When the Sun Goes Dark, Astronomer and Artist Tyler Nordgren Gets to Work

Arguably the world’s most well-known eclipse artist, Nordgren brings celestial events to life in a way that sparks the imagination.

A collage of posters advertising the April 8 solar eclipse in different locales
Courtesy of Tyler Nordgren

While some places in central and upstate New York are still blanketed in snow, the Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC) is heating up in preparation for the solar eclipse on April 8. As one of the communities in the path of totality, Rochester has for nearly a year now leaned into both the magic and the science with events, special programming and exhibits. One in particular currently on view at RMSC features a series of thirty posters reminiscent of vintage travel advertisements: they are simple, colorful and striking. Each has the distinctive light-rimmed circle of a full eclipse in the sky. Rochester’s 2024 eclipse poster, with its stylized city skyline, glows with rainbow colors shooting down from the sky.

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This is the traveling poster series’ second-to-last stop on its year-long journey around Rochester and the New York Finger Lakes region. “On April 9, it goes to The Little Theater in downtown Rochester because so many people wanted it,” Deb Ross, co-chair for the American Astronomical Society Solar Eclipse Task Force, told Observer. The exhibit, which features designs from both 2017 and 2024, has done its job. “People are so excited for the April eclipse; Dr. Nordgren really captures it all.”

A man wearing sunglasses and a gray shirt stands in a dessert with large rocks in the background
Dr. Tyler Nordgren. Courtesy of Tyler Nordgren

That would be Dr. Tyler Nordgren, an astronomer and arguably the world’s most well-known eclipse artist. The U.S.-based scientist, professor, Night Sky Ambassador to America’s National Parks and self-taught artist is the creative force behind the series of eclipse travel posters for U.S. communities and parks in the path of solar eclipse totality. In advance of the 2017 eclipse, Nordgren traveled around the country teaching people about solar eclipses and how to see them. In 2024, he’s been doubly busy.

“Solar eclipses create a great intersection of science, history, art, myth and awe,” he told Observer, though it’s worth noting that eclipses are only one of several subjects he tackles in his posters, which feature everything from observatories to Earth’s sister planets to National Parks after dark.

His passion for sharing the beauty of the night sky has turned America’s National Parks into the single largest source for public science and astronomy education in the world. Nordgren, first and foremost an educator, uses his artistic talents to bring celestial events to life in a way that sparks the imagination.

A colorful poster of a solar eclipse above a red barn and farm fields
The Finger Lakes region’s eclipse poster. Courtesy of Tyler Nordgren

Tyler Nordgren, space artist and Night Sky Ambassador

“I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a little kid,” Nordgren, who was born in 1969, said. “While I was growing up, there was the Viking landing on Mars, Voyager going to Jupiter and Saturn and the Apollo program. I was born the day Apollo 12 landed on the moon. I grew up knowing that the space shuttle was going to come.”

Young Nordgren’s fascination with space only grew after he learned that his fifth-grade principal had a niece who was one of the first women astronauts. When the principal discovered Nordgren wanted to become an astronaut, he brought his niece and other NASA workers to the school.

“Then Mount St. Helens erupted in 1987, which I could see from my backyard, and we had a total solar eclipse that went over my house,” he said. “Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ came out on TV, so there was a period of my childhood where science and space and all that stuff were just happening all the time.”

Nordgren earned a bachelor’s degree in physics before pursuing a doctorate in astronomy from Cornell University, specializing in dark matter. He eventually became a professor, but through it all, he’d been drawing—first, Disney characters copied from books, then rockets and cartoons for the campus newspapers in high school, college and grad school. When he was working on his first book (Stars Above, Earth Below: A Guide to Astronomy in the National Parks) and needed illustrations, it seemed natural to create his own.

SEE ALSO: The Most Unique Ways to Enjoy the Total Solar Eclipse

Although Nordgren was raised immersed in space, he didn’t have much exposure to the U.S. National Parks system outside of Boy Scouts activities in Oregon and visits to the wild ranges of Alaska. His first position after earning his doctorate in 1997 was at the United States Naval Observatory Flagstaff Station and Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, just hours away from Grand Canyon National Park; the eerily spiritual vistas of Sedona, Arizona; Navajo and Hopi Reservations; and several more national parks.

“That’s where I fell in love with national parks, canyons and the outdoors,” he said. “I resolved that when I finally got a sabbatical, I was going to find a way of doing it in the parks.”

He moved on to a tenured position in Southern California in 2001, finding himself once again within driving distance of National Parks: Death Valley, Zion, Joshua Tree and more. When he received tenure in 2005, he celebrated at Yosemite.

“I happened to see a sign for an evening ranger talk at the outdoor amphitheater about astronomy,” he said. “The Ranger talked about how dark the skies are in the National Parks, and as he’s talking, it’s getting darker and darker. Then the Milky Way came out, and I had this epiphany.”

