Produced in collaboration with filmmaker Ricardo Castrillon.
By now, visitors to the Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building at UT Dallas have grown used to seeing an alternating set of distinctive, cardboard sculptures strewn across all corners of the first floor.
Angular renderings of mermaids, chess knights, masks and an array of abstract forms provide a jolt of creative panache for passers-by. It’s all courtesy of the 3-D Studio and Digital Fabrication Lab led by Professor Andrew F. Scott.
Stepping into the lab, visitors are met with a workspace in constant motion. At the moment, graduate students are buckling down — weaving their way through a series of tall, steel frames and multiple piles of broad cardboard panels. Scott and his team are in the homestretch of wrapping up a massive undertaking: a relief sculpture that will serve as the interactive backdrop for an upcoming Terence Blanchard concert.
The final work — flat and tall — will stand at a little over 15 feet high and 31 feet wide.
“Think of it as a canvas that we’ll be projecting light onto,” Scott said. “It’s going to be synchronized dynamically to the musical performance, so the music is going to drive the visual performance. In many ways, I see our role as being the sixth member of Terence’s group.”
Members of Scott’s team started with a model a fourth of the size of the final product, giving them an opportunity to test the visual projections they’ve been developing. Another model — half the size — followed suit.
“This model was built in a way that mimicked how we were going to create the full-scale version,” Scott said. “We sort of look at it as skeleton, muscle and skin. We have a steel framework that forms the skeleton of the piece. This carries the loads used to lift it. Attached to that, we have a 2-ply cardboard grillage muscle system that ties into the skeleton. That supports the thin cardboard skin, which is the face of the work.”
While Scott has been working in the realm of 3-D-fabricated art since he was a graduate student at The Ohio State University, his work in projection mapping is relatively new — a product of his appointment to the School of Arts, Technology, and Emerging Communication in 2015.
“The biggest shift to my move here and the way it informed my work is that, heretofore, I’d been really concentrating on object making,” he said. “Upon my arrival here, I began to incorporate all the constituent aspects of ATEC into my creative process. I started to do work with light, work with animated content in it and work driven by music. All of these things came together and marked a really dramatic shift in my artistic practice.”
He began projecting photos of people on to his 3-D sculptures. His work became a metaphor for the ways in which society projects certain images and ideas onto them, particularly African-American men.
Shortly after that, he showed his first projection-mapped piece, “Reliquary,” at the PULSE Art and Technology festival in Georgia. The piece caught the eye of his longtime friend and Grammy Award-winning jazz musician Terence Blanchard.
“We have a very long history; we’ve been friends for many years, and we were trying to find ways that we could collaborate,” Scott said.
He ended up working with Blanchard to create the cover art for the musician’s 2015 album “Breathless.” The piece he created for the album, part of Scott’s Black Man Grove series, depicts a sole fist raised in the air with mangrove roots growing out of the wrist.
Blanchard and Scott will continue their creative partnership with this upcoming concert. It’ll be the first time that Scott’s work interacts with a live performance.
Over the final 20 days before their deadline, Scott and his team will focus on the visual elements that will be projected on to the sculpture’s façade. Referencing music taken from Blanchard’s live performances, the students are developing visuals of different textures and styles.
This is ATEC graduate student Vic Simon’s first foray into the field of projection mapping.
“I spent a whole lot of time over the winter break doing preparation — learning about projection mapping and MadMapper,” he said. “It’s been a wild ride, but it’s a really cool piece of creative technology, and I’m very excited about it.”
Students in the course — Topics in Arts and Technology: Projection Mapping — become well-versed in an array of programs used to realize the finished product. Software such as MadMapper and MODUL8 are used to manipulate and edit video in real time.
ATEC graduate student Michael Bradley has split his time between building the sculpture and writing software to help create visualizations for the show.
Bradley said that unlike other courses he’s taken, Scott invites students to combine their individual — and often vastly differing — skills in pursuit of a common goal.
“We have media specialists, fabrication specialists, 3-D modelers, programmers, engineers,” Bradley said. “It’s hard, if not impossible, to work so closely with people like this for 15 or so weeks and not pick up a thing or two from them. I’m learning about new software like in other classes sure, but in this case, when we have a problem to solve or a hole to fill everyone steps up with their own experiences, and Scott composites all the ideas we have into a working solution.”
Next week, the sculpture will be moved to the lecture hall in the ATEC building, where the team will add the final touches.
Scott often likens the way his team has worked this semester to Blanchard’s jazz ensemble — seemingly disparate creative parts coming together to create harmony. The students in the lab work in time, synchronizing the rhythm of their workflow.
“The whole is a manifestation of the interaction between the parts, and a lot of the times, you don’t know how the parts are going to come together dynamically until you’re in a live, improvisational creative process,” Scott said. “It’s going to be alive and animated. It raises a lot of artistic questions, and it raises a lot of artistic directions that could probably keep me busy for the next 20 years. It makes teaching very exciting because I can often look at some of the ways my students approach those elements, and they approach it in a way I never would. It gives me an opportunity to learn from them and edify my artistic growth.”