Scientific visions: Local artist looks to the stars for inspiration

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By Matt Gunn

Though stargazing is often associated with daydreaming, looking to the skies has become a very useful practice for local artist Michael Carroll.

A writer, painter and digital artist, Carroll finds joy in the cosmos, a place where, for him, creativity and science collide. His most recent project, a book called “Space Art: How to Draw and Paint Planets, Moons, and Landscapes of Alien Worlds,” is a means of sharing his passion. In it is insight into drawing sparse, unfamiliar environments, and there’s even a little science mixed in as well.

“I think I was just interested early on in painting spacey things,” he said.

It wasn’t the hope of getting rich that motivated Carroll, but instead the ability to collaborate with scientists, astronauts and artists alike. His career — and passion — has allowed Carroll to meet those who have visited the moon, and has taken his work far beyond his South Jeffco home.

“Whatever you do, if you’re in it for the money, it’s probably not going to fill your dreams,” Carroll said. “I think you have to find your passion and go for it.”

Doing so has earned Carroll commissions from NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His writing and art have been in magazines such as Smithsonian and National Geographic. Carroll is currently working on a series of children’s books about a dog named Max and his journeys into space.

Through it all, his imagination and knowledge of astronomy keep Carroll busy as he works to turn theories and satellite images into art. Carroll’s work helps scientists, children and anyone else who’s interested envision something they otherwise might not conceive.

“These are things that, as a kid, I never could have imagined,” he said.

One of his works is a visualization of Saturn’s moon Titan. Through geographical renderings and scientific theories, Carroll was able to show a frozen landscape millions of miles from Earth.

“These kinds of things are really fun to do,” Carroll said. “You get to work with these fascinating scientists who are just out on the cutting edge.”

Or he gets to work with authors who seek to teach about space while telling an entertaining story.

Jeffrey Bennett, a Boulder resident, found Carroll because he needed a new artist to bring life to Max the space dog.

“He’s fantastic,” Bennett said of Carroll. “I feel so lucky that we found him and that he turned out to be local. He’s a fantastic artist; he knows his stuff.”

The Max series began when Bennett, an astronomer, was looking for a break from his everyday job of writing textbooks. He and a group of individuals he worked with in the industry created Big Kid Publishing, essentially an outlet for making fun, educational books for children. The concept is to create an entertaining story, while supplementing it with real science. That makes it important for author and artist to create something that works for both purposes.

“Most children’s books, the art and the story are done very separately,” Bennett said. “But that’s not the case here, because we’re going for scientific accuracy. Therefore, we have to work very close together to make it work properly.”

Such a task is welcome with an artist like Carroll, who is interested in making outer space more accessible to a wide audience.

“It’s not easy, but that’s why I enjoy it,” Carroll said. “It’s challenging. It’s a very creative give-and-take process.”

And the Max series is not the only place where Carroll is using his talents. He is working on another book, what he describes as a “How to survive on Mars” field guide, with Bob Zubrin, an aerospace engineer and author.

“Right now I’m absolutely swamped, but I’m loving it,” Carroll said.

He works at his home in the Columbine Hills neighborhood in a basement studio. Carroll is surrounded by artwork, some his own, some by others.

“I like to surround myself by creative works,” he said. “There are so many talented people out there, and it’s fun and humbling to be a part of that group.”

Not just part of a group, Carroll’s continuing work has made him an authority on astronomical art. And while he has never been to space himself, Carroll’s work has. As described on the back cover of “Space Art,” “One of his paintings flew aboard the Russian space station Mir, and another is resting at the bottom of the Atlantic, aboard Russia’s ill-fated Mars 96 spacecraft.”

Though Carroll has a sense of humor about his art, he hopes to teach some of his techniques to others through the recent book.

“I love to see when the light bulb goes off and people realize their passion of painting,” he said.

Carroll will be discussing alien volcanoes at Jefferson County’s libraries throughout January. The first appearance is scheduled at 4:30 p.m. Jan. 8 at the Evergreen Library. His collaboration with Bennett, “Max Goes to Jupiter,” will be available this fall.

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com.