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Galleries | Cate McQuaid

Cosmic images, captured in quilts at Harvard exhibit ‘Measure’

Detail of a quilt by Anna Von Mertens depicting stars fading from view on the morning of Henrietta Leavitt’s birth.Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

CAMBRIDGE — Anna Von Mertens stitches patterns of stars and galaxies into quilts, charting their movement with astronomical software. Invited to exhibit at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, she went to the Harvard College Observatory to study the “computers” — women who, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scrutinized more than 500,000 glass-plate astronomical photographs.

Among them was Henrietta Swan Leavitt, whose life and work Von Mertens celebrates in her remarkable show, “Measure.” Poring over astral images and leaving inky notations on the glass plates, Leavitt devised the first method for measuring distances to far-away stars and galaxies, paving the way for astronomers to better comprehend the universe.


Negative and Positive Plates B20667 and D16409, Nebula in Orion, Oct 26, 1897 2018, pencil on paper, 22×30 in.Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Her work a century ago also set the stage for Von Mertens’s art.

The observatory is now in the process of digitizing those glass-plate photographs. To better capture the starry images, the handwritten notations — documents of theory and calculation — are being erased from all but a small number of them. Leavitt, who died in 1921 and left scant personal record but thousands of astronomical notes, seemed poised in some tangible way to slip from our grasp. Von Mertens’s show has sparked interest, and now images are being made of the plates before the notes are wiped off, as well as after.

Von Mertens’s hand stitching in “Measure” echoes Leavitt’s exacting toil with eye and hand. In the “Shape/View” series, made before the artist discovered the astronomer, our galactic supercluster pinwheels with spooling stars.

She addresses Leavitt directly in other pieces. Invoking the astronomer’s handwork with a stylus, she painstakingly draws graphite plates depicting the Orion Nebula in 1897, complete with blotted emulsion borders.

A humble yet wondrous diptych tracks the stars moving at dawn the day of Leavitt’s birth and at dusk the day she died. A span of wall between them marks the years of her life, and the black quilts, arcing with bright and dimming stars light years away, resemble curtains opening on that life.


A quilt by Anna Von Mertens depicting stars fading from view on the morning of Henrietta Leavitt’s birth.Courtesy of the artist and Elizabeth Leach Gallery

Freighted with intimacy and gratitude, “Measure” marvels at the minute scale of Leavitt’s study and praises her comprehension and embrace of the enormity of the cosmos.


At Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 8 Garden St., Cambridge, through Jan. 19. 617-496-1153 www.onviewatradcliffe.org/measure-1

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.