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Stitching the Stars: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on the Needle as an Instrument of the Mind and Why Women Are Better Suited for Astronomy Than Men

“The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer.”

Stitching the Stars: Trailblazing Astronomer Maria Mitchell on the Needle as an Instrument of the Mind and Why Women Are Better Suited for Astronomy Than Men

In preparing for my conversation with the wonderful artist and philosopher of forms Ann Hamilton, I came upon a striking passage from one of her exhibition catalogs. In contemplating sewing as an act of listening — already a revelatory proposition — Hamilton writes:

The interval between stitches seaming two surfaces together is thinking at the pace of the body. Busy hands make a space that allows attention to wander. Productive wandering is how projects are made.

This beautiful passage reminded me not only of Rebecca Solnit’s parallel point about walking and the pace of the mind, but of the long history of such thinking-by-hand in the intellectual life of women. There was pioneering 18th-century astronomer Caroline Herschel, who spent her mornings in needlework as she revolutionized women’s role in science by night. There was physicist Lise Meitner, who opened up academia for women in the 19th century and who conducted her first empirical crusade against superstition as a little girl, with needle in hand.

But the most exquisite case for the needle as an instrument of the mind comes from the diaries of trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell (August 1, 1818–June 28, 1889) — the first professional woman astronomer in America, the first woman admitted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the first woman hired by the United States federal government for a “specialized nondomestic skill” in her capacity as “computer of Venus,” a one-woman GPS guiding sailors around the world, and the tireless educator who paved the way for American women in science.

In a diary entry from 1878, her sixtieth year, Mitchell writes:

Nothing comes out more clearly in astronomical observations than the immense activity of the universe. “All change, no loss, ’tis revolution all.”

Observations of this kind are peculiarly adapted to women. Indeed, all astronomical observing seems to be so fitted. The training of a girl fits her for delicate work. The touch of her fingers upon the delicate screws of an astronomical instrument might become wonderfully accurate in results; a woman’s eyes are trained to nicety of color. The eye that directs a needle in the delicate meshes of embroidery will equally well bisect a star with the spider web of the micrometer. Routine observations, too, dull as they are, are less dull than the endless repetition of the same pattern in crochet-work.

A girl’s eye is trained from early childhood to be keen. The first stitches of the sewing-work of a little child are about as good as those of the mature man. The taking of small stitches, involving minute and equable measurements of space, is a part of every girl’s training; she becomes skilled, before she is aware of it, in one of the nicest peculiarities of astronomical observation… The touch is a delicate sense given in exquisite degree to a girl, and her training comes in to its aid. She threads a needle almost as soon as she speaks… Then comes in the girl’s habit of patient and quiet work, peculiarly fitted to routine observations. The girl who can stitch from morning to night would find two or three hours in the observatory a relief.

Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866
Maria Mitchell (top row, third from left) with the first astronomy class at Vassar, 1866

Complement with the heartening story of how Mitchell herself applied this herculean patience and delicate skill in repairing a spider’s web, then revisit artist Judy Chicago’s iconic embroidered celebration of women’s place in creative culture.

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This Is Not a Picture Book: An Irreverent Illustrated Ode to Why We Read

Charming cartography for the emotional voyages on which books take us.

This Is Not a Picture Book: An Irreverent Illustrated Ode to Why We Read

“The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on why we read and write. And yet while the seed may be fertilized by the reader’s imagination, the soil is tilled by the simple practical act of deciphering small marks on a page or screen and wresting from them meaning. Despite Hermann Hesse’s exquisite case for why the highest form of reading is non-reading, we can only non-read after we read — the willingness for reading is the seedbed of whatever potential the book may release in us.

But today, as the “aesthetic consumerism” of visual culture is displacing the contemplative intimacy of the written word, with nuanced texts reduced to Instagram images of out-of-context quotes, how are we to instill in the young the willingness to garden their own minds in the act of reading?

That’s what Brooklyn-based Italian comic artist Sergio Ruzzier explores with sympathetic warmth and levity in This is not a picture book! (public library).

The story begins with the androgynous duck protagonist stumbling upon a book with no pictures and being at first baffled, then thoroughly vexed by this strange and seemingly senseless object.

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But as the duck skeptically engages with the book, words — some difficult, some familiar — come alive into worlds.

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Entire emotional landscapes unfold — now joyful, now sorrowful, now wild — as the duck slowly surrenders to the book and lets it carry her away before depositing her into the familiar comfort of her own bed: a beautiful testament to C.S. Lewis’s notion that books both change us and make us more at home in ourselves.

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Complement This is not a picture book! with Oliver Jeffers and Sam Winston’s spectacular A Child of Books, then revisit Proust on why we read and Neil Gaiman on what books do for the human spirit.

Illustrations © Sergio Ruzzier courtesy of Chronicle Books; photographs by Maria Popova

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Weather, Weather: Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s Lyrical Illustrated Celebration of the Elements

A dreamlike meditation on our elemental companion.

