SciArt Spotlight: Abby Garrett
Ground control, this is Style Engineers Worldwide, and we are 'go for launch' an epic interview with rad and renowned #sciart creator and STEM communicator Abby Garrett! Abby creates all kinds of amazing space-related art from comics to t-shirts, and she's the author of the educational (and adorable) comic book Go For Launch: Merlin and his Friends. In addition to being an out-of-this-world illustrator, Abby works with schools in the greater Waco, Texas area, encouraging and fostering interests in science in kids from all backgrounds.
Abby also designs popular mission patches inspired by NASA and commercial spaceflight companies. SpaceX headquarters in Hawthorne, CA even commissioned Abby to design their nitro cold brew coffee tap. Jumping java, that's amazing!
We love that Abby's motto is "Bringing rocket science down to earth through art." Her commitment to STEM education is absolutely astronomically awesome, and we were delighted to get the chance to ask her our questions about her artistic process, what #scicomm means to her, what amazing projects she has in the works, and more. Meet Abby Garrett.
When did you know you were an artist?
I’ve been drawing since the day I could pick up a pencil, so since I was around 3 years old. My mom kept this drawing of a flower and sun when I was that age. I always did art just for fun, but entered city-wide competitions for kids when I was young and won first place at the Heart of Texas Fair art show with my Lion King drawing at age 6. I drew this Mercury Redstone rocket somewhere between 4 and 5 years old, which I think serves as some awesome foreshadowing as to what my life would revolve around over 20 years later!
When did you first combine your art with your love of space?
The first drawing I know of that was space-related was the Mercury Redstone drawing I mentioned earlier. I’m sure I drew plenty of shuttles, too. I grew up in the shuttle era and it had a profound impact on my life. Shuttle launches were happening somewhat regularly up until I was 21 years old. Fortunately, my mom valued the space program, and I watched a number of launches on TV when I was a kid. I never really played with Barbies—I liked “boy toys.” LEGOs, action figures, that kind of thing. I had a habit of turning everyday items and toys like my kitchen playset into rocket ships. I flipped over the play kitchen, used the sink faucet as a joystick, every button or moveable object became part of my control panel, countertops became delta wings, stove burner knobs controlled thrust, and the oven became the cargo bay or “pod bay.” My little brother wanted to play along, so he hopped in the oven and closed the “pod bay door.” We wore matching outfits, pretending they were our astronaut suits.
I was probably 4 years old in the first photo and 6 in the picture where I’m wearing an astronaut helmet at Johnson Space Center.
How do you define your comic style?
That’s hard to say, as I didn’t start out as a comic artist or cartoonist at all. I always tried to draw as realistically as possible, mostly just in graphite pencil and occasionally charcoal, and am completely self-taught. I think at first, I didn’t respect cartoons as much as I did “fine art” and realism. Fortunately, I learned better. To illustrate the process I went through to mentally get comfortable with what I considered at the time “dumbing down” realistic objects into cartoon form, I had to start off with phase one of character design with a realistic drawing, then phase two with a somewhat realistic but far more “cartoony” design than the one before it, then eventually wind up with a design I was comfortable with as my personal style of a cartoon in the last phase. I wanted to anthropomorphize spacecraft and rocket hardware to make space relatable to kids. To do that effectively, I had to practice, learn to let go of perfectionism, study cartoons I liked, and put unique personality into the designs of each character. Between my first space book, Go For Launch: Merlin and His Friends, and the subsequent comic strip/book series, you can detect slight artistic changes in the character design. I think this is because I’m evolving as an artist and it’s showing through in my work.
Though it’s good practice to keep design consistent throughout, I don’t want to feel boxed in or limit the characters’ expressions or build. After months of studying and working in this way, I fell in love with comics and cartoons. 90’s Disney animation was originally my inspiration behind Go For Launch character design but my style has evolved over time and become much more diverse. I’ve been highly influenced by the comic art of Jack Kirby over the past year as well as 1930s-1960s cartoons, so elements of those styles may influence future work you see from me. However, I suspect I will still gravitate towards realistically structured and colored backgrounds, complete with realistic rocket exhaust and sunsets (a signature I’m now known for).
What do you think it is about comics that makes them a great outlet to explore science-related topics?
Comics and cartoons have the ability to make serious or complex topics more relatable. In my case, I’m striving to “Bring Rocket Science Down to Earth Through Art.” Art in general, but especially cartoons, have the unique ability to sum up a paragraph’s worth of thoughts and feelings within a single drawing. Norman Rockwell was great at this with his Saturday Evening Post cover art, as well as cartoonists like Ed Arno, George McManus, and Patrick Chappatte who provided short cartoons for newspapers and political editorials to aid in getting a point across in an effective and succinct way. Cartoons are excellent attention grabbers and effective primers for how one perceives content. Art makes us feel something.
