Rolling hills dotted with illuminated Virginia dogwoods and a towering archway set the scene for the University Libraries’ new Virtual Sculpture Garden. Funded by an Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT) rapid response grant and in collaboration with the Moss Arts Center, the Virtual Sculpture Garden takes viewers to a place where beauty and design come together to keep the arts community connected during a time of physical distancing. 

Principle Investigator and University Libraries’ Creative Services Coordinator Trevor Finney envisioned this oasis for the last few years. Before coming to Virginia Tech, Finney worked as a 3D modeler for virtual world companies and has relied heavily on the design skills honed during his time in the University Libraries to inform the design of the Virtual Sculpture Garden environment. 

“Working on the library communications team has offered me insights into how I can craft critical messaging that surrounds the project and will help in the coming months as we begin our broader outreach efforts,” said Finney. “I am fortunate to be working in a place with the people and the resources necessary to bring an idea like this to fruition.”

The Virtual Sculpture Garden was created by four faculty members, two student workers, and a graduate assistant: Trevor Finney, creative services coordinator and principal investigator, University Libraries; Jonathan Bradley, head studios and innovative technologies, University Libraries; Renee Alarid, associate director creative services, Moss Arts Center; Alice Rogers, manager media design studios, University Libraries; Giang Vu Binh Nguyen, studio student fellow, University Libraries; Dylan Craft, studio student fellow, University Libraries; and Alex Krasner, Virtual Environments Studio graduate student, University Libraries.

Visitors can access the garden through a web browser or virtual reality (VR) headset and explore its digital 3D artworks. The stylized landscape pulls inspiration from Virginia and features trees and plants native to the area. Visitors take a stroll along a self-guided landscape through nature while gaining insight into the works of art and the artists behind them. 

For the critically immersive element of sound, team member Alice Rogers recorded an original composition on her banjo that is soft, wandering, and charming. A small juried gallery at the welcome center will feature artwork that fits the theme “Connection from a Distance.” This space will also be used to welcome Virginia Tech Science Festival students and community members to the exhibit and teach them about 3D art. 

Submissions are open to the entire Virginia Tech and New River Valley communities. After some simple checks for an artwork’s adherence to the guidelines and VT Principles of Community, the art is placed in the VR environment. As the team receives more sculptures, the virtual environment will expand automatically with new hills, ponds, and trees. This automation will allow the garden to be open, collaborative, and an ever-expanding virtual exhibit for years to come. 

As a student fellow, Dylan Craft helped create the realistic and self-expansive landscape. “As a library student fellow, I was able to contribute and gain great experience on a larger-scale group project that will be shown to the public and added to my portfolio,” Craft said.

Finney said this is an incredible opportunity for young and novice artists to showcase their work in a virtual space.

“There is something really special about seeing your artwork in a gallery space among other artists’ creations,” said Finney. “For me, it totally changes the experience of seeing it. It's more real, more complete. It gives me a moment to reflect on the piece, what I learned, and how I want to try to be better.” 

Student fellow Giang Vu Binh Nguyen is proud to be a part of this project. “I think the special thing about the Virtual Sculpture Garden is that it allows people to show their work to the public and is also a place to connect people together,” said Nguyen. 

Works submitted to the garden do not need to be a masterpiece or complicated. “They don’t need a sculpting studio, clay, or casts,” said Finney. “If they have access to a computer, they are ready to get started.” On the website, the team provides a list of freely available tools to try like TinkerCad, SculptGL, 3D Slash, and A-Painter for hard surface modeling, sculpting, block modeling, and VR painting. 

“One of the things that excites me most about this project is how much potential it has to be explored and expanded,” said Finney. “It’s in the earliest stages now and we are so excited to keep working on it, keep building partnerships, and keep finding ways for the garden to interact with other areas of the library. We’re already talking about ways to bring in more components of digital authorship. Perhaps in the future, sculptures can be created to feature music, poems, and even motion captured dance.”

The University Libraries makes emerging technology resources and expertise available to everyone, opening doors to explore and create things that people may not have even imagined yet, like the Virtual Sculpture Garden

“This project is a fusion of everything I love,” said Finney. “We tell our undergraduate students that the library is somewhere you can go to learn through play, which is a fabulous philosophy and something I am grateful to have also benefited from.” 

Need help getting started? Email vrgarden-g@vt.edu or book a consultation with the library.

Written by Elise Monsour Puckett