Art + Science Align for Space Artist Estevan Guzman
Estevan Mykhail Guzman is an artist and animator at the Griffith Observatory, in Los Angeles, CA who self-identifies as a “space artist”. With such high interest all over the country in astronomy due to the recent solar eclipse, we wanted to know how he came to have such an usual job and what got him into this line of creative endeavor. It’s also refreshing in the face of the current political anti-science rhetoric to hear from an artist who so clearly loves his work and deeply embraces the world of science.
Where are you from?
I’m an LA boy. Went to elementary and middle school in East LA while living in Whittier. Spent my adolescence, high school and college years in Hacienda Heights.
What is your educational background?
I went to the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, otherwise known as Cal Poly Pomona where I got a degree in Fine Arts, but took a ton of science classes along the way. Hope to eventually get a Masters Degree.
How did you end up merging your illustration work with space and science?
When I was in the third grade I decided I wanted a career in art. Over time that transitioned into drawing comics. Being a big sci-fi fan a lot of my early work is in that genre, but as I got older and into the real stuff, naturally that influenced my art, but I can’t say there was an exact moment of change.
Was science always a passion?
I was always into space and dinosaurs like any other kid. Star Trek and Star Wars and other science fiction movies and shows were a part of my upbringing. To this day we’ve made it a family tradition with my parents and brothers to go see the new Star Wars movie together on Christmas. So that stuff always fascinated me.
“I didn’t dive head first into real science and astronomy until I was about 21. And the reason was is I got dumped, my heart was shattered, and I suppose I was drawn into focusing in on a subject that made my problems seem smaller.”
The perspective that astronomy nurtures in you is a good one to have in your back pocket. When ever I’m stressed about about personal issues or the state of the world, it takes an edge off. But once you discover that in science every thread you pull unravels a skein hundreds and even thousands of years deep, the desire to know becomes compulsive. It’s a shame, as well has humbling, that no one can know all the wealth of human knowledge.
So what does a space artist and animator for the Observatory do? Describe what you do and how you do it.
My primary work is on the development a new planetarium show for the Observatory. I can’t go into much detail about the content, but I can tell you our ambitions and the process. Of all the Observatories in the world only a small handful produce their own shows. I’m lucky to be part of a team that does. And because we are Hollywood’s Observatory we try to add a bit more flare. There are some great planetarium shows out there, but a lot of them tend to lean to heavy on the science and diagram so we are incredibly fortunate as well to be lead by people that understand that the art is just as important as the science, in fact the art direction is lead by world class space artist Don Dixon.
“Because we are such a small team all of us get to wear many hats and have input on every part of the show and that’s something I absolutely treasure. I’ve done story boarding, concept art, animation, plotting and even coming up with a scene or two.”
So the way we break down a scene; first we all sit together and talk through basically what we want to happen, look at a bunch of pictures from NASA or another space agency and target places we want to hit. Myself and the other artists create several runs of concept then we begin the long process of building it in 3D.
The part of the process that is the truest honor is picking the brains of actual NASA scientists that have worked on the missions we are studying. My favorite part is the scientist will go into great depth about the topic at hand but when we as artists distill it down to, “Yeah but what does it look like?” the scientist has to take a beat for a minute because in their line of work the data is the most important thing and they don’t often consider what something would actually look like and it highlights the importance of our role as space artists. Films have visualized space in hundreds of ways and though a lot of it is aesthetically striking and beautiful, it may not be the most accurate.
“I like to think that at our institution we separate ourselves from the pack by working with NASA and JPL to bring out the beauty that already exists in the universe but as if you were actually there in a space suit.”
