Exploring the gravitational waves by Ekaterina Smirnova

When 100 years ago Einstein predicted the gravitational waves, he was in a debate with himself. How would you prove something that is not only invisible, but so difficult to detect? Earlier this year (2016) scientists of LIGO (The Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) finally announced to the world one of the major discoveries of the century: the existence of the gravitational waves, which opened a new door into the space exploration. In the meanwhile scientists of ESA (The European Space Agency) for many years (first proposed in 1998) has been already working on a mission called LISA Pathfinder, which is designed to explore the gravitational waves. The 1st spacecraft was launched in Dec. 2015, before LIGO's official announcement. This extraordinary mission inspired me to create a ceramic sculpture. 

I was carrying this idea in my head for a while, trying to figure out the way to pursue the task. I knew that I want to have two gold cubes to be the focus of the sculpture (the essence of the LISA Pathfinder projects is two perfect gold/platinum cubes that are placed in space to free-fall through the fabric of space, without touching the spacecraft). At first I thought I would like to make cubes appear falling (floating in a zero gravity), but the task was not easy to achieve.

The cubes are ready for bisque firing. This set is close to the LISA Pathfinder's cube sizes.

The cubes are ready for bisque firing. This set is close to the LISA Pathfinder's cube sizes.

I picked ceramics as my medium, because I could hand-build the cubes and any other parts of the sculpture. I decided to make a structure to represent the gravitational waves, on which I planed to rest the cubes, to make it look like they are floating on the gravitational waves. 

Gold luster appers bright red before it turns gold in a kiln

Gold luster appers bright red before it turns gold in a kiln

There are a few stages of the process: make the "perfect" cubes (easier said than done), and the waves. Fire once; glaze; fire 2nd time; apply gold luster on the cubes; fire them again. 
In reality, I made 8 cubes and 2 wave structures, there were many more then 3 firings too. The gold for the cubes would just not appearing perfect enough, so I had to make 3 gold coats for some of them! Between the multiple firings and using so much of the gold luster it became more pricier then I originally planned. But you can not stop in the middle of the project, you need to go all the way, even if the world doubts the outcome of it (have LISA Pathfinder as an example, a mission ahead of our time, that was very futuristic and yet is becoming a big success!). I was lucky to have Cesar Garcia Marirrodriga - LISA Pathfinder Project Manager - to visit me in art studio, who encouraged my work on the sculpture and explained a lot of details about the mission. 

I am still continuing on working on this sculpture, but it is already scheduled to participate at the 1st show! Stay tuned, more to come.

Greenware (raw clay, before firing). 

Greenware (raw clay, before firing). 

The waves were hardly fitting in the largest kiln! Greenware is extremely fragile and I had to shorten it on 2 inches - it is a very hard job, which took me 2 hours to do.

The waves were hardly fitting in the largest kiln! Greenware is extremely fragile and I had to shorten it on 2 inches - it is a very hard job, which took me 2 hours to do.

Applying glaze for the 2nd firing.

Applying glaze for the 2nd firing.

Science and Art by Ekaterina Smirnova

I would like to say a few words here regarding the relationships of Science and Art, based on my recent observations. In my artistic career, science plays a big role, inspiring me to create various artwork. For example my two year long project about the comet 67P, which is the object of exploration by the Rosetta mission of the European Space Agency (ESA). My fascination with a “dirty snowball” (that’s how comets are unofficially called due to their composition of ice and dirt) might surprise one, to think of it – it’s just a large rock floating through space. But what got my attention is the effort of thousands of people involved in this unbelievable sci-fi style mission when after nine years of chasing the comet we landed a robotic probe on it! 

Thanks to social media and the well curated public information output by ESA I was able to follow this mission for 2 years. Working on my own and being an observer, I, in a way, was having my own personal exploration of the comet through art. A lot of research, facts collecting, figuring out how to generate my own water to paint with (that is similar in composition to the water on the comet)… A lot of fun, and yet, all on my own in my New York studio.

