Growing up in the Sierra Nevada foothills, Forest Stearns spent his youth exploring California’s Gold Rush country and climbing rocks. Now he paints nature scenes on spaceships and quantum computers, combining his love of art and the natural world.
As he does on every Thursday night, Stearns and his family step into a Touchstone Climbing Center a few blocks from their home in Oakland, California. One evening, in the high-ceiling room with climbers scattered about, he walked over to a coffee table and picked up a copy of “National Geographic” to see a surprise inside – his latest project on display.
The story’s double-page spread showed a scientist dressed in blue scrubs, his face obscured by a shoebox-sized satellite covered in Forest’s distinctive art. Forest proudly had his partner Torie take a snap of him holding the issue to share with his friends.
As a child growing up in Sonora, a short distance from Yosemite, Stearns enjoyed riding horses and climbing trees. He picked up rock climbing as a teen at the nearby Grotto, a columnar basalt crag with striated walls breaching out of a 30-foot pit. It’s California’s most alien-like climbing area, even more so than Joshua Tree.
Forest moved to Yosemite out of junior college and drove the rafting truck at Curry Village for two summers. At the end of the season, he worked at the stables when the Merced River was too low to float. In his free time, he climbed and painted next to the river. From there he moved to Humboldt where he pursued his creative craft.
While earning his BFA, he focused on a style where street art met fine art and he started a collective called Empire Squared (E2) in a building in the grimy industrial part of town where he could smell seawater and could see the redwoods. He went to Greece during his final semester, painted figurative work and made his art with his feet in the Mediterranean Sea.
The moment he realized he could make a living with his craft came in 2005 when he was asked to illustrate 40 paintings for a children’s book called The Amazing Adventures of Ozzie the Otter. Inspired by this project, he looked up graduate programs to take his skills to the next level.
“Those three years at the Academy of Art was the hardest of my life,” Stearns tells ASN. “I felt like quitting all the time. It was like climbing where you take lots of falls and get up and do it again until you take it to the top.”
After earning his MFA, Forest worked at the largest art community website in the world, Deviant Art, where he worked as a beta tester and art director. His old Yosemite friend and art mentor Mike Dewey recommended him for the position.
Everything changed (again) when in 2012 he was invited to a venture capitalists campout in the Santa Cruz Mountains. There he met the owner of the earth imaging company Planet Labs (you know you hit it big when your URL is planet.com), which makes satellites.
Forest asked the owner of Planet Labs if knew of the pinup girls painted on WWII bombers. He approached him and said, “Robbie [Schingler], let’s paint on spaceships.” The question piqued his interest and Shingler asked Forest if he would like to manage and produce an Artists in Residence program for his fledgling company. “I said yes, and we can figure the rest out together,” Forest says.
“What I thought would be one satellite turned into 340,” Forest continues. He also painted rockets, radomes and rocket ships. Over the next five years, the company grew from 25 to 500 people, including Forest’s rotating 13 Artists in Residences.
“On the satellites, I painted migratory animals to watch us from space. Because humans are making bad choices daily, I used animals as a statement to be responsible and respectful of this world,” Stearns tells ASN. “And to say something bold with my street-art style.” With that project, Forest created the biggest art show in space.
“Deviant Art showed me how to talk to millionaires. Years later, Planet Labs got me used to talking to billionaire entrepreneurs,” he says. Working shoulder-to-shoulder with them, Forest learned that entrepreneurs are the artists of the business world.
After Planet Labs, Google quantum physicists asked him to produce an Artists in Residence program for them, and paint their quantum computers with his distinctive graphic nature-based work. He would also paint murals at their new laboratory opening in December 2019 in Santa Barbara, California. (If you’re unfamiliar with quantum computers, they look like a combination of a jellyfish and a Rebel ship in Star Wars.) Here, Google will share their next-generation computer technology to the world. They told him, “We want the engineers and the public to be totally inspired.”
“The physicists told me that by manipulating electrons they are speaking the language of nature,” Forests says. “They chose to work with me because my artwork also speaks nature in a visual language.”
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