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Radcliffe Institute at Harvard Presents an Exhibition and Publication by Anna Von Mertens That Stitch Together Past and Present, Science and Art

In Measure, Anna Von Mertens explores the role of repetition, recognition, notation, and imagination in the development of astronomy.

Author By Radcliffe Communications Published 10.31.2018 Share this page on Facebook Share this page on Twitter Share this page on LinkedIn Copy Link

For Immediate Release

Contact: Jane F. Huber,
Director of Communications

CAMBRIDGE, MA—On November 9, 2018, The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University ( opens an exhibition of new works by the celebrated artist Anna Von Mertens.

Von Mertens uses quilting and drawing to examine the frontiers of human understanding. In this exhibition, commissioned for the Radcliffe Institute, Von Mertens explores the role of repetition, recognition, notation, and imagination in the development of astronomy. In particular, she investigates the life and work of Henrietta Leavitt, one of the women “computers” hired a century ago to study glass-plate astronomical photographs at the Harvard College Observatory.

"Anna Von Mertens is a conceptual artist who is best known for her hand-stitched black quilts that trace the paths of stars silently pivoting over epic or disastrous events in human history,” says Jennifer L. Roberts, Johnson-Kulukundis Family Faculty Director of the Arts, Radcliffe Institute, and Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities at Harvard.

“Inspired by the rigor and elegance with which she fuses such seemingly incongruous fields as quilting and astronomy, we invited her to the Radcliffe Institute to create a new exhibition,” Roberts explains. “Anna visited the Harvard College Observatory for research and became fascinated by the life and work of Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who studied glass-plate astronomical photographs at Harvard a century ago and whose work with variable stars led to the first method of measuring stellar distances. From Anna’s research emerged a breathtaking new body of work in both quilting and drawing that responds to Leavitt’s accomplishments as a woman astronomer, leaping from the scale of the stitch and the mark and the data point to the scale of the cosmos and back. We are thrilled to host Anna’s work in the gallery—it embodies the innovative thinking and cross-disciplinary provocation that defines the Radcliffe Institute.”

In the early years of the 20th century, working each day at her desk on Garden Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Henrietta Leavitt searched for patterns among the stars on the astronomical plates. Her findings eventually provided a unit of measurement for galactic distances and led in important ways to our current understanding of the shape of the cosmos.

Von Mertens’s meticulous stitches and intricate graphite marks reimagine Leavitt’s patient work, exploring the power of single, measured actions as units of understanding. Translating cutting-edge astronomical data visualizations into drawings and hand-stitched quilts, Von Mertens unspools computational algorithms in time, thread, and graphite.

As Von Mertens explains, the “exhibition is built on many units of measurement: the length of a single stitch, the density of lead in a 2H or 3H pencil, the distance a beam of light travels in a year, the brightness of a single star, the span of a life lived. Each unit alone holds something: the echo of its making, the marking of time, the beauty of its specificity. Each unit accumulated gains something; with repetition, form takes shape and shape takes meaning.”

Exhibition organized by Jennifer L. Roberts, Johnson-Kulukundis Family Faculty Director of the Arts, Radcliffe Institute, and Elizabeth Cary Agassiz Professor of the Humanities, Harvard University, with Meg Rotzel, arts program manager at Radcliffe.

An Exhibition by Anna Von Mertens

November 9, 2018–January 19, 2019
Opening discussion: November 8, 2018, at 5 PM in the Knafel Center
Reception to follow

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery
Byerly Hall, 8 Garden Street

Works in the Exhibition

The stars fading from view on the morning of Henrietta Leavitt’s birth, July 4, 1868, Lancaster, Massachusetts
The stars returning into view on the evening of Henrietta Leavitt’s death, December 12, 1921, Cambridge, Massachusetts
2018, hand-stitched cotton, each 54×100 in.

Negative and Positive Plates B20667 and D16409, Nebula in Orion, Oct 26, 1897
2018, pencil on paper, 22×30 in.