Solo show at ESA. "67P I" painting next to the Rosetta spacecraft model.

Solo show at ESA. "67P I" painting next to the Rosetta spacecraft model.

I was shocked when someone from ESA got in touch with me, being very curious about my artwork on the mission! This changed everything. In a few month time I found myself participating the 50th ESLAB symposium “From Giotto to Rosetta” where I was able to meet in person so many scientists from all over the world who were involved in the mission for as long as 20 years, since the beginning! You can only imagine what pleasure it is to meet, talk and share your work with this special community. Of course many scientists know each other very well, since they have been working shoulder to shoulder on the same project for many years. But what fascinated me is that I was so easily accepted in this community and was so warmly welcomed. It is clear that I am not a scientist, I don’t ever claim to be one, but yet, my work and research on the mission was not disregarded and has attracted a lot of attention (my artwork were displayed for the duration of the symposium). 

50th ESLAB symposium  “From Giotto to Rosetta” with 67P paintings on display.

50th ESLAB symposium “From Giotto to Rosetta” with 67P paintings on display.

During that week of the conference I realized, that artist’s and scientist’s mind is not that different, it must be inquisitive, creative and experimental. Also, you must be a dreamer. It is very important to be a dreamer, in order to make such ambitious projects possible. 

There is a dedication of time, as one of the sacrifices to the science and art. There is no fear of making a mistake. And there is no mistake, because a negative result is also a result. 

Some of the questions that the Rosetta mission is trying to answer are “How did the water come to the planet Earth?” or “Is it possible that life travels through the Universe via comets?”. Those questions are very philosophical, in the art world, philosophical questions are best resolved in the form of an abstraction. One may say that abstract art has no algorithm and does not follow any rules, but I disagree. Even abstract work is highly organized. There could be different approaches to each abstract work, which is so similar to the science. There are many types of science involved in answering those questions mentioned above. During the symposium I was able to discuss various topics with professionals who presented their research in front of the audience. Those scientists, like artists, use different media to create a final masterpieces. That masterpiece is on view in front of the eloquent spectators, who would discuss it and share their thoughts on it, just like an artists would present an artwork at a gallery available for critique. 

When I was working on my project I made an incorrect assumption of a fact, which I only realized during the symposium. And this is exactly why these events have a place to be, as you not only meant to share your work, but also test it and make adjustments. This experience allowed me to correct myself and make my work stronger. 

The amount of information that I was exposed in the short period of time set my mind in a creative mode, I got inspired to observe the topic (of 67P) from a different perspective, which will lead me to create more works in different media. The power of knowledge is a strong tool.

Historically Art and Science inspire each other. Scientists would question a possibility of something that has a dream quality. Can a human fly? – asks a dreamer. Yes, says the scientist, he/she can, here is how… How infinite is the Universe? – a dreamer wonders. Lets see, I will calculate it for you – ready-to-answer scientist.

I believe that we are all artists and scientist naturally, since childhood. But not many of us continue to pursue those faculties. Yet, if you are a scientist, you are a dreamer. If you are an artist, you have an inquisitive mind. Both, an artist and a scientist have much in common, why would we not want to make this connection stronger?

Show at ESTEC: Johannes Benkhoff, Joe Zender, Lee Mottram, Ekaterina Smirnova, Matt Taylor

Show at ESTEC: Johannes Benkhoff, Joe Zender, Lee Mottram, Ekaterina Smirnova, Matt Taylor

67P: creating ceramic sculptures by Ekaterina Smirnova

When you go to a museum or a gallery, you usually only see the final end product. You judge it by the way it looks at that moment in it's final appearance. To me, the actual process of creation is the most exciting part of any artwork which may influence my opinion on an artwork. I always try to investigate how it was done. 
In this post I would like to take you behind the scene and introduce you to the stages of creation of my new ceramic sculptures. In between the many stages, starting from generating the idea, shaping the sculptures in my mind and sketching on paper, then forming them out of clay, firing, glazing and assembling, all of it is a part of each piece, which makes it a complete artwork, with an experience.

