On April 8, 2024, Rochester will get a prime view of a rare total solar eclipse. It is an event unlikely to be repeated in Rochester during our lifetimes, as 375 years is the average number of years for a total solar eclipse to reappear over any specific location on earth.*
To mark the occasion, a poster exhibit created by Smithsonian artist and PhD astronomer Tyler Nordgren will make the rounds across Rochester, changing location each month until April’s totality. The Eastman School of Music hosts Nordgren’s posters for the month of June in Eastman’s East Wing, located on Main Street. The exhibited posters focus on western New York, including those created for the upcoming eclipse as well as other night sky posters created for local and national parks. In addition, Nordgren will feature posters created for the 2017 Great American Eclipse.
Although the path of the upcoming solar eclipse will span from Mexico up through Canada, with Texas as the southernmost viewpoint in the United States and then viewable transverse across the country up through western New York, the choice to exhibit the posters in Rochester is purposeful: Rochester’s location and weather position it for the best view. Nordgren explains, “Rochester is on what’s called the midline of totality. The duration of totality is going to last the longest. And that’s because the widest part of the moon’s shadow is going right over you, so you are in that shadow for the longest.”
Additionally, Rochester’s placement along Lake Ontario means that it has a slightly lower chance of cloud cover compared to other nearby destinations. Statistics are on our side: “I’ve gone outside and looked up at the sky every April 8 for about the last six, seven years. And about two thirds of the time, I’ve been able to see the sun. So, fingers crossed,” says Nordgren, who resides in Ithaca, New York.
Because of Rochester’s prime location, it will experience a major influx of tourism for the eclipse. The Eastman community will celebrate the eclipse with themed programming and concerts, yet to be announced (although a work like Holst’s The Planets is a given). The coordinator for the eclipse-related concerts, Priscilla Yuen, an assistant professor of collaborative piano at Eastman, has unusual experience with the task ahead. She previously organized eclipse-themed concerts at University of Missouri, her alma mater, for the 2017 solar eclipse.
“There is so much music and art themed after eclipses and space, it was awesome to share our music with such a passionate crowd of people gathered for the eclipse days before,” she says. “We at Eastman are excited to be involved with the Rochester community in this rare event. Getting to experience a total solar eclipse is an experience not many have. How lucky we are for Rochester to be in the path of totality for April 8, 2024.”
Nordgren explains why the experience is so sought out: “There is something about standing in that shadow of the moon, seeing the moon in the sun aligning with you, that will just make the hair on the back of your neck stand up straight. The first time I saw one, I knew all the science, I had studied this, I knew what to expect. And I was wrong. It was the most odd, inspiring thing I’d ever seen in the sky. And it’s for that reason that there are millions of people who chase these things all over the world.”
Although Nordgren makes his living now as an artist, he knows eclipses. He received his PhD in astronomy from Cornell University and then worked, among other places, in Southern California as a professor of astronomy. He took a sabbatical to study at the National Park Service, which resulted in a published book Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks. The book helped promote the national parks as an ideal place for stargazing due to the lack of light pollution.
However, when the book needed accompanying art, Nordgren was able to draw (literally) upon his lifelong love and talent as an artist to create astronomy-themed artwork. The art was inspired by old Works Progress Administration posters from the 1930s. His artwork caught attention and Nordgren began receiving requests to create night sky posters for the national parks that could be sold in gift stores. With the 2017 Great American Eclipse, Nordgren became even more in demand, creating eclipse-themed posters for cities and parks along the path of totality. His career shifted from astronomer to an artist of astronomy.
His posters have been acquired by the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. “As an astronomer, I never thought I’d wind up in the Smithsonian for my artwork,” says Nordgren.
An art deco aesthetic is the influence behind Rochester’s poster, which features a rainbow spotlighting a silhouette of downtown Rochester, a prism light effect created by the sun passing through a mirror. In designing Rochester’s poster, Nordgren wanted to capture Rochester’s rich history with film and optics.
“I designed that poster to really draw on a mid-century 1950s, which is a wonderful time in Rochester’s past,” he says. “But then I put in optical elements, different types of lenses and mirrors throughout the design and then really played up the fact that part of what makes a solar eclipse so special is the light we get from the sun, the way that light changes as the moon moves over the sun, and then eventually the light disappears.”
Nordgren hopes his posters capture the emotional experience of seeing a total eclipse and highlight the unique beauty of western New York. “Rochester has a freaking waterfall in the middle of downtown. I want people to realize what a beautiful place this is. And hopefully when they come for the eclipse, they’ll stay for the beauty.”
After Eastman, the posters will be exhibited at the following locations:
July, 2023: Flight Wine Bar
August, 2023: Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County
September, 2023: Nazareth College Arts Center
October, 2023: Stokoe Farms
November, 2023: RIT University Gallery
December, 2023: Webster Parks & Recreation
January, 2024: Town of Perinton Recreation Center
February, 2024: SUNY Brockport Tower Fine Arts Center
March through April 8, 2024: Rochester Museum & Science Center
April 10- 30, 2024: (tentatively) The Little Theatre
To learn more about solar eclipses, check out Nordgren’s 2016 book Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from the Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets.
*@rocsolareclipse informs us that Rochester’s next total solar eclipse will take place on October 26, 2144, a date to put on your great grandkid’s calendars.