint looks like mildew, as if these paintings have seen years of neglect. In one, the bough is cradling the orb; in another the orb appears to be slipping out of the branches. And in yet another, there’s so much smudging of paint that the bough and orb are almost completely obscured.
The sense of dripping pigment continues in “Thought Streams,” a set of long paper scrolls suspended side by side from steel frames mounted on the wall. Each piece is covered in jumbled, stenciled letters, which, because of the paint poured over them, appear to be tumbling down toward the floor, where the scrolls are held in place with smooth gray stones.
Musick says she made “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Soul,” a similar, smaller work, while worrying about acid rain. After finishing it, she wanted to create something more lighthearted. That’s where “Rainsongs” — 12 small compositions of kozo paper, acrylics, beeswax and wood — come in. Each minimalist work centers on a symbol that Musick constructed from two or three thin sticks.
It’s clear that these sticks are symbols, but viewers are unlikely to figure out on their own that the artist intended them as invented musical notes. “I wait for the viewer to sing them,” she says.
Carr and Musick met at church in Houston, Texas, in 1978, four years after Carr’s 84 days in outer space. They’ve been collaborating on artistic endeavors for the past seven years. “I started out as a studio assistant, just schlepping stuff,” says Carr, who retired from NASA in 1977.
These days he does much more than that. He built the three long, low steel tables that make up the freestanding sculpture “After the Void,” and he picked through piles at a nearby quarry for the ruddy red, sea-green, earthy brown and even misty purple slate that fills them.
And, of course, Carr brings his unique perspective as someone who’s floated out beyond Earth’s atmosphere. At the reception, Musick takes hold of one of his hands. “I look at his hands,” she says, “and I just marvel at what they’ve done, at what he’s seen.”
“Our Fragile Home,” by Pat Musick and Jerry Carr, through July 14 at the Southern Vermont Arts Center in Manchester. svac.org
The original print version of this article was headlined "The Artist and the Astronaut."