Painting Life

It was dead in there. Galleries aren't known for being lively, but this utter stillness was uncanny. Low hum of AC, no other people. Emma's giant colorful paintings, dripping with life, seemed from a different realm. I thought to myself, "There has to be another way to interact with art."I was visiting my friend Emma Webster, a contemporary artist who was just about to graduate from her MFA program at Yale School of Painting. She's epic. Her thesis works were up in the Yale Art Gallery -- big, emotional, paintings that were abstract yet based in something tangible. I felt like I could reach into them, and I couldn't figure out how she did it. So we went to her studio. It was a big concrete box with a splatter-painted floor, canvases akimbo, and dioramas everywhere. I realized that she painted from life -- a distorted, whimsical abstraction of life. Her paintings suddenly made sense, and felt even more lively than before.

Later that night she stayed with her boyfriend so I could crash in her room. Her simple act of hosting me in her home changed the way I think about art forever. As I was falling asleep, I looked up at the pictures on her walls. Suddenly I noticed echoes of her paintings. I recognized certain features -- eyes, postures, foliage -- that had made their way into clay models. Moods and ideas that had buzzed around her head as she drifted off to sleep now swirled around mine. I realized that by going from the gallery to her studio to her bedroom I had done more than just change spaces, I'd stepped deeper and deeper into her mind. Her paintings danced inside me: they had backstories that I now knew! I was watching her art be freed of its frame, and seeing the humanity of its creator shine through. I wanted to figure out a way to share my experience with others. How could I let you into her work, into her world? I knew VR could hold a key but it wasn't clear how. A month later I went to a workshop at MIT on photogrammetry, which uses photos to make 3D models of objects. So the tools existed, I just had to learn them. I called Emma, asking if she'd be keen to collaborate on a weird and intimate VR "spatial story". She's the greatest, and was totally keen to have her entire life scanned.

Fast forward a few months. I am currently living in Tokyo for the summer.  When I got here I stumbled across a wonderful Japanese startup called Psychic VR Lab. I told them about my Emma VR idea, and they immediately offered to host me as a Virtual Reality Artist in Residence. Their product, Styly, is a platform that lets artists build virtual environments from inside a web browser. I spent the past month teaching myself Styly and Reality Capture and Unity and Blender, learning the difference between a shader and a texture, figuring out how to cut holes in infinitely thin meshes and shrink unfathomably fat ones. Now Emma VR: Painting Life is ready. 

Viewable with HTC Vive or Oculus Rift on Styly in English and in Japanese. (Translated by Jamie Pease)

Emma, the subject and inspiration of Painted, arranging an abstract diorama in her studio from which she paints still life.