Celebrating an astronomical career with stars and art

Posted by Liz Kruesi
on Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Lee Anne’s 50-year career in stellar astrophysics inspired her piece of art “Planet in the Wind of a Dying Star.” // photo by Liz Kruesi, Artwork by Lee Anne Mordy Willson
I just got back from spending a couple days in Ames, Iowa — home of the Cyclones — to celebrate the distinguished career of Lee Anne Mordy Willson. She has been an astronomy professor at Iowa State University for 41 years; I overlapped with her for just one of those years. During her astronomy career, Lee Anne served as vice president of the American Astronomical Society, president of the American Association of Variable Star Observers, authored or co-authored some 150 research articles, and influenced hundreds of students and colleagues.

The three-day meeting celebrating her retirement had about 35 presentations with most focusing on stellar astrophysics (Lee Anne’s field of expertise). But nearly one-quarter of the talks were about careers built on astronomy. That’s where I fit in. I was in Ames to talk about science journalism and provide tips for speaking to the media.

The conference opened in a slightly different way than most — with an art show at a local gallery. That’s because in addition to her astronomical career, Lee Anne has a very impressive artistic side. For nearly two decades, she has created what she calls origami paper quilts. She folds individual paper squares and connects them to create a larger piece. Many of her creations have astronomical subjects (and I’ve included two images — captured by my not-so-great smartphone camera — in this blog post).

Lee Anne Mordy Willson creates beautiful pieces of art called origami paper quilts. “Voids and Filaments,” shown here, is her interpretation of the large-scale cosmic structure. // photo by Liz Kruesi, Artwork by Lee Anne Mordy Willson
One piece, titled “Planet in the Wind of a Dying Star,” is based off a star in a late evolutionary stage. It sheds its outer gaseous layers, which slam into the worlds orbiting that sun. The colors — shades of oranges, reds, pinks, and blues — blend into one another, a wavelike movement rushing across the piece. Lee Anne even dyed the paper that she used for each folded square.

Another piece shows the thin spiral arms of a galaxy embedded in a larger cloud of dark matter. (She used black wrapping paper with winter pines and gold stars to portray the dark matter and peach and pink colored paper for the arms.) For the other piece that I show in this post, titled “Voids and Filaments,” Lee Anne used the large-scale web-like structure of the universe as inspiration. If you’d like to see a few more examples of her artwork, you can find them on her website.

The gallery show was a nice, relaxed way to get into the meeting — celebrating the impressive and varied career of a wonderful astronomer, mentor, and colleague. Here’s to a relaxing and enjoyable retirement, Lee Anne.

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