Watching the Moon

I have been watching for the moon since November 30, 1994. On that morning, I was surprised to spot a crescent moon low in the eastern sky at 6:30 AM. From nursery rhymes I had always assumed the moon was a nighttime visitor, and I was puzzled to see it rising at the same time I was. It hit me that I knew almost nothing about the moon, and I decided to watch for it and see what I could teach myself just by looking. I made a sketch in my journal of the moon as I’d seen it.

first moon sighting


I went out that night to look for it again. I couldn’t find it, nor could I find it the next night or the night after that.

It was 11 days before I saw the moon again, still rising in the east, but this time at 4:50 in the afternoon. I made a drawing of what I saw. I spotted it again, two days later. Then the moon disappeared for five weeks. When I found it again, a nearly full moon, setting in the west at 7 AM, I began to realized that I needed a way to record my observations that had some relative standard of measurement for comparison. I devised this symbol, “My Watchful Eye,”to mark its relative height in the sky, east to west.

My Watchful Eye

I used my arms to gauge the height of the moon, and I soon decided to swap east and west from our conventional map orientation that has east on the right-hand side and west on the left, because when I usually view the moon, out my front door, east is to my left and west to my right. Since I was assuming the role of a preliterate sky-watcher, I decided I would make the symbols fit my needs, not the conventions of mapmakers.

Swapping the directions

The moon was harder to find than I expected, In the first 67 days of looking, I only saw it 9 times. Partly the weather was to blame, but mostly, I had no idea where and when to look. The moon never seemed to be in the same place twice. Sometimes it seemed very low in the south and sometimes high and to the north. I added a tic-tac-toe symbol to help me record this north-south shift.

Tic Tac Toe Symbol

After several months of recording what I saw in my journals, I decided to compile my observations in a calendar-like chart. At this point a number of ideas came together. I had been thinking about preliterate peoples and how they might have amassed the information needed to construct Stonehenge and other calendar-based monuments. I discovered the art of Alfred Jensen, wonderful paintings and drawings that were based on number systems, calendars, and other kinds of information, and I realized I had information of my own which could be painted or drawn. And while I had begun to have better success at locating the moon, I still was totally confused about its rising and setting times and movements, and by compiling my observations I hoped the patterns might become more visible. 

First Moon Chart, 1995, graphite, china marker, marker, ink, on paper, 18” x 24”

One of the first things I learned from compiling my sightings was that I had to give up my idea of the moon as a nighttime phenomenon.

 At least half my sightings took place in daylight. Something else that became very evident was that the weather in Chicago is not at all conducive to sky-watching. I had determined that the moon did not stick to a 24-hour schedule, but I was confused as to whether its “day” was shorter or longer than the sun’s. As I discussed my confusion with my neighbor, she decided it was time to look at an encyclopedia. I had purposely avoided any kind of research up to this point because I was determined to see what I could teach myself strictly by looking. But I was confused enough not to stop Jan from pulling out her World Book.

I read just enough to clear up two problems—the length of the lunar “day” was over 24 hours, so the moon was rising about an hour later each day. If I saw it directly overhead at 8 PM one day, the next day I would have to wait until almost 9 PM for the moon to be in the same position. And I learned that the phases of the moon keep to a strict schedule—the full moon rises very close to sunset and sets very close to sunrise. The new moon rises with the sun and sets with the sun. The full moon is always seen at night; and the new moon is hard to see because it is so thin and pale to begin with and travels with the sun. Once I understood these patterns, I had much more success finding the moon. 

Typical Moon Chart, 2004, ink, china marker, graphite on paper, 18” x 24″

But new questions continued to arise. Where I live, in the Northern Hemisphere, the full moon in winter is found to the north, and the full moon in summer is found to the south, and the sun keeps an opposite pattern. But within each lunar month the moon seems to shift from north to south. I have been attempting to determine when the seasonal shift takes place, and whether it is gradual or sudden; and when in a single lunar month do the shifts take place, and again, are these gradual or sudden? For the second exhibition of the Moon Project, I decided to make a chart of what I call the North-South Shift. The first time I displayed this chart it had aesthetic appeal, but did little to give meaning to my observations.

During an Artist’s Residency at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest, IL, I reinstalled the North-South Shift.

The North-South Shift at Ragdale

 I decided to draw the installation on graph paper, thus reducing the scale.

The North-South Shift Distilled V, 2003, graphite, china marker, colored inks, on graph paper, 17” x 25”

 The movement of the moon became more evident and suggestive of a wave pattern.

From the first, these vellum sheets with colored squares and white lines, reminded me of medieval sheet music and illuminated manuscripts.

