Sending art to space: An interview with artist Micah Johnson

Micah Johnson made spaceflight history last month.

On July 28, the companies Nanoracks LLC and Artemis Music Entertainment beamed two pieces of art to the International Space Station: a recording of Claude Debussy’s piano classic “Clair de Lune” and “Why Not Me,” a visual work by Johnson featuring his character Aku, a Black boy who dreams of becoming an astronaut.

Both digital files circled Earth once, came back down and were minted as non-fungible tokens — the first-ever space-flown music and visual-art NFTs, respectively. 

Photos: Building the International Space Station

“Why Not Me,” a piece that shows Aku journeying to the moon, will be auctioned via the NFT marketplace Notables on Tuesday (Aug. 10), with the net proceeds going to the nonprofit organization Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS). (The “Clair de Lune” NFT will go on auction at some point as well, with the winning bid also going to charity.)

Space.com caught up recently with Johnson, a former Major League Baseball player, to discuss his journey from athlete to artist, how Aku came to be and how the character, and space exploration, can inspire kids around the world. 

The following conversation has been edited for length. 

Space.com: You have a very interesting story — there aren’t a lot of folks who go from being a major leaguer to a professional artist. How did that happen for you? Did you always have these kind of dual dreams growing up, and you just transitioned from one to the other? 

Micah Johnson: Growing up, I never had dual dreams; I was so hyper-focused on playing baseball. Since I was very, very young — four years old — I had a one-track mind on baseball. But it’s kind of funny, because my mom and dad didn’t know anything about baseball, so we were always doing other things. My mom played piano, so I played piano and guitar and things like that.

Art came about in 2016 by just, I think, divine intervention. When I got traded to the Dodgers from the White Sox, Dave Roberts was the new [Dodgers] manager. And he had this routine where he’d call the new guys and the young guys up in front of the team, and they would have to introduce themselves and then say something that they enjoyed doing, like a hobby. 

It came to be my turn, and I didn’t want to say piano. Knowing Dave, he would probably roll a piano in — and I believe he actually did roll a piano in for somebody to play. Right before spring training, I did a paint-and-sip class, and that’s the first thing that came out of my mouth — “l like to paint.” They made me do a painting of [Dodgers legend] Maury Wills and present it to the team at the end of spring training. 

So I went to Walmart or Walgreens or whatever it was, I got some cheap paint, and I worked on this portrait of Maury Wills. And I presented it to the team. The Dodgers at that time, like they usually do, had a bunch of superstars that I looked up to growing up, a lot of veterans. And so I was pretty nervous, but a lot of these guys came up to me afterward and told me how good it was or how talented I was, and how impressed they were. 

That vote of confidence sparked something in me, and the rest of the year, I just painted. I was taking canvases on the road, drawing on the bus. That’s really how it began.

Space.com: That part of your story is pretty inspirational in itself — you found this passion as an adult, almost by accident. That sort of thing can happen at any time, as long as you get a little encouragement, an experience like that.

Johnson: Yeah, exactly, and that’s kind of what I’ve been preaching. That kind of encouragement, whether it’s true or not — and that painting was awful; it wasn’t a good painting at all — that kind of encouragement can go a long way for somebody. And how powerful those words are; words can be equally as hurtful. I don’t see any point of saying hurtful things to somebody or discouraging somebody if you really see that they’ve put in the effort. It goes a long way, to show support. It can change someone’s life.

Space.com; Yeah, it changed yours. And you’re kind of paying that forward with Aku. Could you talk a little bit about where the character came from and what he represents to you?

Johnson: Really what Aku is becoming, a lot of it is like a diary of my life. I’m not the type of person that’s going to go on the news or tweet about how great or how inspiring my story is. That’s not my style. But Aku came from a question from my nephew — if astronauts could be Black. And I wanted to use Aku as a palatable character, animation that kids can resonate with and see themselves in.

I can kind of infuse a lot of the stuff I’ve gone through in the storytelling of Aku. I have achieved my dreams. I had a dream of playing Major League Baseball from a young age, and I did it. So I want to show that that’s possible — anybody can do it, if you set your mind to it and work. And that’s kind of what I’m trying to infuse in Aku.

Space.com: Aku recently went to the space station and back. How does that feel? You’re the creator of the first NFT artwork that’s been to space.

Johnson: It’s crazy. It’s absolutely mind-blowing. The people behind it — [angel investor] Andy Haas and [Artemis Music and SEDS co-founder] Bob Richards — they thought enough of my character to put the effort in to get Aku to the space station. And that’s no easy task. I didn’t know what was involved in sending a file to the space station — who does that? And when I realized what really went into it, I was like, “This is absolutely incredible.” 

