JOHN KELLY’S WASH­ING­TON

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - john.kelly@wash­post.com Twit­ter: @johnkelly For pre­vi­ous col­umns, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/johnkelly.

An­swer Man has the story on the L’En­fant Plaza sta­tion’s fetch­ing mu­rals of ca­nine as­tro­nauts.

Is the mu­ral de­pict­ing a space­walk at one of the ex­its from the L’En­fant Plaza Metro sta­tion a por­trait of a par­tic­u­lar astro­naut, or is it an artist’s ren­der­ing of a gen­eral sub­ject?

—David K. Rath­bun, Alexan­dria, Va. It’s a dog. To be fair, David knows that now. When An­swer Man got in touch with him, David had fig­ured that out (and was feel­ing a bit sheep­ish). But it’s a good question none­the­less. Af­ter all, the first an­i­mal in space was a dog: the brave cos­mo­ca­nine Laika.

There are ac­tu­ally two mu­rals in that sta­tion: a space­walk­ing dog above the Sev­enth and D streets exit and a dog in a space sta­tion above the L’En­fant Plaza exit.

In both pho­tos, the dog is wear­ing a NASA space­suit.

“I was re­ally happy to have it,” said the artist Wil­liam Weg­man, who cre­ated the works, called “H-E-L-L-O” and “SPACE SET.”

NASA lent Weg­man the suit in 2001. It’s not an ac­tual space­suit, but a fac­sim­ile of a shut­tle-era EVA — ex­trave­hic­u­lar ac­tiv­ity — suit that NASA used for pub­lic events.

Weg­man re­ceived the suit as part of a NASA art pro­gram that was, um, launched in 1962. Although dozens of still and mo­tion pic­ture cam­eras were cap­tur­ing nearly ev­ery sec­ond of a mis­sion, NASA’s thenad­min­is­tra­tor, James Webb, thought artists could add some­thing ex­tra.

As H. Lester Cooke, a Na­tional Gallery cu­ra­tor who as­sisted with the ef­fort, put it: “It is the emo­tional im­pact, in­ter­pre­ta­tion and hid­den sig­nif­i­cance of these events which lie within the scope of the artist’s vi­sion.”

Dur­ing the run of the NASA art pro­gram — it ended in 2010, the vic­tim of bud­get cuts — such artists as Robert Rauschen­berg, Nor­man Rock­well and Andy Warhol took part.

Weg­man found the space­suit cap­ti­vat­ing.

“It just got me go­ing crazy with it,” he told An­swer Man. “I started to make sets out of dis­carded Sty­ro­foam con­tainer units.” (They look like the ma­te­rial that a piece of stereo equip­ment comes packed in.)

Weg­man set up the mock space­ship in his stu­dio in New York City’s Chelsea neigh­bor­hood.

“What was re­ally amaz­ing was this dog I had named Chip,” said Weg­man, 73. “He was so calm. I could put him in­side the suit, cover him and put the lid down, and he would just be there. It was un­canny.”

Weg­man is known for pho­tos fea­tur­ing slinky, gray Weimaran­ers, start­ing in the 1970s with one named Man Ray.

“I was work­ing at a time where al­most anything be­came us­able in my work, whether it was thrift-store ob­jects or street finds, anything to trans­form the dog into not only hu­man crea­tures, but land­scapes or anything,” he said.

In 2001, Weg­man cre­ated a trip­tych for NASA that shows a space­suited dog float­ing in space, con­nected by a hose to the mother ship where an­other dog waits. It’s called “Chip and Batty Ex­plore Space.”

Some­how, the thought of a mu­ral us­ing some of the out­takes from that ses­sion arose. It be­came a joint project of NASA, the D.C. Com­mis­sion on the Arts and Hu­man­i­ties and WMATA. NASA and the arts com­mis­sion split the $80,000 cost of fab­ri­cat­ing and in­stalling the 10-foot-di­am­e­ter mu­rals, which are made of porce­lain enamel-cov­ered metal.

“The qual­ity is quite ex­cep­tional,” said Lau­rent Odde, man­ager of WMATA’s Art in Tran­sit pro­gram, which has placed 41 pieces of art in two dozen Metro sta­tions. “Weg­man him­self over­saw the pro­duc­tion or checked that the qual­ity was go­ing to be up to his stan­dards.”

The process was a slow one. Ac­cord­ing to a 2004 Wash­ing­ton City Pa­per ar­ti­cle, it took years to ham­mer out the con­tract. The mu­rals were fi­nally un­veiled in 2005.

Said Odde: “I think it’s some­thing that re­ally helps beau­tify the space.”

Said Bert Ul­rich, who ran the NASA art pro­gram when Weg­man bor­rowed the suit: “It was a re­ally fun, whim­si­cal piece that he did for NASA and later for Metro.”

And, with the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum not far away, the mu­rals are in a fit­ting lo­ca­tion.

Of course, none of it would have worked with­out Chip, a dog who def­i­nitely had the right stuff.

“You could put anything on his head and he wouldn’t show any re­ac­tion,” Weg­man said of Chip, one of 10 Weimaran­ers he’s owned since 1970.

“Some dogs, their ears go back. This dog, it was al­most like he didn’t have any cells in his brain that would tell him some­thing was hap­pen­ing to him . . . . He was a re­ally won­der­ful crea­ture.”

JOHN KELLY/THE WASH­ING­TON POST

In 2005, two large pho­tos by Wil­liam Weg­man were in­stalled at the L’En­fant Plaza Metro sta­tion’s ex­its. Weg­man’s sig­na­ture Weimaraner is in a space­suit, a nod to the Na­tional Air and Space Mu­seum.

John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton

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