Companies like Disney knew this and made empires out of it. How many of us cried during Fox and the Hound when Todd the fox was taken away from the old lady? Who cried when Littlefoot’s mom died in Land Before Time, or when Bambi’s mom was killed by the hunter in Bambi? How profound was it during The Lion King when Simba’s reflection turned into his father’s and Mufasa’s apparition appeared to him in the night sky to remind him of his true purpose?
These are all animated cartoons--they’re not real. However, something about them has the power to spark real emotion in us and leave an imprint. I have a long way to go, but I strive to do this with Go For Launch Comics. Whether it’s making a science-heavy concept more approachable, simply entertaining and giving the audience a laugh, helping readers relate to all the effort teams of engineers put into making a rocket to carry out a mission, or trying to inspire interest and a connection between everyday people and current efforts in spaceflight, that’s the entire reason I started doing these comics. They’re cartoons with purpose.
What does being a STEAM communicator/ SciArt creator mean to you?
I take it very seriously. It means I’m committed to finding ways to get people interested in STEM concepts through Art, or helping them understand how art is a catalyst for the sciences and vice versa. When I see a kid’s eyes light up in the audience when I’m speaking about space at a school, that’s my personal indication that I’m on the right track and achieving the goal. I have a unique background in that my degree is in Psychology & Neuroscience, but I also have an extensive history in the music world. I double-majored in Music Education for three years, was a semi-professional classical soprano, was in All-State ensembles, and was ranked in the top 10% of high school clarinetists in the country when I was just a freshman in high school.
I had intentions to pursue the music side of the arts professionally for years, had a change of heart when I became obsessed with scientific research, but somehow managed to fall back into the arts after a serious spinal injury put me out of work. I created the first Go For Launch book during my recovery (it’s a long story). The point is I have a background in STEM and the Arts and use both to educate, empower, and hopefully inspire young people to find interest in STEAM fields. I find great meaning and purpose in what I do and believe STEM/STEAM Communicators have the opportunity to play an important role in shaping kids’ futures, instilling value for the sciences and the arts in our society, and helping build a better world. I do wish more funding was available for this locally and abroad, however. It’s very personally rewarding but isn’t as well funded as it could be.
Can you tell us your inspiration for your Go For Launch: Merlin and his Friends book?
I live just a few miles away from SpaceX’s rocket testing facility in McGregor, Texas. Since SpaceX came to town, I’ve been hearing rocket engine tests from 20, sometimes 30 miles away on a weekly or daily basis for years. The tests alarmed residents at first and still do at times, but I’m absolutely exhilarated by it! After following the progress of SpaceX for some time, I became a fan. One day in early 2016, I heard a rocket engine test from my house one day and “Merlin, the Other Little Engine that Could” spontaneously came to mind. I immediately sketched out a corny little cartoon of a Merlin rocket engine with a face on a piece of paper. I’d never done cartoons before and wasn’t sure if the idea was totally lame, so I talked to my boyfriend and family about it. They loved the idea and I decided to move forward. The rest is history!
With the Merlin character and the Go For Launch series, I wanted local kids to think, “Hey, that’s Merlin!” when they heard a test and be excited about living so close to something that’s changing the world. I thought this could have a profound impact on students’ interests and life trajectories if I worked to help local schools boost their STEAM programming. Despite being in a neck brace for half the time, I was driven by this vision and worked 12-16 hours a day for a few months to start and finish my book, Go For Launch: Merlin and His Friends. I was able to get SpaceX’s blessing after they reviewed the book and requested certain changes and began shipping orders in January 2017.
Do you have plans for future books?
Yes! I’m working on Go For Launch Comics Vol. 2 right now, a one-shot comic called Oppy Phone Home: The Rescue Mission, and am providing illustrations for an undisclosed retired NASA Astronaut’s book. I also have plans to eventually create two graphic novels — one non-fiction encompassing my artistic depiction of major milestones in spaceflight, and the other sci-fi, set in our solar system in the future. I’m really excited about all of these, but can’t disclose much about the last two projects right now. In addition to continuing to create my own books, I’m hoping to collaborate with more space professionals and astronauts in the future. I tend to overload my schedule and aim a bit high, but am super enthusiastic about what I do.
Can you tell us a little about the mission patches & rocket artwork you’ve designed?
I created a few tribute patches around SpaceX missions (a patch for the original Falcon Heavy lunar mission which sold out fast, Falcon Heavy Demo, Crew Demo-1, and Crew Demo-2), was commissioned to design a nitro cold brew coffee tap handle for SpaceX’s headquarters in Hawthorne, California in 2017, created the Apollo 12 50th Anniversary tribute patch that will be released this summer, and was commissioned by ULA CEO Tory Bruno to design a patch for United Launch Alliance’s CubeCorps, a STEM outreach-focused program in which they will be launching a series of cube satellites designed by students on multiple Atlas V flights.