Detail—the North South Shift, graphite, colored inks, china markers, acrylic white on vellum, map pins over black paper over paper towel. Each sheet 9” x 6”

The roll of paper towel forming horizontal strips across the walls re-enforced this impression. I decided to translate the spatial shifts of the moon into musical intervals. Using a vellum sheet with a musical staff drawn to the same scale as the tic-tac-toe pattern, I was able to “compose” the music inherent in the movement of the moon. Wherever the stamp of the moon hit on the musical staff, that was the note I wrote down. 

Musical Staff template superimposed over 2 moon sightings

I did not bother with tempo or key or other conventions of western musical notation, but the sheet music I created is legible and playable. Visually it conveys the pattern of the movement, and aurally it also conveys the wandering, but repeating movements of the moon.

Red Notes Sheet Music, 2005, red and black ink, graphite, on paper, 24” x 36” (2 sheets, each 24” x 18”)

This “music” has made the recurring patterns much more evident. By reconfiguring how to portray the information to make it more legible or visible, I have begun to focus my observations to pay closer attention to these questions. The longer I observe, the more informative my observations.

Typical Moon Chart, 2004, ink, china marker, graphite on paper, 18” x 24”

The Moon Project is not about the moon as much as about my relationship to the moon. I have learned quite a lot about the patterns of the moon and its movements, but more importantly, I have come to a different understanding about time and opportunity. The moon is not visible only at night or at the same time every day. I have to fit my schedule to the moon’s, and I have to seize the opportunity to record the moon when it is visible, not when it is convenient. If I miss seeing the moon (bad weather, too many trees or high buildings, forgot to look) that chance is gone. But each day presents a new opportunity.

Ben Dallas, a fellow artist, described this project as “Outsider Science,” and I think that is very appropriate. I have no real scientific training, but I am intrigued by the natural world. The Moon Project has allowed me to reconnect with my love of natural history and the outdoors, and also my original field of anthropology. But it is my training as an artist that has provided the means for organizing my observations in a meaningful way. The Moon Project is an on-going exploration. As new questions are raised I search for new ways to visualize and organize the information. It is a visual journal, a record of opportunities taken and opportunities lost—time made visible.

View The Growth of the Moon Project Below!

1997 – The School of the Art Institute of Chicago BFA show, Chicago, IL

I have had the opportunity to install the Moon Project in a variety of venues, starting with my BFA show when I graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997.

The Moon Project at my BFA show, School of the Art Institute of Chicago,1997

2002—Harper College, Palatine, IL

The second opportunity was an installation for the Art Department at Harper College in Palatine, IL, 2002.

The Moon Project at Harper College, Palatine, IL

2005—The Adler Planetarium, Chicago, IL

In 2005 the Adler Planetarium hosted the INSAP V conference (Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena) and I was able to install 10 years’ worth of charts and drawings, along with a case of journals and log books, at the Adler. I also added a video to the exhibition.

Red Notes as Gregorian Chant

I turned my “Red Notes” musical score over to my cousins, Walter Mayo, and his son, Andy Mayo, who is a music teacher and composer, and they agreed to produce a sound piece based on my observations. Andy wrote a poem about his experiences of observing the moon and asked a friend, Wallace Paprocki, to translate the poem into Latin. With this text, Walter and Andy created a Gregorian Chant which reflects both the shifting movements of the moon and a haunting reference to early spiritual music.

The Gregorian Chant, called Moon Song, created by Walter and Andy Mayo and myself, is based on observations of the lunar quarters (first quarter, full moon, third quarter, new moon) or the closest observation I was able to make of each quarter. The music covers a period of five and a half years of observations.  

Click on the play button below to listen to Moon Song, a modern day Gregorian chant.

2006—The Fermilab, Batavia, IL

In the fall of 2006 I had the opportunity to install the Moon Project at the Art Gallery of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. The gallery is quite large and could accommodate not only the complete set of moon charts, covering nearly 12 years of observing the moon, but also the North-South shift (Ragdale version), a number of drawings which had never before been displayed, a selection of journals and logs, and a wall installation of completely new moon music.


Play It Yourself Moon Music at the Fermilab

Play It Yourself Daily Moon Music, 2006, variable size, wire, colored paper, screws, Teacher Tape, and toy piano.

This wall installation is actually a musical score based on one year of observing what I call the North-South Shift of the moon. Each note represents one day in the year. The notes begin with December 21, 2003 and continue through December 22, 2004. Each row ends with either the equinox or solstice, so the rows represent the seasons in this descending order: Winter; Spring; Summer; Fall. The colors of the notes are coded to the toy piano so you can play this musical score yourself. The black diamonds represent days when I did not see the moon. I suggest for these “notes” you (gently) bang the top of the piano with your fist.

