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Universal Beauty
Bay Area muralist covers Fresno planetarium's lobby with cosmic art.
By Yahaira Castro
The Fresno Bee
(Published Thursday, July 11, 2002, 4:56 AM)

(Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee)
Lynette Cook, an artist from the Bay Area, stands on a scaffold as she paints a likeness of Io, a moon of Jupiter, in the Downing Planetarium at Fresno State. Cook is painting two murals for the planetarium.
(Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee)
Even the Hubble, the strongest telescope, can't see as far as space artist Lynette Cook.

This month, the Bay Area artist is painting two original murals in the lobby of the Downing Planetarium at California State University, Fresno.

One of the murals will be 3 feet wide and about 40 feet long. It will depict a planetary system called Gliese 876, a system about 52 light years away that astronomers have discovered but have no idea how it looks.

The second mural will depict several planets in our solar system, including Earth. That painting will be about 3 feet wide and about 50 feet long.

Officials at the Downing Planetarium say the murals are works of art visitors will appreciate for a long time. Cook created the renditions specifically for the planetarium.

"We want to be able to inform and educate, but also have something that will take people's breath away when they look up there," Dr. Steven White, the planetarium's director, said.

The planetarium is closed for July, but patrons can see the murals when it reopens Aug. 1.

Cook, 41, is best known for her work on planets outside our solar system.

(Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee)
Scientific illustrator Lynette Cook is using this diagram for a mural at the Downing Planetarium.
(Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee)

The planets are discovered by their movements, or wobbles, made by gravitational forces. No telescope is strong enough to see them.

About 90 planets have been discovered and Cook has painted about 40 of them. Her work has been exhibited in the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian.

Her art is unlike the extraordinary scenes done by street artists with paint cans. Instead, Cook said she works to achieve a realistic look in her art.

For example, she will add a lunar landscape on the bottom of the Gliese 876 mural.

"I think my job is to show what is there but to also show what could be there, within the comfort zone of scientists," she said.

When Cook first began her career as an artist, she focused on botany and zoology illustrations.

However, she eventually became interested in astronomical illustrations when in 1984 she started working for the Morrison Planetarium as an artist and photographer. She held that job for 16 years before becoming a free-lancer.

(Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee)
Lynette Cook works on one of two murals she is creating for the Downing Planetarium on the California State University, Fresno, campus.
(Mark Crosse / The Fresno Bee)

If a problem exists with Cook's art it's that her work may be too real. It is sometimes mistaken for photographs. A San Francisco Chronicle article in 1999 had an image of one of Cook's works of a small planet orbiting a star, along with a caption that the image was photographic proof of a new scientific discovery.

Cook has mixed reactions about her work being confused with actual pictures: "It's amusing and in another way it's horrifying. [In] another way it's quite a compliment."

Steven B. Craig, the Morrison Planetarium chairman in San Francisco where Cook worked, said he considers Cook to be one of the top 10 artists in this field.

"She's very creative yet scientifically accurate," Craig said.

Cook will earn $12,000 from the planetarium's ticket and gift shop sales.

Joe Conway, marketing and new business development officer, said they are looking for a sponsor for the murals. Sponsorship would help offset the cost, and help implement other plans for the planetarium, including installing vending machines.

Cook said she enjoys her job because in illustrating unknown stars and planets there is room to interpret how those places may look.

"It helps make the work more fun, and why it suits me," she said.

The reporter can be reached at ycastro@fresnobee.com or 441-6632.

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