As an Antidote to Fear of Death, I Eat the Stars: Vintage Science Face Masks
Art and science between the practical and the poetic.
By Maria Popova
A small, coruscating delight: I have made a series of face masks featuring wondrous centuries-old astronomical art and natural history illustrations I have restored and digitized from various archival sources over the years.
Among them are treasures like the Solar System quilt Ella Harding Baker spent seven years crafting in order to teach women astronomy long before they/we had access to formal education; the gorgeous 18th-century illustrations from the world’s first encyclopedia of medicinal plants that the young Elizabeth Blackwell painted to bail her husband out of debtor’s prison; the astonishing drawings of celestial objects and phenomena the 19th-century French artist Étienne Léopold Trouvelot saw through America’s first world-class scientific instrument, Harvard’s Great Refractor Telescope; the trailblazing 18th-century artist Sarah Stone’s stunning illustrations of exotic, endangered, and now-extinct animals; some graphically spectacular depictions of how nature works from a 19th-century French physics textbook; Ernst Haeckel’s heartbreak-fomented drawings of the otherworldly beauty of jellyfish, and of course his classic radiolaria that so inspired Darwin; William Saville Kent’s pioneering artistic-scientific effort to bring the world’s awareness and awe to the creatures of the Great Barrier Reef; and art from the German marine biologist Carl Chun’s epoch-making Cephalopod Atlas — the world’s first encyclopedia of creatures of the deep, which upended the longtime belief that life could not exist below 300 fathoms. (Because as the great poet Gwendolyn Brooks well knew, “Wherever life can grow, it will. It will sprout out, and do the best it can.”)
I originally made these masks just for myself and a handful of beloved humans, but they turned out so unexpectedly lovely that I decided to make them available to all who would delight in them. The manufacturer (society6, over whose production, pricing, and other practical elements I have no control — mine is only the conceptual element, fitted into their standard template; they print the fabrics, sew the masks, sell and ship them) is donating a portion of their proceeds to World Center Kitchen, helping to feed those most in need at times of crisis, and I am donating to The Nature Conservancy, stewarding the long-term sustenance of this entire improbable, irreplaceable planet, and the endeavor to build New York’s most democratic institution of cosmic perspective, the city’s first public observatory.
Because of the mask’s particular folding pattern, some of the artwork came alive in a wholly new and unexpected way. My personal favorite — the original design I made for myself and my most beloved human — is the total solar eclipse mask, evocative of the opening line of astronomer and poet Rebecca Elson’s magnificent “Antidotes to Fear of Death”:
Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.
There is also the charmingly shy, sleepy, fold-nesting octopus; Haeckel’s perfectly positioned jellyfish, reminiscent of a plate from artist Judy Chicago’s iconic Dinner Party project; the insurrectionist chameleon, extending a tongue where we may not; the holy coffee plant, daily deity to so many; the chromatically ecstatic spectra of various substances and the glorious double rainbow from the 1868 French gem Les phénomènes de la physique; the extinct poto-roo, reminding us with its sweet nonexistent face atop ours that creatures do perish and are forever erased; and the jubilant meteor shower, for another serving of life-affirming star-eating.
See them all here, and keep an eye on the collection as I might be adding more designs between reading, writing, partaking of protests, and gardening.
Published June 19, 2020