Venus on Mars

Wrexie, Ada, let’s celebrate!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on March 24, 2010
Ada Lovelace, computer scientist

Ada Lovelace, computer scientist

Wrexie Louise Leonard, astronomer

I know way more about Wrexie Louise Leonard than Ada Lovelace; I’ve been researching and writing about her for several years.

She’s become “Lulu,” a primary character in my novel “Venus on Mars,” a secretary-turned-stargazer who learned more about the universe than the male astronomers of her time; yet due to constraints of Victorian culture she could not reveal her findings. She kept a secret journal instead; this book passes through generations of women in her family, finally landing in the uncertain hands of her great niece Venus Dawson, a young woman of the seventies trying unsuccessfully to “find herself,” meanwhile earning a living at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where she prints scientifically enhanced photos of Mars as captured by a series of Mars Mariner missions (she is not allowed to make adjustments to images – only the all-male science team can do this).

While Venus is a fictional character, Wrexie was real, lived and worked at Lowell Observatory from 1896 to 1916; she was fired and sent away upon the sudden death of her beloved boss Percival Lowell by his jealous widow and was never able to look through a telescope again. Her presence in the Lowell archives extends through years of observing logs, thousands of letters she typed for her boss Percival Lowell, and one exquisite photo of her posed beneath the big telescope, wearing her Victorian finery.  She was admitted into the French Astronomical Society in 1904 and published her drawings of Mars in “Popular Astronomy” in 1907.

Wrexie is not mentioned in written histories of women in astronomy; I’ve published one article about her in the Lowell Observer, but she deserves much more attention.

On this day in which we honor pioneers like Ada Lovelace, let’s not forget our ongoing collective struggle to achieve gender parity in science and technology.

I’ll be an artist this Saturday!

Posted in Author's Notes by janmillsapps on March 19, 2010

YMCA Artists' Faire

It’s in the schedule: 11-4 tomorrow (Saturday) I’ll be at the Stonestown YMCA annual Creative Arts Faire  (I wish they’d leave the “e” off – it’s a little too cutesy for me – but not my decision).

No, my book is not published, but I’ll be selling lovely “Venus on Mars” inspired postcard collages, showing my video trailer and giving my first reading from the new novel.

Dedicated time to be an artist does not come easily.  I had it last fall when I was on sabbatical, but now I’m back to bouncing between teaching and writing. Sometimes it’s hard to change gears, hats or whatever designates each and differentiates between them.

I’ve recently become aware that a lot of people about my age who opted long ago to be unfettered, full-time artists are in a near-panic mode now that they’re facing retirement, because they don’t know how to make the rest of their lives work financially. I’ve learned not to bring up my pension plan, retirement income I can actually live on – thanks to my many years in the CSU system.

If I’d allowed myself to become a fulltime artist, I’d surely have more to show for myself – novels, paintings, movies – but growing up as I did in the late sixties/early seventies, I resolved early on not to ever depend on anyone besides myself for a livelihood. Moreover, I come from proud working-class stock; not having a full-time job would have been shameful. When I got my first university teaching job, my dad said “that’s wonderful – now you don’t have to keep making those films” (as if I’d just been amusing myself until a real job came along).

Artists who work at full-time jobs have sometimes been considered less worthy of the title than those who go at it full-force, future consequences be damned. Sunday painters are known as mere dilettantes. Starving artists are more romantic than university professors. Coming down with consumption is more tragic but also more intriguing than the practice of preventative medicine made possible by workplace health benefits.

Too often people remember only half of Virgina Woolf’s famous quote about what a woman needs – not only a room of her own, she wrote, but also a way to earn money. She made her own way in the world, writing for money as well as for pleasure.

My character Wrexie/Lulu also took care of herself, earned a good living, and had investments, but she lost everything in the 1929 stock market crash.  She ended up destitute, demented, in one public nursing home after another until relatives took her in.

Whatever we sew in our younger years – wild oats or carefully cultivated crops – there’s no guarantee whether the seeds will reach fruition later on, whether we’ll have something nutritious to munch on as we age.

I sometimes regret that I waited so long to start writing again. I’m not even sure anyone cares what a 60-year-old woman has to say. But when I retire a few years hence, I can spend all my time as an artist – not just the five hours tomorrow – and that seems “faire” enough to me.