Nordgren suddenly knew he needed to spread the word that the parks, with their protected natural environments, were the perfect place to observe the universe and all its glories. The National Park system was already measuring light pollution and leaning into the “dark skies” program, and Nordgren wanted to be a part of that. When his sabbatical finally came in 2007, he joined the National Park Service Night Sky Team and used his time out of the classroom to write Stars Above, Earth Below, a book describing ways visitors to U.S. National Parks can experience astronomy.

The book was a hit with both the parks and the visitors, and Nordgren developed an accompanying poster campaign adopted by the National Park Service. He’s credited with coining the term “Half the Park is After Dark.”

One of Nordgren’s ‘See the Milky Way’ posters. Courtesy of Tyler Nordgren

Drawing in ink, Nordgren developed a style with a retro, Art Deco feel that paid homage to the 1930s Works Progress Administration posters once found everywhere in U.S. parks. “They weren’t just pieces of art, they were created to inform the public and to encourage people to spend tax dollars and their money here in the US,”  Nordgren explained. “There’s beauty to be seen here. I’m an artist, but I’m an educator, too, so I wanted my art to educate.”

Like Stars Above, Earth Below, his posters were a hit with people and the parks. National Park Service representatives got in touch to ask if they could use the posters. Visitors wanted to know why they weren’t in the visitor center gift shops. Nordgren saw an opportunity and started printing his own merchandise, eventually turning it into a full-fledged business: the Space Art Travel Bureau.

Becoming an eclipse artist

The annular, or ring of fire, eclipse in 2012 opened up yet another opportunity for the scientist-turned-artist. The National Parks in the path of the eclipse were already buying his posters, so when he received an invitation to be the speaker at one of those parks for the eclipse, he jumped at the chance—and created a poster for it. “It became really popular, and pretty soon, more and more of the parks in the path of the eclipse asked me to design posters for them,” he said. And when his next sabbatical came around in 2014, he decided to write about eclipses.

A book cover for science book about solar eclipses featuring silhouettes of the earth, moon and sun
Nordgren published ‘Sun Moon Earth: The History of Solar Eclipses from Omens of Doom to Einstein and Exoplanets’ in advance of the 2017 eclipse. Courtesy of Tyler Nordgren

When the book, Sun Moon Earth, The History of Solar Eclipses, was published in 2016, 2017’s total solar eclipse was a few months away and he found himself on the receiving end of commissions not just from the parks but also from cities and communities in the path of totality. It was about then that he realized his avocation was becoming his vocation.

Today, Nordgren is a full-time artist widely known for his parks and eclipse posters. The Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum acquired his work from the 2017 North American eclipse, and his posters have hung at NASA Headquarters and in the White House—specifically his poster for President Obama’s final White House Astronomy Night.

On April 8, a total solar eclipse will cut through Mexico, the United States and Canada, completely blocking the sun in a 115-mile-wide path. For the first time since he was nine years old, Nordgren lives close to that path, and he couldn’t be more excited about it. He plans to view the eclipse from Fair Haven Beach State Park on Lake Ontario, but until then, he’s busy working with communities like Rochester to promote the celestial event.

Deb Ross first met Tyler at the 2019 American Astronomical Society Solar Eclipse Task Force meeting to help communities prepare for the total eclipse and knew his work had been acquired by the Smithsonian. “I went all fan-girl on him, and said, ‘I need you to do Rochester and we need to get this done now because we are preparing already… and you need to make ours the prettiest poster you’ve ever made,’” she said.

A colorful poster showing a city skyline and a waterfall
Nordgren’s eclipse poster for Rochester, New York. Courtesy of Tyler Nordgren

But that wasn’t all she wanted. Ross had what she describes now as an “evil plan.” When Nordgren visited Rochester the following month, she drove him around the city and pushed hard to get him involved in New York’s eclipse planning. “I told him all about our history as the optics and photonics capital of the world and how our theme for the eclipse was “Come Play With Light,” Ross said. The artist obliged, and the city responded—”going nuts” is how Ross described the locality’s reaction.

“When the Smithsonian acquired his artwork for the 2024 eclipse, I wanted western New York to be densely packed in there,” she said. “Nobody in the future looking at this art is going to in any way doubt how enthusiastic we were as a region.”

Nordgren is just happy to be doing what he loves—and that so many people are just as enthusiastic about astronomy as he is. His number one objective this year has been to encourage people within an hour’s drive of full totality to make the trek.

“Don’t miss it, don’t skip it, don’t say 99 percent is good enough,” he said. “When I finally got to see a total solar eclipse, I was twenty-nine years old, and it was a life-changing experience.”

Right now, in 2024, there are three times as many people living in the path of totality as there were during the last total eclipse. “Get yourself to one of those cities, small towns or anywhere in the path of totality,” Nordgren urged. “You will not regret it.”

A colorful poster showing Niagara Falls and a solar eclipse
Niagara Falls’ eclipse poster. Courtesy of Tyler Nordgren

When the Sun Goes Dark, Astronomer and Artist Tyler Nordgren Gets to Work