Glass and the Wonderful: Josh Simpson’s Planets Travel into Space

Josh Simpson at The Corning Museum of Glass in 2019.

“As a glass artist, I’m inspired by the planets. Actually, I’ve always been inspired by the planets, even when I was a kid I loved looking up at the stars,” says Josh Simpson in the new Netflix documentary The Wonderful: Stories from the Space Station.

The documentary, which had a short run at Corning’s Palace Theatre recently, tells the stories of the men and women from around the world that have lived on the International Space Station (ISS). There is plenty of footage of rockets blasting off and stunning views of Earth. We can see our fragile atmosphere shimmering with the Aurora Borealis and share in the moment when the crew witnesses 9/11 unfolding from 250 miles up. There are disasters and triumphs and by the end, if you’re anything like me, you’re in awe of what people can do when they work together.

But what’s this all got to do with glass?

Glass and space exploration have gone hand in hand for decades and the Museum explored some of these connections in its 2019 exhibition Journey to the Moon: How Glass Got Us There. From the glass windows that astronauts view Earth through to the fiberglass space suits that keep them safe, glass aids missions to space in unexpected ways. But, down here on Earth, glass has been used to encapsulate the unique beauty of our planet and the stars. And nobody does that better than Josh Simpson.

“Glass is just sand, it’s part of the earth. When it’s hot, glass is alive, it has an inner light. It is a weird twist of fate that I was making planets and making space-related artwork long before Cady and I met. My name is Josh Simpson, my wife Cady Coleman is an astronaut.”

Josh Simpson

This introduction by Simpson is about 45 minutes into the documentary, and although The Wonderful is primarily about the ISS, the relationship between Josh and Cady is just too beautiful to ignore. Cady Coleman lived on the space station for six months in 2011 after having served with NASA for almost 20 years. She left behind her husband and son on their farm in rural western Massachusetts but took with her several of Simpson’s glass planets. In a clip towards the end of the documentary, she releases them to float inside the space module in zero gravity.

Megaplant, Josh Simpson, United States, 2006 (2006.4.154)

Visitors to the Museum will be familiar with Josh Simpson’s planets, on view in the galleries, and for purchase in The Shops. They are inspired by the natural world and by glass itself. His work reflects the joy of exploration and discovery and encourages the viewer to appreciate even the smallest details of our complex universe. Simpson’s larger Megaplanets are made with multiple layers of luminous glass enclosing vast seascapes and minute terrestrial details. A visitor favorite, his 108-pound Megaplanet was the Museum’s 1,000th paperweight and holds the title of the world’s largest paperweight.

Much like the international teams that united to build, launch, and inhabit the ISS, Simpson and a team of glassblowers worked together to produce this Megaplanet. The process required months of preparation, special tools, strength training, and a complete understanding of the task at hand, all qualities that every astronaut is familiar with. Perhaps there’s more alike between glassblowing and space travel after all.  

Josh Simpson making his 108-pound Megaplanet in 2006.

“Our planet is just a little blue marble floating in the black void of space. I make little planets that perhaps remind us of how small our own Earth is in relation to the greater universe.”

Josh Simpson

Are you ready for the wonderful?

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