Dorothea Rockburne Honors Colin Powell With Mural at U.S. Embassy in Jamaica

By Robin Shulman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

NEW YORK -- Walk into Dorothea Rockburne's studio on Grand Street in the SoHo section of Manhattan and enter her laboratory for visual exploration of the sky.

Brilliant cerulean and midnight-blue paint covers sheets of paper pinned to an easel. Printouts of constellations are scattered across a worktable. The Web browser shows a NASA page with astronomy photographs. Back issues of Astronomy Magazine sit near a video series about the universe. And Rockburne's paintings of the hot and cool colors of space, and the circling paths of motion in the universe, hang on the walls and pile on the desks.

Rockburne is preparing a 41-foot-tall mural of the night sky -- as it looked at the time of Colin Powell's birth -- to be mounted at the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica, where Powell's family is from. Her "Homage to Colin Powell" was commissioned by the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, a nonprofit organization dedicated to installing works by American artists in U.S. embassies around the world. Work on the mural started Tuesday at the Queens Museum of Art. After a complicated process of construction in New York, the piece is scheduled to be flown to Kingston in the fall, where it will stretch the length of an atrium wall in the recently built embassy.

Powell was born in Harlem, so this night sky is not the one his parents would have seen, but the one his grandparents back in Jamaica might have looked up to. Powell himself said he doesn't know the precise time of his birth on April 5, 1937, which also affects the positions of the stars, so Rockburne picked an arbitrary time that night.

She used a simple software program to generate diagrams of the constellations, which she then translated into her own visual language. Her painting shows a blue and black and white sky crisscrossed with the lines connecting the stars. She also included a ram's head, which is a symbol of Aries, Powell's astrological sign -- and also an ancient Egyptian motif, suggesting both his ancestral roots in Africa and Egyptian knowledge of astronomy, Rockburne said. Her maquette is to be enlarged onto the mural, with a scale of 1 inch to 1 foot.

"This taps the art history of the painting of skies to illustrate the connectedness of humanity," said Rockburne, who -- like all of the foundation's artists with the embassy projects -- volunteered her time. "I love the scale of it."

The Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, formed in 1986, has since raised $42 million in donations and has installed works by 145 American artists in 70 embassies. A Sol LeWitt mural of a red spiral on a blue background is being reproduced for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. Ellsworth Kelly designed a totem sculpture for the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. Louise Bourgeois donated bronze figures for the embassy in Beijing.

A few years ago, the group approached Rockburne, whose works are part of collections at the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and asked her to create a tribute to Powell. Long engaged with astronomy, she came to the idea of the night sky of his birthday.

Rockburne attended the influential but short-lived Black Mountain College in the 1950s and studied under Max Dehn, a mathematician close to Albert Einstein. In the 1960s, she began to incorporate aspects of topology and set theory into her work. In the 1970s, she became known in the art world for her purely abstract, geometric compositions of cut and folded paper.

In 1991, traveling in Italy, she happened upon an 18th-century villa with an astronomy room. A ceiling fresco charted the supposed elliptical orbits of planets around the sun, with a hole where a telescope could gaze into the open sky.

She was fascinated. She got permission to go to the Vatican Library and look at Galileo's notebooks. She said she began to understand the true meaning of the Renaissance -- not "just a flare in art," but a body of knowledge of mathematics, philosophy and astronomy the Greeks got from Egypt, digested and delivered to Europe. Since then she has been painting the sky.

To some, Rockburne, 76, who grew up in Montreal, is an unusual choice for the job of a tribute to Powell. For one, she's a Democrat.

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