The Dead Ends

I call these pieces “Dead Ends” because I no longer continue to make these drawings. The “Birds and Moons” proved too hard to transport, so I keep similar information in my journals. The “Sky Portraits” also proved too difficult to keep up with when I travel. Also, I do not have the setup to make more handmade paper at this time. I may pursue the “Butterfly Effect” more fully, when time permits. This drawing is actually a graph of the number of minutes later each day the moon rises (gold squares) and sets (silver squares.) I use the Chicago Tribune weather page as my source for the rising and setting times, so this drawing and “Skyscrapers,” which is a different version of the same information, are not derived from personal observation. Perhaps because of that I feel less committed to these drawings as subjects.

2007—The Ragdale Foundation, Lake Forest, IL

More Moon Music at Ragdale

I spent the month of February, 2007, at the Ragdale Foundation, in Lake Forest, Illinois. I focused on moon music, completing a new musical score which is drawn from six years of daily moon observations. Each year was drawn on its own staff, beginning with the first full moon following the Winter Solstice. Starting on Dec. 21, 1999, I converted my observations into musical notes and drew the notes on a scroll of vellum. 

2009—The Louisiana Art and Science Museum, Baton Rouge, LA

In 2009 I was invited to install the Moon Project charts and several wall installations at the Louisiana Art and Science Museum for an 8-person show, Starry Messenger: Galileo’s Vision in the 21st Century. This museum is located in a retrofitted train station and I was able to install 176 Moon Charts along one extremely long wall.

2010—The United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, CO

Field Notes and Artifacts: An Anthropology of the Moon, a one-person show, at the Art Gallery of the US Airforce Academy in Colorado Springs, CO. This was a much smaller space and only fragments of various parts of the Moon Project could be displayed.

2017—The International Chamber Artists, World Premier of Wolf’s Moon, Chicago, IL

Wolf’s Moon composed by Patrick Godon, performed by the International Chamber Artists

I continue to find the translation of moon observations into musical scores one of the most exciting and fruitful aspects of this project. The movements of the moon are visually more evident when drawn as musical notation than in any other form of representation I have tried so far.

I was introduced to Patrick Godon, composer, artistic director of the International Chamber Artists, and principal pianist for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, by Amy Alznauer, a mutual friend who is a math professor and writer of children’s books. She was intrigued by the Moon Project and saw new possibilities in its connection to music. Patrick visited my studio, studied the website, and decided to compose a new work of chamber music inspired by the artwork and the Red Notes musical score from the Moon Project. The World Premiere was in June of 2017.

What does this new composition sound like? Here’s a review from Amy Alznauer:

“Have you ever wondered what the moon sounds like? In a gorgeous original composition for flute, piano, tuba, French horn and narrator, Patrick Godon imagines just that. Inspired by Chicago naturalist and [artist] Sallie Wolf, who beautifully recorded years of the moon’s north-south shifts on musical staff paper, Patrick creates a sometimes ethereal, sometimes ecstatic melody. As the flute follows the actual lunar notes, you have the visceral sense of hearing the moon speak, or rather sing. The two horns enter like wolves, half-valve, mournful, crooning up at the sky. But as the howls accelerate, they become otherworldly, like some distant, interstellar wind.

Later the horns and piano join with the flute in what might be a dance of earth and moon, or a dance of planets, or a dance of a person looking up at the moon day after day, sometimes glimpsing it, sometimes thwarted by clouds, but continuing to wait to see what might come to pass. Wolf’s Moon is unlike any other piece of music you will ever hear. It is at once data and song, at once of our world and of the heavens, at once melody and atmosphere, both spare and rich. Sallie Wolf once asked herself, “What might I see if I looked every day?” And now Patrick beautifully answers, “If you looked every day, you might hear this.” In Wolf’s Moon, you literally feel the dedication of artists, Sallie’s decades of observations, Patrick’s long-trained and finely tuned ear, and the dedication of our moon that for eons has silently risen and fallen but now, finally, is given voice. Come hear and be transported by this ode, this prayer, this bizarre and beautiful lunar song.”

Become a Part of the Moon Project

Click here to download a printable postcard. Record a moon sighting and mail the card to my studio. Your sighting will be included in the Do It Yourself Virtual Moon Installation.


Sky Portrait I, 1996, ink, watercolor, gouache, on handmade paper, 22” x 24 ½”