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The Gulf Coast Exploreum is hosting an exhibit of celestial jewelry by Huntsville-based artist Kathy Chan.


By Catherine Rainey, Contributing Writer

It’s the middle of the night and you’re gazing through a telescope to glimpse the wonders of space. A meteor shoots past your lens and constellations of stars and planets phase into focus. The view is spectacular, yet you wish the depths of space were more tangible from Earth. If only you could touch that brightly burning star.

Could this surreal sight possibly be created as a palpable art form? Kathy Chan has put this question to the test with her exhibit “Celestial Dreams: The Art of Space Jewelry,” which is currently being exhibited at the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center. Using precious minerals, gems and metals ranging from diamonds, sapphires, rubies and pearls to gold and platinum, among other elements, she has created jewelry that is not only able to be held and worn, but displayed.

“I liked to sew,” Chan mused on her idea about using art in various ways. “I would make skirts that could turn into a cape, hats that would turn into scarves. I always had a viewpoint that if I made one thing, it should be able to be utilized in many different ways. And since I am using the most expensive materials, I better make it that way!”

Many of her works are composed of several individual pieces working together. One of these compositions, titled “The Challenger,” deconstructs into a large pendant brooch and two earrings. This creation not only serves to honor the astronauts who lost their lives in the 1984 Challenger shuttle explosion, but to illustrate the story of the shuttle breaking apart during its ill-fated trip to an orbit around the Earth.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville contacted Chan about possibly exhibiting her jewelry. This led to her coming to Mobile to train members of the Exploreum staff on her work.

“I had already made art pertaining to space and the planets, so I thought, ‘let’s choose the pieces that can make stories for people of all ages.’ In this gallery, I talk about the Earth, Sun and planets and that they are beautiful gemstones.”

Her love of storytelling derived from her father, who often told tales of philosophers, historians and scientists.

“When I was very young, around 5 or 6 years old, there were no toys; most of the time parents would tell stories to entertain.”

Chan lived in Taiwan at the time and every night after dinner, they would sit in their garden.

“My father would tell us about Napoleon, Confucius; the first time he told us to look at the stars, I looked up and, being a child so small — that was very impressive!”

Allen McNeil, early childhood coordinator and curator of exhibits at The Exploreum, explained how distinctive and innovative Chan’s work is.

“Being a jewelry exhibit, ‘Celestial Dreams’ is a truly unique show for The Exploreum. Not only is this a beautifully curated exhibition,” he said, “but it is also neatly tied into our mission of providing innovative experiences in the science field to Mobilians. Each work is inspired by the solar system and the history of space exploration.”

Chan would like people to absorb more from her art than simply viewing a glamorously ethereal and well-made piece of jewelry.

“I want them to understand more about planets and space.”

In one of her pieces, she has made a solar system where she reduced the astronomical units from Earth to the Sun into millimeters. This is to show students the distance is not quite linear like many other models or pictures portray.

“For the adults, I want them to see the details. Some [works] are done with granulation, which is very tedious. Some pieces are handmade straight from gold. There are many many different methods that we can work with.

“A true standout work for me is a larger-scale piece where visitors can view a solar eclipse. A pearl serves as a moon, which viewers can line up perfectly with a large glass sun to create the appearance of a partial or total eclipse,” McNeil said. “I especially enjoy watching families interact with this piece. It is such a wonderful experience to see our exhibits facilitating multigenerational learning.”

Chan’s love of space grew from her father’s anecdotes into a lifestyle of art and study. From her birth in China and childhood in Taiwan, Chan is a world traveler. She has lived in Brazil and England, where she married her husband, then moved to Turkey and California. She now resides in Alabama with her husband and three children, where she obtained degrees in French and fine art at The University of Alabama in Huntsville.

You can view Chan’s artwork at the Gulf Coast Exploreum through Dec. 23. For more information, visit exploreum.com or call 251-208-6893.