These ceramic pieces are inspired by the comet 67P, a project on which I have been working on for for over a year (see paintings). The rock part of my sculptures represent the comet itself and the white cones – water, found on the comet in the shape of ice. This water evaporates when the comet passes close to our Sun. 

I just recently started working with ceramics and this whole experience is intensified since I am studying about the media as I go. After working with porcelain and stoneware individually, I realized that I could combine the two in one sculpture. The complication was that porcelain and stoneware shrink with a different rate when fired, so when the objects are made out of raw clay and designed to be match-fit, after firing they may not match when combined. This was an interesting puzzle to solve. Below is an image of how my table would look like at my ceramic studio in 92nd Street Y, New York.

Glazing pieces was a whole independent subject of itself. I wanted to mimic the textures of the comet. I decided to leave the white cones as pure porcelain without a glaze. But for the rock part I looked at actual meteorites (image below). 

Here is a documentation image of my glazing record. Each glazing layer (could be 2-5 glazings) was recorded for the future record. When ceramic is fired, it is very hard to predict the outcome and I enjoy the non-predictive nature of ceramics. Assembling the sculptures is also fun. For this particular work some porcelain parts were made to fit exact areas of the rock, the rest where matched later on. I used the epoxy glue to unite the pieces.

Photographing works. Each piece of my work is photographed for the record. But who says it could not be art on itself? Photograph is a way to turn a 3D object into 2D. With a photograph you can create a special mood, which is hard to recreate during the exhibition time, due to the environments offered by the the gallery. A photograph can tell a richer story, while you enjoy the three-dimensionality of a sculptural piece when observing it in person. For this set of works I choose to give it a cosmic look. The lights would be extreme, surrounded by darkness, as if my comet would be flying through space in a cold lonely environment.

There is a story that goes along with the actual European Space Agency's project when they landed a robotic probe on the comet 67P. When the probe ran out of the charge, it fell asleep for a few month since it could not re-charge being positioned on the dark side of the comet where sun does not shine. Scientists were waiting for the comet to turn and eventually in the summer 2015 we started to receive more fascinating data from the probe.

67P in 3D by Ekaterina Smirnova

I am starting to develop a new idea. Comet 97P is the main subject still, but this time I would like to work with a three dimensional format. This is a very early stage of the process and it is hard to say what will come out of it at the end. But as it develops further I am getting a more clear picture. 
For now I am putting my ideas on paper, making collages and 3D models. I picture my final artwork to be made of porcelain (perfect white) and stoneware (rough dark). I am taking pottery classes at the moment to study the precess and my possibilities.

White cone shaped objects, piercing through the rock represent the vaporizing water from the comet as it moves through the space. The contrast with natural shapes of the rocks and perfect sharp shapes of the white cones are very attractive to my eye. It is a parallel between the solid and liquid (rock and water) as well as the union of two different conditions of the material: solid and liquid. Water represented on the comet is remaining in the solid condition of ice and only when the comet is passing next to the Sun, it's starting to melt and instantly turning into vapor (gas), stretching for many miles as a comet's tail.

3D model: 8"x5"x4", rock and paper

3D model: 8"x5"x4", rock and paper

Collage is another good way to play with the project and quickly decide on the forms, orientation and the relation with the main objects. For building the parts out of clay I will need to have an idea of the shapes and then allow myself to follow my intuition while forming 3D rock objects. 

Paper scraps

Paper scraps

67P: generating water for painting by Ekaterina Smirnova

My on-going interest: comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which has hosted for the 1st time in history a robotic probe Philae ( a 100 kg (220 lb.) on 12 November 2014.

Hoping to cast light on the mystery about how did water come to the planet Earth, ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft made a test of the comet's water (read more). It was discovered that the water on 67P is different then on our planet, to be more exact, that water has D2O (also known as heavy water) more then 3 times higher then on Earth, which is the highest ever amount found in nature.