Weather, Weather: Maira Kalman and Daniel Handler’s Lyrical Illustrated Celebration of the Elements

Certain languages, including French and my native Bulgarian, have one word for both “time” and “weather.” Perhaps the conflation arises from an inescapable similarity — like time, which envelops the entirety of our conscious experience, the weather is the indelible backdrop against which our lives are lived, constantly coloring our state of mind and saturating our language with myriad metaphors.

The abiding mystery and magic of our elemental companion is what artist Maira Kalman and writer Daniel Handler celebrate in Weather, Weather — the third installment in their series of dreamlike picture-books for grownups in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art, following Hurry Up and Wait, which explored the delicate art of presence in the age of productivity, and Girls Standing on Lawns, a work of unconcretizable aboutness and absolute delight.

Once again, Kalman and Handler curate a selection of artworks from the museum’s collection around a theme — in this case, the weather. These photographs of physical environments from around the world pour forth their cascading meanings, relished differently with each contemplation. Handler’s poetic prose and Kalman’s original watercolors string the archival images together into a lyrical meditation on the role of the elements in the human experience. Art and life intersect with largehearted levity in the result of this imaginative and unusual collaboration.

Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Hatsuo Ikeuchi’s Snowflakes, c. 1950.  (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Hatsuo Ikeuchi’s Snowflakes, c. 1950. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
László Moholy-Nagy: The Diving Board, 1931. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Anonymous gift. © 2016 Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)
László Moholy-Nagy: The Diving Board, 1931. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Anonymous gift. © 2016 Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Man Diving, Esztergom by André Kertész, 1917. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Man Diving, Esztergom by André Kertész, 1917. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)

I was in my room wondering what it was like somewhere else.

What’s the weather like?

It’s like summer. It’s like doing nothing.

Delicious.

Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Alfred Stieglitz's Apples and Gable, Lake George, 1922.  (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Alfred Stieglitz’s Apples and Gable, Lake George, 1922. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
International News Photo: “The Portent of Coming Disaster: A Tornado, Photographed as It Moved across the Sky toward White, S.D., by a Cameraman Who Was the Only Person Who Did Not Take Shelter in a Cyclone Cellar. None of the Buildings Shown in the Picture Was Damaged, as They Were Not in the Direct Path of the Tornado,” 1938. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The New York Times Collection. © 2016 International News Photo)
International News Photo: “The Portent of Coming Disaster: A Tornado, Photographed as It Moved across the Sky toward White, S.D., by a Cameraman Who Was the Only Person Who Did Not Take Shelter in a Cyclone Cellar. None of the Buildings Shown in the Picture Was Damaged, as They Were Not in the Direct Path of the Tornado,” 1938. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The New York Times Collection. © 2016 International News Photo)

The newspaper said it would be nice today.

What does the newspaper know.

Carl T. Gosset Jr./ The New York Times: “This Photo Was Made Just before 4 P.M.  at Broadway and 43rd Street, Looking East across Times Square.” July 24, 1959. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The New York Times Collection. © 2016 The New York Times)
Carl T. Gosset Jr./ The New York Times: “This Photo Was Made Just before 4 P.M. at Broadway and 43rd Street, Looking East across Times Square.” July 24, 1959. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The New York Times Collection. © 2016 The New York Times)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Barney Ingoglia’s photograph for the New York Times article “Rain Raises Fears of Flooding: Pedestrians in Times Square Wading through a Puddle as Heavy Rains Began Yesterday. The Rain Was Expected to Continue Today, Melting Much of the Snow and Causing Fears of Flooding,” January 25, 1978.  (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Barney Ingoglia’s photograph for the New York Times article “Rain Raises Fears of Flooding: Pedestrians in Times Square Wading through a Puddle as Heavy Rains Began Yesterday. The Rain Was Expected to Continue Today, Melting Much of the Snow and Causing Fears of Flooding,” January 25, 1978. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Clarence H. White: Drops of Rain, 1903. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Mervyn Palmer. © Clarence H. White)
Clarence H. White: Drops of Rain, 1903. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Mrs. Mervyn Palmer. © Clarence H. White)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Children Playing in Snow by John Vachon, 1940. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Children Playing in Snow by John Vachon, 1940. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art © Maira Kalman)
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Alberto Giacometti Going Out for Breakfast, Paris, 1963.
Illustration by Maira Kalman, based on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Alberto Giacometti Going Out for Breakfast, Paris, 1963.

I can’t even say what it’s like. It’s perfect, the whole thing. Come with me, take me with you. Let’s go out together and have poached eggs.

Delicious.

Valery Shchekoldin: Uliyanovsk, 1978. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2016 Valery Shchekoldin)
Valery Shchekoldin: Uliyanovsk, 1978. (Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2016 Valery Shchekoldin)

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Complement the tiny fabric-bound treasure Weather, Weather with Kalman’s Beloved Dog, an illustrated homage to a constant companion of a very different sort, then revisit artist Lauren Redniss’s exquisite celebration of the weather.

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