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AXS Festival: Meet the artists hired by NASA to create space-inspired works

For the next two weeks, the AXS Festival in Pasadena will explore the intersection of art and science through talks, performances and installations.

Among the works on display is a sculpture designed by a team of conceptual artists working for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The piece is a hulking metal comet installed on Colorado Boulevard just across from the Norton Simon Museum.

Related: Comet-chasing probe wakes up, signals Earth

David Delgado helped design the 9-foot tall, 12-foot long steel sculpture. It lights up from the inside and sprays a mist of water vapor to imitate the way comets streak through space.

He built the piece in hopes of ginning up excitement for an ongoing European Space Agency and NASA collaboration to land a probe on a comet named Rosetta.

Delgado isn’t just a NASA booster. He actually works for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena as part of team hired specifically to create art about space science.

Related: From Mars to the stage: JPL Choir explores math and music

Dan Goods runs that team.

"We like to kind of get inspired by the material here at JPL," Goods explained while toying with a swatch of silver and gold foil fabric used on spacecraft.  

Goods’ team works out of a trailer sized room at JPL that's filled with models of robots, 3D glasses, toys, designs for crazy space ships and lots of art supplies.

Goods says he tries to make every project he helps with so fun that people won't realize they are learning something.

“If you say, ‘I’m going to teach you something,’ people say ‘no, don’t teach me anything!’ Instead we create these experiences where people sort of go through or they try to explore."

One project his team helped with is a sculpture that uses LED lights to show how much information is being sent and received from deep space. They also once created a room full of fog and lightning that simulated the surface of Jupiter.

Bringing art to JPL

Dan Goods said this all started 12 years ago when he was a recent art school graduate and got the chance to tour of JPL and meet its director.

"I had about two seconds to sell myself and I said ‘wouldn’t it be cool to have artists help come up with new ways of space exploration?'" Goods recalled.

While skeptical, managers at JPL decided to give him a shot as a part time employee.

Since then, the lab has been so pleased with his work they’ve let him build a team of 6 artists to help with various projects.

Among that team is Jessie Kawata. She helps manage a conference room at JPL nicknamed "Left Field." It's filled with white boards, sticky pads and bins full of Legos, pipe cleaners and other crafty items.

Kawata says she uses these props to help scientists brainstorm radical ways of exploring space.

"A lot of crazy ideas come through this space that blow my mind every day," she noted.

An Art-Science movement

The sort of collaboration happening at JPL is exactly what the AXS festival is hoping to inspire.

Curator Stephen Nowlin says for most of the last century art and science were kept separate, but over the last decade, a new "Art-Science" movement has brought them together.

"It just seems to have sort of emerged and exploded," he explained.

Nowlin works at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design where he's organizing an Art-Science show at the Williamson Gallery.

He says there are now staff at Universities with dual appointments in art and science, there are journals discussing this interplay and plenty of museums interested in this field.

He attributes the emergence of the movement in part to the fact that technology has made scientific advances more accessible to the public.

"If anything science has made us more aware of what’s unknown, that attracts artists. They want to get in there and play around with these new ideas and make some sense of them."

And he adds, the movement may be new but it has old roots.

After all, renaissance thinkers like Leonardo di Vinci were totally comfortable jumping back and forth between these two worlds.