College of Fine Arts, School of Dance, School of Theatre, Film & Television

Have you ever wondered how the arts can intersect with space exploration? A four-person all-artist crew undertook a simulated moon mission to find out. 

Named Imagination 1, the mission took place at the Space Analog for the Moon and Mars (SAM) located on the University of Arizona’s Biosphere 2 campus. This innovative habitat includes living quarters, a workshop, greenhouse, and a half-acre moon-Mars surface yard and terrain park, making it the perfect setting for this one-of-a-kind experiment.

The all-artist crew spent six days in the habitat, including non-fiction writer Christopher Cokinos and professor emeritus of English; dancer/choreographer Elizabeth George, associate professor at the School of Dance; poet Julie Swarstad Johnson, Poetry Center archivist and librarian; and textile artist Ivy Wahome, MFA candidate in costume design and production at the School of Theatre, Film & Television.

Liz George, Chris Cokinos, Ivy Wahome, Julie Swarstad Johnson, the all-artist crew of Imagination 1.

Over the course of six days, these artists explored the intersection of art and space exploration through their creative endeavors.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the mission was the crew’s extravehicular activities. For an EVA they ventured outside the test module in spacesuits to engage in their artistic pursuits. Wahome worked on sewing for her tapestry. George focused on incorporating floating imagery and movement into her practice.

Ellen McMahon, associate dean of research for the College of Fine Arts, highlighted the importance of adding artistic perspectives into space exploration.

Commander Cokinos. Photo by Chris Richards.

“This mission is a great example of arts research, demonstrating what we can learn about the human experience of space travel through the embodied and situated practices of dance, design, and writing,” said McMahon. 

“These artists brought their specialized disciplinary expertise to bear on practical issues also. Wahome is working on improvements to the gloves and other aspects of the pressurized space suits and George will be able to advise future space travelers on the best ways to move around in low gravity environments.”

As the mission commander, Cokinos said the test module felt like a house and most of the mission was about tending to the house. 

“I hope that the arts will have formed a sustainable, vibrant approach to taking care of ourselves, taking care of our house, and taking care of the places where we go,” Cokinos said. 

For George, she spent many hours in the module’s lung trying out new movements to bring back to her students. The lung was a place in the habitat motivated the exploration of weightless/floating imagery, inspired by astronauts moving ini space. She described her EVA in three words as “freedom, opportunity, and connection.” 

When pressurized, the lung rises off the ground. George said that it rose around seven-and-a-half feet. 

“It’s like a studio in the round; it was really fun to create in here,” she said. “The space challenged me to find movement that embodied weightless rolling.”

The Creative Spirit Within Us

George also spent time in the tunnel that connects to the lung. She experimented with different dance movements, and she said it was the first place she headed to on the first night of the mission.

“I came into this experience without any expectations. I feel like removing expectations on my work provides an opportunity to create from an authentic place.”

She said she tells her students to always challenge themselves and to take risks with their art.

George working on movements on the lunar surface to bring back to her dance students.

“I challenged myself to work a bit out of my comfort zone in this collaborative project, just as I encourage my students to do.”

After a week in “space,” George said she is looking forward to eating at an In n’ Out Burger and seeing her daughters. 

“I am grateful for this collaborative and unique opportunity. I feel like as a faculty member at the university I have an opportunity to choose how my research can then move back to the students. I am excited to continue sharing this fusion of art and science with the dance majors in the School of Dance both in the classroom and on the Eller stage.” she said. 

George said the moon mission generated authentic, creative, and collaborative energy. 

“We all have that creative spirit in us, and I feel we have a choice in how we move towards it.  This project connected me to that creative spirit inside myself and reminded me of how authentic collaboration can inspire creative work.” 

Wahome spent only 15 minutes on her EVA because it was hard to sew with the spacesuit gloves. 

“It was hard because the plugs got in the way, but it was really good. I enjoyed myself,” she said. 

Wahome at Home in Space

Ivy Wahome working on her Imagination 1 mission tapestry.

Wahome worked on a tapestry – created with an old blanket from her childhood — that tells the story of each crew member on the moon mission.

On the mission, the crew had to use recycled water from the air conditioner as drinking water. Wahome mentioned that she was nervous they would run out of water, fortunately they didn’t. Drinking water might be taken for granted by some, but for Wahome whether in space or in her hometown of Kenya, accessible to water in paramount. Wahome promotes a GoFundMe fundraiser to bring clean water to high school students at Rovy Community Center in her Kenyan hometown. 

When it comes to handicrafts like sewing, she can see it translate well in space. 

“If we had to go out on the moon and had a tear or a rip while on an EVA, the crew members can learn sewing skills that can be done by hand,” she said. “Maybe we need special gloves to accommodate for this but anything you can do by hand can be translated easily out there. I think anything that you can do by hand, you can translate it easily out there,” she said.

This is the third crew — first all-artist crew — to enter the test module this year. There are many more to come, said Kai Staats, director of SAM research.

“It’s so easy in a modern world to put everyone in boxes. You’re an artist or you’re an engineer. I think that’s a false statement,” he said. “In fact, all of us carry a little bit of everything.” 

The Space Analog for the Moon and Mars (SAM) located on the Biosphere 2 campus. This innovative habitat includes living quarters, a workshop, greenhouse, and a half-acre moon-Mars surface yard and terrain park. Photo by Chris Richards.