Gallery and blog for the art of Kara Hammond

Ad Astra: Tale of a Red Balloon

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Artists James Dean, and Phil Jameson w/Rita Dean, at the Apollo -Soyuz Launch in 1975.\


I happen to share a studio with a gentleman with quite a storied career. From the early 1960’s through the early 1970’s, James Dean was the Director of the NASA Art Program, orchestrating the amassing of a remarkable collection of art, (documented in the book “Eyewitness to Space”) now residing with the National Air and Space Museum where he subsequently worked as the Curator of Art. He recently told me the story of how the sculpture, “Ad Astra”, by Richard Lippold, in front of the Museum of Air and Space, came to be where it is.

I would not have expected that there would be no more bureaucracy involved than one guy standing on the sidewalk with a magic marker and placing an X where he thought it ought to go, but in 1976, the Arts Curator stretched his arms out as he stood in front of the museum, and figured somewhere along the middle, with a good and proper view of the National Gallery of Art straight out in front. He then bent down and made a mark where he thought the signature sculpture should stand.

Dean then told me about how he helped the arts committee decide how the new piece would look in the auspicious spot it was to be placed. After the deciders tentatively approved the maquette of the proposed piece, James acquired a large red weather balloon which was then tethered by ropes, held steady by helpful staff janitors to hold aloft a 100 foot cord with which to visualize the proposed monument. One hundred feet high was the limit set by the city, so that no building or sculpture would be allowed higher.

The wind not withstanding, the helpers were able to hold the crimson orb suspended at the appropriate height for the city officials and arts professionals to stand and observe, then walk to several distances across the National Mall, to ascertain whether the proposal would be deemed appropriate. When they reached the opposite side, in front of the National Gallery of Art, they paused to discuss. At that moment, the balloon unexpectedly burst, showering powder and debris, along with the ropes, and 100 foot cord, onto the head of the unsuspecting art director.

When the group returned with their verdict, they had approved the design, wondering how James had managed to burst the balloon just as they had given the okay. He was much relieved.


Ad Astra, by Richard Lippold, on the National Mall, Air and Space Museum, Washington



And on the opposite wall in Studio 306, Torpedo Factory:

TIROS (Television Infrared Observation Satellite)1960.

Oil on panel, approx. 5″ x 9″, 1998.




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