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Organizations Use Art for Accessibility

By Kristie T. La, Contributing Writer

Finance and astronomy may not be completely incomprehensible, but in some ways, the technical jargon and inherent speciality of these fields can make them seem as boring as accounting and as intimidating as rocket science. Recently, in an effort to make their areas of interest more relevant and accessible for their peers, the Student Astronomers at Harvard-Radcliffe (STAHR) and A Drop in the Ocean (ADITO), a non-profit microfinance organization run by Harvard students, have similarly adapted their interests for artistic purposes.

Over the years, art has demonstrated its love for the celestial, from Vincent Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” to Lord Byron’s, “She walks in beauty, like the night / of cloudless climes and starry skies.” Tonight, astronomy returns the favor. To celebrate a convergence of art and astronomy, STAHR, an organization devoted to the observation and study of the cosmos, is hosting a poetry event at the Loomis-Michael Observatory.

With this event, STAHR hopes to remind Harvard students of the basic wonder and beauty of the night sky. It will provide telescopes and display art pieces with astronomical themes. By making it easy for students to observe the skies, STAHR seeks to reconcile the perceived disparity between the technical knowledge of a specialist and the simple appreciation of a stargazer.

“Astronomy has gone through this metamorphosis. Look at the Greek astronomers,” says Lauren M. Weiss ’10, a STAHR officer. “They were just ordinary people who looked into the sky to try to understand it...But as science, and especially physics, has advanced, astronomy has too. Now to be an astronomer, it takes years to understand what is going on in the universe. This is unsatisfying to the average person, who looks up to the sky, wonders, and is truly inspired.”

In anticipation of this inspiration, an open microphone will be set up for those who wish to wax poetic about their observations or thoughts. “We need to find a way to show how our new discoveries are connecting to that sense of wonder, because if they can’t connect, they aren’t important to humanity,” Weiss says. “If we can’t connect to the world at large, what we do is only important for us.”

Besides engaging the public with astronomy in this setting, STAHR also seeks to bridge the traditional gap between how the night sky is observed by an artist with his naked eye, and an astronomer with his technologically privileged view. “Often art is coming from the perspective of artists here on Earth that are looking at the brightest objects in the sky,” Weiss says. “However, astronomers study the faintest and most distant objects in the sky...Now with Hubble, other Earth-based telescopes, and the Internet, we have been able to show these fainter and more distant objects to the public. I think with this new technology, it will influence and inspire a new generation of poets and artists.”

With a similar goal of inspiring artistic creation, ADITO encouraged its interns to take photographs during their travels this summer. Last week, ADITO, which is committed to providing small loans to mostly female clients in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, opened an exhibition of these photographs at “Swing into the Sackler!” a night event held by the Harvard Art Museum Undergraduate Connection. The organization has relied largely on photography to garner support and raise awareness about its efforts. With their documentary value and emotional appeal, the photographs feature individuals and landscapes that ADITO members encountered on their travels.

“For me, I never really [before] took that many photos on one trip. It was a great opportunity to begin arranging photos—not just putting people together and telling them to smile,” says Simon Mahler ’10, the club’s chief executive officer, who spent a summer in Benin. “You really start playing with the camera, and you do learn more about photography.”

ADITO Chief of Operations Officer Polina Krass ’11 says that the task of documenting experiences with photography reveals how important microfinance is to those it has helped. “Microfinance is much more than an idea. It’s much more than a strategy. It’s about empowering people,” Krass says. “And I think empowerment is something easier captured in photography than anything else.” She gives an example of one of the photographs shown at the Sackler: the women, pictured smiling and clapping ebulliently, are in the act of reciting an oath, promising to return the money loaned to them.

Aside from showing their photographs to turn attention to their efforts, ADITO members hope to sell crafts handmade by the women who received loans, according to Valerie N. Chadha ’11, the chief financial officer.

“The term ‘microfinance’ tends to turn people off,” Krass says, explaining the importance of having an artistic pathway between her specialized interest and the broader community. “They say they aren’t interested in banking or finance. To have their first vision of microfinance be scenes of people in developing countries opens a lot of windows for us to talk to them about what it is.”

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