I have decided to re-create similar water to the one found on 67P and paint with this water a set of works of the comet.

Heavy water. 
What is heavy water? Deuterium oxide (2H2O ) or D2O, is a form of water that contains a larger than normal amount of the hydrogenisotope deuterium (also known as heavy hydrogen, which can be symbolized as 2H or D) rather than the common hydrogen-1isotope (called protium, symbolized as 1H) that makes up most of the hydrogen in normal water. Long story short. I needed to recreate this heavy water in order to enrich my regular New York top to the amount found on the comet.

After my research I have discovered that D2O is not possible to generate, nature does not produce it, and the only D2O found has probably formed during the Big Bang. My only option was to extract it, but there are only about 156 deuterium atoms per million hydrogen atoms (1 per 6410). After reading few articles and blogs, I understood that I could use electrolysis process in order to bring the level of heavy water higher. Surely, I would need a lot of energy and voltage to generate the pure D2O, and in my art project I am just using this process for an educational purpose.

I used a 22 V 550 Amps AC/DC adopter as my electrolysis devise.
Electrolysis will be decomposing H2O into H and O, leaving D2O alone.
Hydrogen will appear at the cathode (the negatively charged electrode, where electrons enter the water), and oxygen will appear at the anode (the positively charged electrode).

It was recommended to attach stainless steel or graphite at the ends of each wire.
I started my tasting. For the stainless steel I took 2 stainless forks. In order to speed up the process it was suggested to add electrolyte, such as baking soda or salt.

Try 1: stainless forks, salt.
After just few seconds I could see 2 gasses (H and O) were forming on the forks. In few minutes the color of the water was rapidly turning rusty. After another 3-4 min the water turned green. I can not use rusty water for painting with watercolor.

Try 2: stainless forks, backing soda
This time it was not so fast of a color change, but even the stainless steel was oxidizing and turning into rust. It was still not good, a lot of rusty sediment. Though, if I would keep this water over night, some of the rust would settle on the bottom, the rest would float on the surface. Funny fact: if I would tap on the container, top sediment would slowly settle down. The water could be filtered and used for painting. But I wanted even better result.

Try 3: graphite rods, salt
This time all went well. I used artist leds (graphite), the water was clear. But using salt in the water will make my painting form crystals (I have used this effect in the series of my works: Sky’s Darkest Spot). I had to eliminate salt.

Try 4: graphite rods, backing soda
This was the perfect run. Water stayed clear. Soda did not effect the paint! Success!

I decided to use electrolysis for 3 hours each time. This amount of time was still not enough to get my water to the amount of D2O that was found on 67P. So I ordered the 100% pure Heavy water from United Nuclear. It was costly (12$ plus shipping per 10 grams of water!), but necessary.

Two drops of D2O to the whole large jar of water after electrolysis has made the trick. I now had what I was looking for: H2O enriched with D2O, just like on the comet 67P.

You would ask, how did it effect my painting? I did a test of 100% D2O and H2O on the watercolor. Both of the drops dried the same way (maybe D2O a little slower) and no visible differences were noticed. But this is not the point, is it?

67P: Sketching by Ekaterina Smirnova

My on-going interest: comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, which has hosted a robotic probe on 12 November 2014 for the 1st time in the human history . I have decided to re-create similar water to the one found on 67P and paint with this water a set of works of the comet (read blog post: 67P: generating water for painting).

often make small sketches before starting a large painting. It helps me to make a plan in my mind of how will I work on a main painting, which will take a few weeks to create usually, so I need to make sure that it is going to the right direction from the start.

My sketches are usually made with watercolor on white paper, but since my subject is mainly dark, with a few brighter points, this time I chose black paper and charcoal instead.


I have a board of references, photographs that are mainly taken by the robotic probe itself. My focus is the water found on the comet. I pay close attention to the vapor streaming from the rock when the comet it gets close to the Sun. Water turns immediately from ice to gas then, creating a long tail. I am trying to capture this effect in my work.