Shape/View series:
2015–2017, all works hand-stitched cotton
View II, 54×46 in.
View III, 43×57 in.
View V, 59×47 in.
View VI, 67×39 in.


A 50-page illustrated publication accompanies the exhibition. It includes artist’s statements and a biography of Henrietta Leavitt by Anna Von Mertens and an essay by Jennifer L. Roberts.

About the Artist

Anna Von Mertens received her MFA from the California College of the Arts and her BA from Brown University. Her work has been exhibited widely throughout the United States, including at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Ballroom Marfa, the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, the RISD Museum, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum. She is the recipient of a 2010 United States Artist Fellowship in Visual Art and a 2007 Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Award.

About the Gallery

As one of several exhibition spaces at the Radcliffe Institute, the Johnson-Kulukundis Family Gallery is part of the Institute’s effort to promote visual art as a form of advanced study and to provide a unique space for artistic experimentation and dialogue on the Harvard campus. Exhibitions feature contemporary art that advances interdisciplinary conversation across the vibrant intellectual communities at the institute, Harvard, and beyond. Gallery publications similarly emphasize experimentation and dialogue by providing artists, faculty, and students with the opportunity to engage creatively with the exhibition book form.

Measure Gallery Series

Throughout the course of the exhibition, the gallery will host a series of events in which Harvard students, faculty, and staff members from across the disciplinary spectrum respond to Anna Von Mertens’s work.

Astronomical Glass Plate Open House

November 14, noon, and December 10, 3:30 PM
Display of and Q and A about the glass plates that Henrietta Leavitt used to study and measure celestial objects.

VISION LAB: A Performative Conversation on “Frontiers of Human Understanding”

November 15, 3:30 PM
A creative and performative discussion of spiritual, intellectual, artistic, and environmental possibilities inspired by the exhibition.

The Cloths of Heaven: Live Performance by the Harvard College Opera

November 16, 3:30 PM, and December 6, 3:30 PM
Harvard College Opera celebrates astronomical journeys, celestial joy, and out-of-this-world inspiration in a recital of art songs, arias, and world-premiere compositions.

Stairway to Heaven: Henrietta Leavitt and the Cosmic Distance Ladder

November 27, 3:30 PM
The science and the controversies behind the exhibition’s exploration of cosmic distance with the astrophysicist João Alves RI ’19 and Alyssa Goodman RI ’16, faculty codirector of Radcliffe’s science program and Robert Wheeler Willson Professor of Applied Astronomy at Harvard.

Live Performance: Preparatory Musical Readings of the Hanging Quilts of Measure

November 28, noon
Max Murray (tuba) and Adi Snir (saxophone, trumpophone) perform the art of the exhibition as musical compositions.

The Space Between: A Live Performance by the Harvard Ballet Company

November 29, 3:30 PM, and December 7, 3:30 PM
The Harvard Ballet Company offers an improvisational dance installation inspired by the exhibition.

Philosophical Threads: Discussion on Aesthetics with Edward J. Hall

November 30, noon
A discussion of aesthetics and elegance in science and art with the philosopher Edward J. Hall.

Kilo Girl Hours at the Harvard Observatory

November 30, 3:30 PM
Discussion of the scientific and historical value of the female computers’ notations on the astronomical glass plates.

Visible and Invisible Lines: Quilts and Art

December 5, noon
Discussion with Felicity Lufkin, a cultural historian of quilts and quilt making. 

About the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University

The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study is a unique space within Harvard—a school dedicated to creating and sharing transformative ideas across all disciplines. Each year, the Institute hosts 50 leading scholars, scientists, and artists from around the world in its renowned residential fellowship program. Radcliffe fosters innovative research collaborations and offers hundreds of public lectures, exhibitions, performances, conferences, and other events annually. The Institute is home to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library, the nation’s foremost archive on the history of women, gender, and sexuality. For more information about the people and programs of the Radcliffe Institute, visit

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