Gavin Pretor-Pinney is a British writer and cloud enthusiast. His passion for cloud watching led him to create the Cloud Appreciation Society, an international network of cloud lovers who post pictures of cool cloud formations online.
As part of the Weisman Art Museum’s exhibit “Clouds, Temporarily Visible,” Pinney will speak at the Weisman on Wednesday at 7 p.m.
How did you discover you have this passion for clouds?
I think people first become interested in clouds when they are young — that was certainly the case for me — around the age of 5 or 6. I just found them weird and intriguing.
When I got older, I realized that it’s quite a weird relationship we have with clouds, because, certainly in the U.K., people like to complain about them because we get a lot of them. People tend to forget about the magical, beautiful aspect of clouds and think of them as nothing more than things that get in the way of the sun.
I think that’s a shame, so I started the society to kind of stand up for them.
Did you find that other people felt like this about clouds and that there should be a group?
I started [the Cloud Appreciation Society] just over 10 years ago, and when I put up the website the one thing that really took off was the photo gallery.
Suddenly people started sending in photographs from all around the world, and that really came in a deluge. There were many people that had taken photographs of the sky and didn’t really know who to show them to or didn’t really have anyone to share them with, so they gravitated towards the society.
We have 10,000 or 15,000 photos now, all of them categorized into the type of formations that are there. You can only get that from having this network of sky-aware, sky-conscious people around the world.
I always think of cloud spotting as a frame of mind: It’s not about going somewhere or having some point to doing cloud spotting, it’s all about being receptive and being prepared to stop what you’re doing and take a moment to maybe photograph it or maybe just enjoy it, see it and let it go.
Especially in a society where everyone’s going and going, there’s a lot of value in stopping and looking at something nice that’s almost always there.
Exactly. It’s useful as a kind of way of de-focusing your mind. It’s a different mode of the brain when you’re gazing up at clouds.
We don’t really allow ourselves much space to do that these days. The mobile devices we always have with us [provide] something to focus on and something to pay attention to.
I think the sky is very valuable in giving us or reintroducing that space that allows the brain to coast, that allows that idling to happen, and that’s useful for creativity and the creative mind.
What will you be speaking about at WAM?
The things we’ve been talking about will be in there, but I also want it to be informative.
You can enjoy the sky without knowing the names of all these different cloud formations, but for me, that’s something I like to teach people when I give talks.
It’s quite funny in a nerdy way to know the different cloud types, how to know your altocumulus undulatus from cirrus radiatus. But also knowing the name of something has a big effect on the attention you pay to it — you’re drawn to it more.
I might even do a little science demonstration to demonstrate how and why a certain cloud formation forms.
And since the talk will be in a gallery setting, I’ll talk about clouds in art and how the sky has been both a challenge and an inspiration for artists throughout the history of art.
Why clouds in particular? Why not trees or flowers or something else?
I think perhaps that they’re such evocative things. You might not get this much over the States, but I feel there is a need to stand up for clouds. There aren’t many people going around saying, “I hate flowers.”
But more importantly, this kind of magical quality they have of appearing and disappearing — there’s this poetic quality of the sky that I think you don’t get with some other aspects of nature and our surroundings. I think that makes them a very rich subject for artists and poets and writers, and you find that throughout human existence.
You have to be idle, you have to be in an aimless frame of mind to be paying attention to clouds. Something can be aimless without being pointless.
“Cloud Lovers, Unite!”
Where Weisman Art Museum, 333 E. River Parkway, Minneapolis
When 7 p.m. Wednesday
Cost Free, but reserve tickets ahead of time