Space.com: What do you hope this new Aku piece gets across to people?

Johnson: I wanted to get across that this isn’t a billionaires’ space race. I hope to demystify what it takes to become an astronaut, what it takes to work within the state space program. 

I interviewed [NASA astronaut] Jeanette Epps a couple months ago — one of the coolest human beings I’ve ever met. I went in there super nervous, like, “Oh, man, I don’t know anything about becoming an astronaut.” And the way she broke it down was super palatable. I thought, “If only more kids could see that this is possible.” 

I hope that NASA looks at Aku as a character that can make space exploration and science more accessible. I hope they really do take that seriously, and not just because it’s my character. He has a lot of potential to inspire a lot of kids. His going to the space station is truly remarkable, and hopefully many kids will see that, and it will be impactful.

Related: International Space Station: Facts, history and tracking

Space.com: NASA seems to be making it a real priority to diversify its astronaut corps. There have been more women and people of color coming into the corps lately. And with the upcoming moon landing, NASA has stressed repeatedly that one of those astronauts is going to be a woman. So it seems like there are some good things happening on that front, and maybe Aku can accelerate them.

Johnson: Yeah, that’s what I’m hoping for. And even if it’s not being an astronaut, I hope the document can be a conduit to showcase what other professions exist inside NASA. Jeanette really opened my eyes to that. Astronauts have to lift weights, they have to train. And that’s a job you can have within NASA and play a direct role in sending somebody to space.

I would love for Aku eventually to be that conduit, whether it’s through educational programs with NASA or not. Because Aku is animated and faceless, he could be any kid. 

My daughter watches “CoComelon” — it’s her favorite show. And I think, “That could be Aku, showing the kids inside NASA, inside this sector of NASA.” I really see that for Aku, and I hope that’s the case.

Space.com: With the space exploration side of it — do you see space mostly as a backdrop to get that message across? Or do you have a passion for spaceflight, and that’s how it got worked in?

Johnson: I never really had a direct passion for space exploration. It started off with trying to light the candle for my nephew, one individual person, to show them what’s possible. 

And then, as it grows, I believe that space has been seen as this thing that’s unattainable. Like, you have to be a multibillionaire to go to space, or you have to be an astronaut from a very select, chosen group of people. So, for me, it started as, Space is a perfect example of something that seems unattainable but people do it. It’s not any different than me playing Major League Baseball. A very, very small percentage of people play Major League Baseball, like a couple thousand people total in the history of the league, and it’s a sport that’s played all over the world. But I did that. 

I’m using space as the candle lighter. It could be any dream.

Space.com: Have you talked to NASA at all about using Aku in their educational programs?

Johnson: Nothing formally yet, but I would love that. There are teachers using Aku in school right now organically, creating kind of lesson plans with Aku, and I’ve been engaging with them on a regular basis. It’s truly remarkable the impact it’s had on kids. A teacher texted me the other day and said he thought that the kids would forget about Aku over the summer. But they came back for school and were like, “Are we going to learn about Aku?” So I think that we can use this as a springboard to do a lot more innovative things.

Space.com: Do you know what’s next for Aku as far as his story goes, or the next artwork? Do you already have that lined up?

Johnson: There are obviously a lot of moving parts — not just the creative storyline but also the other verticals that ground him in the real world, so I’m trying to juggle all that. I think it’s just, keep putting out artworks while in the background working on the education and supporting educators who are using Aku right now organically with the resources they need or want. Doing that, and then working on a larger, more educational vertical.

Space.com: The net proceeds from the upcoming auction are going to go to SEDS. Why did you choose to do that? 

Johnson: Bob Richards and Andy Haas approached me and told me about SEDS, and I was like, “This is perfect.” They’re trying to put an emphasis on expanding the SEDS programming to HBCUs [historically Black colleges and universities], and I said, “That’s a no-brainer.” I really hope this is just the starting point for a relationship with SEDS, and to be able to provide the resources. 

Space.com: You mentioned that one of the messages you want to get across is that space is not just for billionaires. We’ve seen a lot of billionaire-space-race stuff over the past few months, with Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos going to space and Elon Musk building his giant Mars rocket. So people might think that this new era of spaceflight is going to be off limits to most folks. But that’s not necessarily true, or at least it doesn’t have to be. And that seems like a good message to get across now.

Johnson: Exactly right. A lot of it is going to come down to educating kids on what’s possible, showing them that there are people out there that have done it before. There are a good number of black astronauts that have done it before. We need to educate the next generation so that they’re not playing catch up again.

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook. 

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