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‘Native Skywatchers’ blends astronomy, art

Annette Lee and William Wilson’s star map started off a series of artistic representations of the sky from a Native American perspective. The opening reception for “Native Skywalkers” is today at the Duluth Art Institute. (Photo courtesy of the Duluth Art Institute)

A St. Cloud State University astronomy professor who caught NASA’s attention with her work in revitalizing Native American star knowledge will display another facet of the project in an unlikely place: the Duluth Art Institute.

Annette Lee, a painter, has paired with other artists to create “Native Skywatchers,” an exhibition that uses science as a muse. The opening reception for the show and “(Un)Ordinary” by Emi Lyman is at 5 p.m. today at the Depot.

Lee’s work has centered on revitalizing the way Native Americans read the night sky.

“For a lot of people, when they look at the stars, there is one set of stories that goes with those lights — the Greek tradition,” she said.

But there are more star stories from all around the world. A lot of this information has been lost, and if it isn’t recorded it could all disappear, she said. She received a grant from NASA to lead Native Skywatcher workshops around the country.

Lee collaborated with her husband, William Wilson, also an artist, on an Ojibwe star map. That led to further artistic interpretations.

“The map was the ABCs, the names of the constellations,” she said. “With each constellation, there are multiple stories and connections and layers.”

Lee, Wilson and artist friends such as Carl Gawboy — who had already been using this imagery — captured the deeper meanings behind the constellations.

Wilson is an Ojibwe artist whose work features representations of traditional Anishinaabe ways. Gawboy is an Ojibwe painter whose work has centered on Native Americans from this region.

Lee said she was never able to choose between focusing her efforts on science or art.

“Everyone tried to tell me, you can’t do that,” she said. “I needed to do both and I felt a certain amount of balance. I feel like doing one helped to the other better because they were so far apart in a way.”

Anne Dugan, art institute director, said there is a natural connection between the disciplines. Both are used to interpret the world around us.

“The sky is such a universal thing — across cultures but also across time,” Dugan said. “When we think of our ancestors looking at the sky, it’s the thread that connects us.”

In her “(Un)Ordinary” show, Lyman creates artistic representations of ordinary objects, such as a water faucet or an electrical outlet.