Hometown astronaut Nicole Stott mixes art and science at Leepa-Rattner

St. Petersburg College’s Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art wants to create more programming that spotlights the natural but often ignored connection between art and science. 

SPC found a perfect fit to go on that mission in hometown astronaut, artist, author and college alumnus Nicole Stott. On January 31st, students, faculty and old friends from Stott’s days at Plumb Elementary, Oak Grove Middle, Clearwater High and what was then St. Petersburg Junior College packed the house at Leepa-Rattner on the Tarpon Springs campus to hear her speak about the creativity and humanity that art brings to science and what we living here on Earth can learn from astronauts’ experiences working and living together in space.

Stott grew up in Clearwater and earned an associate’s degree at SPC, taking classes at the Clearwater and Tarpon Springs campuses, before moving on to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for her bachelor’s degree and the University of Central Florida for a master’s in engineering management. The best engineers, she says, are artists with creative minds and spirits. 

She was a NASA astronaut on two spaceflights, including the Space Shuttle Discovery’s final mission, and spent 104 days in space between her time as a crewmember on space shuttle missions and the International Space Station (ISS). Onboard the ISS, Stott began to view Earth as “the work of art out the window.”

“It was always out there and there was always something new and surprising,” she says.

St. Petersburg College's Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art presented a talk from hometown astronaut and alumnus Nicole Stott on the connection between art and space.There was the heart-shaped island Dohul in the Red Sea and atolls in the South Pacific that looked like footprints across the ocean. Then there was Isla Los Roques off the northern coast of Venezuela, which looked like someone “had taken a brush and painted a wave on the ocean.” That striking image from space inspired Stott’s watercolor painting “The Wave” and set the stage for the next chapter of her life after retiring from NASA in 2016. 

“Painting in space was really the inspiration for me when I retired from NASA and was trying to figure out how I could go out in the world and communicate this experience I had in a meaningful way,” Stott says in an interview. “Art seemed like a way to do that. It’s this universal communicator. Why not use it? It started with my own art and then programs with kids in hospitals and refugee centers.”

In 2016, Stott participated in a space-themed art therapy project at a Houston pediatric hospital. In 2018, she cofounded the nonprofit Space For Art Foundation on a mission to “unite a planetary community of children through the awe and wonder of space exploration and the healing power of art.” The foundation’s most recent project included art from children in 190 countries. Astronauts on board the ISS have worn colorful spacesuits painted by children in the programs.

“Art and music have been part of human flight since the beginning,” Stott says. “It puts the human in human space flight.”

In her “eARTh from SPACE” presentation at Leepa-Rattner, Stott tells the history of that connection. Soviet cosmonaut Alexi Leonov sketched charcoal portraits of crewmates. Apollo astronauts Michael Collins and Alan Bean were painters. Apollo astronaut Al Worden created poetry to describe his experience in space. 

Astronauts have brought instruments to the ISS and played music in space. In an emotional 2015 performance captured on video, NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren played “Amazing Grace” onboard the ISS as a tribute to a friend and colleague who had died on Earth while Lindgren was in space.

While astronauts have brought art to space, Stott says they can also carry a lesson on how we can live together here on earth. That is the message of her book “Back to Earth - What Life In Space Taught Me About Our Home Planet - And Our Mission To Protect It.”

“How is it that we, as an international community, can work peacefully and successfully together on a mechanical life support system in space that we’ve built to mimic as best we can what earth does for us naturally and yet somehow we haven’t quite figured that out here on spaceship Earth?” Stott says. “On the space station, every day we get up and we’re paying attention to how much CO2 is in our atmosphere, how much clean drinking water we have, the integrity of the thin metal hull and the health and well-being of all of our crewmates. Because we have to. We won’t survive there if we don’t do those basic caring kinds of things. The same is absolutely true here on Earth because, if you think about it, our planet is really like our spaceship. That thin blue line of atmosphere is like the thin metal hull of the space station. All of the same kinds of things we take care of in that metal spaceship we need to be doing down here on earth.”

For more information, go to Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art and Space for Art Foundation

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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.