A lot of online demand has been generated for my SpaceX tribute patches and I would love to design an official patch for SpaceX one day, but haven’t had any luck getting the company’s interest in welcoming art from a non-employee. Several other companies have shown interest, so I’m sure more patches will be released in the future. One of my dreams is to be asked to design an official patch for NASA.
What current or upcoming [NASA or commercial] missions are you most excited about?
The Nusantara Satu/SpaceIL Lunar Lander launching on Falcon 9 in a few days sounds pretty neat! I’m really looking forward to SpaceX Crew Demo 1 & 2, and the next Falcon Heavy launch of ArabSat 6A. I’m hoping to make it to one of those three launches. I attended the inaugural flight of Falcon Heavy and it was awesome beyond words. I’m also looking forward to the Boeing Starliner spacecraft demo flights on Atlas V, as it’s another essential step towards once again sending astronauts to the ISS from the United States. I would love to see a Delta IV Heavy launch in person and attend one of the ULA CubeCorps Atlas V launches I designed the mission patch for.
What are your thoughts on SpaceX commercial passenger Yusaku Maezawa’s #dearMoon project and his plans to invite artists along on the BFR’s inaugural commercial flight around the moon?
I think it’s probably the most expensive and audacious STEAM outreach stunt ever and potentially the beginning of large-scale space tourism. I call it a stunt because Mr. Maezawa is inviting famous artists of all kinds to create art and share their experience from space, which will boost publicity around spaceflight and the arts simultaneously...most likely in a very good way! This is a way to collaborate with high profile people, tap into their audiences, get people interested, and promote the idea so many astronauts call the “Orbital Perspective,” or the experience and mindset one develops looking back at the Earth from space and realizing humanity’s oneness.
Renowned creators will share content from space and be inspired by their experience in such a way that it could spill over onto their fan base like a ripple effect. The potential positive impact is huge, and I hope he will select people who fully understand their influence and treat it responsibly. Maezawa is a smart businessman and has a biotech clothing line that produces a smart body suit of sorts, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see that included somehow and for it to impact the value of the company. However, I think Maezawa’s intent behind this mission is largely philanthropic with the intent of boosting STEAM on a huge scale. It’s incredibly risky to launch non-astronauts into space, so I’m interested in what preparation measures this mission will include.
What advice do you have for young artists who are interested in creating SciArt?
Practice technique daily, find a specific subject that interests you and inspires you to create, find a mentor to help guide you or someone to look up to for inspiration, surround yourself with people who have your best interest in mind, don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to someone you admire, attend space events and meet new people, put your work out there on social media, welcome constructive feedback, don’t listen to detractors, study and learn good business practices if you want to make money, never plagiarize because it will kill your career, find your purpose for creating art, be patient, create something original and from the heart.
Which [historical or modern] SciArt creators, scicomm luminaries, astronauts (etc.) inspire you?
Artist Robert McCall, Artist Chesley Bonestell, Carl Sagan, Einstein (he was a great writer, too), Bill Nye, Neil DeGrasse Tyson (despite recent allegations, I think he does great work), Christa McAuliffe, Astronaut Judy Resnik, Astronaut Nicole Stott, Artist/Apollo 12 Astronaut Alan Bean, Astronaut Scott Kelly, Astronaut Ron Garan, Astronaut Clayton Anderson, my friend and Shuttle Seamstress Jean Wright, SpaceX President & COO Gwynne Shotwell, Iridium CEO Matt Desch, and I think a lot of us are inspired by Elon Musk in some way. I’m sure I’m forgetting a few.
Do you have any favorite STEM/scicomm/space-related characters in books/movies/other art forms?
No many particular characters, but I do have a list of favorite STEM movies and comics.
Characters: Wall-E, The Iron Giant, E.T.
Movies: First Man (2019), The Martian (2015), Interstellar (2014), Moon (2009), Wall-E (2008), The Iron Giant (1999), Contact (1997), Apollo 13 (1995), The Right Stuff (1983), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982).
TV: The Nat Geo Mars series
Comics: Jack Kirby’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Astro Boy, Descender, Ascender, Destination Moon, Explorers on the Moon, The Black Hole (Disney), Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and Planetes
Other: A hyper-realistic online video game called Star Citizen. I love watching people play that game on Twitch!
If you were a superhero, what would your go-to wearable tech device be?
Hmmm.... If I ever publish that sci-fi futuristic graphic novel I mentioned, you’ll see! ;-)
For even more rad #sciart and STEM conversation, join the exclusive Go For Launch Comics group on Facebook. But wait, it gets better and better, space fans! Abby hosts a weekly show called "Go For Launch LIVE" on YouTube and Twitch every Wednesday at ~8:00pm CST where she talks space, takes questions and requests, and even shows her "behind-the-scenes process for creating space art!" We can't wait to tune in and blast off with Abby Garrett and "Go For Launch LIVE!"