When astronaut Karen Nyberg reached the top of the proverbial mountain, a philosophical question lingered in the air: Where does one go from here? For Nyberg, the panacea was to pursue projects of passion.
As an astronaut, engineer and artist that spent nearly three decades in human spaceflight, it follows that Nyberg possesses a genuine love and appreciation for Mother Earth. After retiring from NASA in 2020, Nyberg began to work in her Houston home-based studio to create art that reflected her time as an astronaut, living in space and Earth conservation efforts.
This month, Nyberg debuts a signature line of fabrics aptly titled Earth Views, based on 13 choice photographs she took of Earth while looking out of the cupola of the International Space Station, printed on organic cotton. With earthy and clear-cut fabric names such as Frost, Midnight, Desert Green, Redwood and Limestone, the collection launches in tandem with quilt patterns she designed to complement the fabrics. Nyberg worked with the team at Robert Kaufman Fabrics to design and distribute Earth Views, and separately with Aurifil Threads and Olfa Tools, which she said collectively helped her “navigate the sewing, quilting and textile design world over the last year.”
“My interest in textiles started very early in my life when my mom taught me how to sew; that interest stayed with me as a hobby for years,” Nyberg said. “Then, my experiences as an astronaut and seeing the beauty of Earth from afar inspired me to completely new levels of creativity. I flew two space missions to live and work on the ISS for a total of 180 days. The experience of living in space forever changed me and how I look at Earth.”
While living on the ISS, Nyberg said her favorite activity during downtime was gazing at Earth and taking photographs to try and capture the beauty. “The earth is simply so beautiful and connected that it is hard to put into words. Times when the clouds would make amazing images, or the Northern Lights would flash beneath me, or the sun would glint on the horizon of the earth, or when the blues of the oceans would confound my senses. Today, I look at those photographs and am inspired to create artworks from them.”
“I have always been interested in art and sewing. Most of my childhood memories are of times spent sewing, drawing and creating art. About the same time that I looked up at the sky and knew I wanted to be an astronaut, I sewed my first shirt, at age eight. For me, the technical aspects of sewing, drawing and art have always just made sense,” she told WWD.
Nyberg’s medium is fabric and thread, so it felt natural to pursue projects in the textiles segment. “I love to create textile artworks. The process of puzzling the fabrics and textures together engages both the technical and creative sides of my brain. Many astronauts write books to tell their stories of how the overview effect impacted them. Seeing that thin blue line around the earth from space makes you realize just how fragile the layer of protection around Earth is. It compels you to come back and tell the story to others. I was looking for a different way to reach people and tell the story in a more visual way.”
To develop new ideas on how to share her unique perspectives of being an astronaut, Nyberg worked with the Hipsetter Group, a brand strategy and talent management agency based on the Space Coast in Florida. “We came up with the idea of using my space photographs to create designs on fabrics and in textile artworks that would make a connection between living in space and living on Earth. It was important that the project makes sense and be authentic so we decided to start with the sewing and quilting community.”
As far as Nyberg knows, no other astronaut has designed textiles based on their photographs from space. “For me, designing these types of textiles brings together two key drivers of my life: the joy of being an astronaut living in space and the joy of creating art,” Nyberg explained. “I have a personal love of batik fabrics and the designs from my Earth Views quilting fabric line have a beautifully textured look that reminds me of batiks. So, this line represents things that I love dearly and are unique to me.”
Nyberg said that as an astronaut founding a brand and entering the textile industry, she experienced a steep learning curve. “I had to learn about the fabric design process, sourcing organic and recycled fabrics, the timelines associated with the fabric production process, and supply chain issues of getting the end product to consumers,” Nyberg told WWD. “I spent my entire career working in space operations and with scientific experiments, but creating a brand and learning how the art and textile industries work is all new to me. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to align with experts that know the business.”
During Nyberg’s last NASA mission, she designed and stitched together the first toy made in space: a stuffed dinosaur she made for her son by upcycling fabric from the lining of the Russian cosmonauts’ food containers. On that same mission, NASA invited people from around the world to join Nyberg in a project, the “Astronomical Quilt Challenge,” to sew blocks to add to a global community quilt based on Nyberg’s 9-inch square star-themed quilt block she made in space.
“NASA received thousands of quilt blocks from all over the world. The blocks were made into 28 king-sized quilts, which represent a truly interconnected world. The quilts and the individual letters and stories that accompanied them are part of the permanent collection at the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas,” Nyberg said.
But Nyberg’s talents extend into a slew of differentiated sustainability initiatives, such as a collaboration with Polestar on a worldwide commercial to launch the all-electric PS2 automobile and tell their story of electric cars for a better, cleaner future and scouting brand partnerships to help “reach a wider range of people on Earth to get them thinking about the beauty of our planet and how we can work together to best preserve it.” Nyberg said she’s also working on a museum tour that features space-themed maker events for fall 2022/spring 2023, as well as art commissions to showcase her work in galleries.
And as for what’s next, Nyberg aspires to work with retail brands to create space and earth-inspired textile designs to reach a larger mass-market audience. “At the end of the day, I am trying to use my astronaut perspective to make a positive difference in the world, draw attention to the beauty of life on this planet and how we can best preserve it, and be a good mom to my young son. Sticking with these core principles has enabled me to find and align with partners that make the best match.”
FOR MORE NEWS FROM WWD: