Contemplating the Universe Through Art

'Fire and Water' by April Gornik.

The universe is a vast storybook, but it doesn’t tell the same tales to everyone.

To artist Ann Chwatsky, the skies represent mystery and beauty, mythology and science. Her relationship with the solar system and galaxies is an “utter absorption,” she said. And, working from her loft in Sag Harbor, she spends a lot of time looking up at them.

“I think as a photographer and an artist, you always go through phases. You don’t really say to yourself, ‘What am I interested in?’ but it sort of comes to you. It comes to you usually early in the morning when you first wake up, or in the middle of the night,” she said. “For me, right now, it’s this fascination with what’s going on out there, what is happening in the solar system. As an artist, it’s very exciting to have others share your obsession.”

Chwatsky is the brainchild behind “Looking Up, Looking Out,” a new exhibit at the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum opening Friday, August 17. It features her work alongside that of April Gornik, John Torreano and Vija Celmins, who each explore their views of the universe and what it feels like to them.

Photography and artwork by Ann Chwatsky.

“Vija’s interested in art that makes you question and derives power from being vulnerable to your interpretation, besides being beautiful,” the curator said. “That’s the interesting thing about creating pieces that are about this subject. It’s our own interests, but we think they’re beautiful, and we hope others will. As viewers, people don’t have to have the same interpretation as the artist. They just have to get something from the piece.”

Human beings are hard-wired to see similar things as “beautiful,” Torreano explained. Unconsciously — and from an evolutionary standpoint — they may be searching for a source of food, shelter and protection, but with peripheral vision, there is a sense of empowerment and control, he said.

“Desire is another feeling aroused by the act of looking out and looking up. This way of looking stimulates a seeking or questing feeling,” he said. “What is out there, beyond here? Life doesn’t just exist in this narrow spot, back here in the present with our day-to-day challenge for survival.

“Looking out means looking toward ‘possibility,’ something beyond here and the present,” he continued. “Looking out transports us. If only for a moment, it gives us a slight hedge against the persistence of time and mortality. Looking out toward the vastness of space is looking out toward our potential our future, our immortality. The feeling that life will always go on is both inspiring and comforting.”

‘Inside Tarantula’ by John Torreano.

For thousands of years, people have looked up and written stories that explained the amazing things they saw or imagined they were there. In her work, Gornik blurs the line between nature and fantasy, Chwatsky said, often capturing the character of the East End.

“Gornik’s attitude towards painting these half imaginary, half representative scenes is that of the wistful interpreter — combining the heritage of Romantic landscape painting with her own idealized mysterious vision,” she said. “Her works have a bewitching, almost surreal beauty that reveal a signature style and sensibility unmistakably her own.”

Chwatsky relies on ancient stories for her own work, melding prose from Native American, South American and even Alaskan mythology with her photography.

“A lot of them are dark, like the night sky. One legend says that the moon is where all wasted time, broken promises, intentions that never turn into actions and unfulfilled desires end up,” she said. “When I look up, I think of the mystery of it. I think of all the things I’ve read about — not in the depressing way that the moon is home for lost thought, but how beautiful the universe is, really. And rather than think about the daily mess that we may be living in, there’s gotta be some good out there.”

She paused. “I feel lucky to be able to have people around who are really interested in this,” she said, “and to be in Sag Harbor with the dark skies.”

“Looking Up, Looking Out,” featuring work by Vija Celmins, Ann Chwatsky, April Gornik and John Torreano, will open with a reception on Friday, August 17, from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum, located at 200 Main Street in Sag Harbor. The exhibit will remain on view through September 16. For more information, call (631) 725-0770 or visit

‘2000 Ocean’ by Vija Celmin.