I’m also sometimes tasked to design signs, posters or title cards for upcoming events. My proudest contribution to the Observatory so far came after New Horizons imaged our first clear and detailed images of Pluto in 2015. Our lowest exhibit floor, The Gunther Depths of Space, has a model of the planets in our Solar System to scale in size. Pluto is included with the planets because it was already built by the time Pluto was re-categorized as a Dwarf Planet and because it still is a very interesting place to learn about. More interesting than some planets in my opinion. But up until 2015 our best image of Pluto came from Hubble as a pixellated blob, which was represented in our model is a red blobby ping pong ball. So when we got clearer images from NASA I was given the honor to paint an updated model which now sits at the end of the line of the planets but is the closet model to the stairs and our guests. They even put installed it with it’s largest moon Charon which I painted just for fun.
How did you get your current position as a space artist with the Griffith Observatory?
I was working as essentially a stock boy at a Ralphs in Altadena. My uncle who I worked with, and is the only guy I know who still reads local papers, brought to my attention an add for a convention called “SpaceFest” in Pasadena. I’m not really a con guy but one of my favorite writers was supposed to be there so I got tickets. I figure I might as well take some of my art to show around, maybe I can land a small gig. Eventually my art grabbed the attention of the curator of the Observatory, Dr. Laura Danly, who recommended I go for a job as a museum guide at the Griffith Observatory where I knew my best chances at finding opportunities to volunteer my artistic skill might be noticed. Not long after I was hired those opportunities presented themselves, and once the planetarium show began production I was brought on as a full time artist on the team. For me it really paid to find the courage to just put myself and my work out there. Good things seemed to happen whenever I did.
The recent eclipse brought out thousand of folks to the Observatory. You couldn’t find eclipse glasses anywhere. Were you there that day and what was it like there?
I was not at the observatory that day, because I was just outside of Salem in the center of the path of totality, a lot of Observatory employees were out of state but I envy the those who were out there that day. I do miss being a guide and being on the front lines as I call it. The one on one interaction with inquisitive visitors is something to desire and to have so many at the top of the hill all at once for a single event, it’s nice to see curiosity is still alive in some form in LA.
Totality in Oregon was one of the most awe inspiring moments of my life. Nothing compares to it. As my fellow space artist friend and coworker said, everything just goes wrong in the most beautiful way. I’ll be somewhere along the line when it comes again in 2024.
What’s next for you?
For at least the near future this show is my main priority. There’s a lot to learn and a lot to be done. But I love my team and they keep me going.
Of course I have other personal projects. Writing and illustrating a comic book I’ve already done two and a half versions of. Right now almost all of my illustrations and space art are digital. Even though I love painting and other traditional methods, I elected early on to follow the digital medium because that’s where everyone was going. Even so I try to keep the process of constructing a digital painting to that of one on canvas as close as possible, minus the just too convenient Ctrl + Z fixes. So I hope now that I’m more I can began making more traditional forms of art.
What advice would you give a young person who might be interested in studying both art and science or astronomy?
Don’t narrow your scope. While you’re doing art learn something. Put on a podcast. While I was stocking shelves or doing projects for school, I put on Astronomy Cast or watched a lecture or documentary.
“Creativity thrives on intelligence. The more you know the more you can pull from and the more unique your work can be. Try to find things no one has ever visualized before or visualize something in a way no one has yet. Get as deep as you can because you’ll soon discover that what the universe has in store is all too often greater than anything the human imagination on its own can come up with.”
But most importantly join the the community. You’re greatest assets are the friends you make when you surround yourself with science minded people. There enthusiasm only lifts yours and your spirit and art are the richer for it. There’s plenty of free events at the Griffith Observatory like our monthly Star Parties where dozens members of the Los Angeles Astronomical Society (LAAS) are scattered along the front lawn with just as many telescope. Don’t be shy they want to show you their telescope!
And on the first of Friday of every month the brilliant minds behind the scenes of the Observatory do an in depth dissection of the most recent space and science in our theater. I also go out to Joshua Tree about twice a year with my telescope and with my friends who have telescopes and we invite anyone who wants to come. Last time 40 people showed up and it was a huge blast. There’s many free resources in this town and a lot of people having a great time doing great things. Join us.