"One of the most profound influences on my work," says glass artist Josh Simpson, "was the photo of earth taken from space by astronaut Jim Lovell and his crew of Apollo 13."
The azure blue oceans, swirling clouds and continental shorelines spurred Simpson to create his own universe of planets in glass. His luminous celestial spheres -- now on exhibit at Gallery 51 in North Adams -- show kaleidoscopic landscapes of imaginary planets with landmasses, vast oceans, mountain ranges, volcanoes and lofty layers of clouds.
Though Simpson's fanciful glass planets, a foot across and weighing up to 50 pounds, depict worlds in outer space, they do not look futuristic. They have an aura of antiquity, the timeless look of extraterrestrial places that existed before humans inhabited the earth.
"My goal in making these planets," Simpson said, "is to help the viewer experience the wonder, mystery and beauty of the universe."
A visitor to the gallery might think Simpson learned his love of space from his wife, Catherine (Cady) Coleman, an astronaut who served on two NASA space missions and spent nearly six months aloft in the International Space Station.
"Not so," Simpson said. "I was hooked on space as a kid. I collected satellite images of earth and followed the exploits of the first astronauts. I read science fiction constantly, much to my parents' dismay.
Since he discovered glassblowing as his life's work, as a student at Hamilton College in the '70s, Simpson has dedicated himself to mastering all aspects of glass making. He designs his own furnaces and tools, studies glass chemistry, creates his own spectrum of colors and masters ancient techniques of the glass blower's art.
"His contributions to the craft are legendary," said Mary Childs, owner of Mary Childs Gallery on Railroad Street in Great Barrington and an expert on glass art herself. "He has made stunning breakthroughs in bringing contemporary materials and techniques to this old and venerable craft."
Other spheres in Simpson's Gallery 51 exhibition give images of the world's "inner space," the mysterious universe beneath the sea where brilliantly colored coral, undulating jellyfish, prickly sea urchins and gently swaying vegetation are encased in a hemisphere of glass.
Simpson makes some of his art from tektite, the rock-like black material that meteorites are made of. He took scientific studies of real meteorites, analyzed the ingredients and duplicated the tektite in his studio.
"This medium is extremely hard to work with," he said. "One minute it's liquid, and a second later it's hard as stone."
He uses the dramatic dark material to encase voluptuous iridescent glass interiors that display otherworldly images.
While Simpson's galactic spheres capture the vastness and complexity of outer space, his art also affects life on earth. In 1976, after finding handmade glass marbles on his property, he got the idea of "planting" small glass planets in places where they could be discovered a thousand years from now.
"I like the idea," he said, "that future archeologists will be confounded by the meaning and purpose of these small planets with the infinity sign engraved on their side."
So far Simpson has given his hand-sized planets to more than 2,000 people around the world and asked them to hide them in the soil, riverbeds, mountaintops, fields and forests of their native countries to be discovered by future generations. Simpson gets nothing in return except a photo of the person who hid the little planet and the site where it's hidden.
Shannon Costello, a graduating senior at MCLA and curator of the Simpson exhibition, will go to India next year to study yoga. She will plant one of Simpson's miniature worlds somewhere near the city of Rishikesh.
A compact man of 63 with thick bushy hair, round-rimmed glasses and a luxuriant mustache, Simpson has a studio in Shelburne Falls, but his impact on the world of glass art is universal. He has works in the permanent collections of the Boston Museum of Fine Art, the Corning Museum of Glass, the White House Collection of American Crafts, the Yale University Art Gallery and hundreds of other first rate museums, galleries and private collections around the world.
In 2005 PBS produced a high definition documentary of Simpson making a 107-pound glass sphere for the Corning Museum's collection. Though he has made glass goblets for Rosalynn Carter, presented one of his megaplanets to the Sultan of Brunei and served as president of the prestigious Glass Art Society, Simpson finds satisfaction in other spotlights -- he plays the spoons in Irish bands. His wife, Cady, a flute player, shares his love of music and has toured England and Ireland with the world famous Chieftains.
"My wife has seen the earth from space and played music with the Chieftains," Simpson said. "Can you imagine how much I envy and admire her for that?"
What: This Blue Marble: The Universe of Josh Simpson,' solo exhibition Where: MCLA's Gallery 51,
51 Main St., North Adams
When: Through Nov. 25
Josh Simpson said the inspiration for his celestial art came from sightings of earth from hundreds of miles out by astronauts who circled the planet and saw it in all its spectacular glory.
James Irwin, American astronaut, recorded what he saw:
'The earth reminded us of a Christmas three ornament hanging in the blackness of space. As we got farther and farther away it diminished in size. Finally it shrank to the size of a marble, the most beautiful marble you can imagine. That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.'