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By Jessica Weiss ’05

As the COVID-19 pandemic worsened in early 2020, Lecturer in the Department of Art Mollye Bendell felt a growing anxiety that the last time she would see her loved ones might be on a video call. 

Bendell, who works with electronic media to explore themes of vulnerability, visibility and longing, began to attempt to preserve her friends and family through her work using images of their faces from video chats. 

In her video project “Sketch for Sleepers,” Bendell projects those images in 3D onto stock digital silhouettes of human bodies that float across a screen. 

artwork by Lecturer in the Department of Art Mollye Bendell

The work is on display now until Dec. 3 at the University of Maryland Art Gallery as part of a triennial exhibition of professional work by Department of Art faculty and adjunct faculty. Part of the campuswide Arts for All initiative, which seeks to spark new ways of thinking through collaborations across the arts, sciences and other disciplines, Faculty Exhibition 2021 showcases works from 20 faculty members in a range of mediums. It is the first in-person art exhibition held at the Art Gallery since it closed in March 2020. 

“The exhibition honors faculty work while emphasizing that their scholarship and teaching is grounded first and foremost in an art-making practice,” said Art Gallery Associate Director Taras W. Matla. “Having been closed for 18 months due to the pandemic, this is a terrific way to reintroduce the Art Gallery and art department faculty to the campus community.” 

Professor of Art Foon Sham’s “Covid 19, 2020” wood and acrylic wall sculpture emerged from elements related to his state of mind during lockdown. It’s made of wooden sticks that represent the many people affected by the virus. 

artwork by Professor of Art Foon Sham

“There are various colors of wood sticks and some are stained with red and blue, implying all the damage this virus could do,” he said. 

Many of the works also address socio-political issues and social justice. For instance, Lecturer Julia Kwon’s “Dissent” is inspired by the fight for abortion rights, via the format of traditional Korean object-wrapping cloth with embedded patterns. And Assistant Professor Jessica Gatlin’s “Work Related” is a series of wearable canvas “paintings” that comment on themes of sustainability, labor, consumption and capitalism.   

Assistant Professor Cy Keener, whose work blends art, science and technology, is exhibiting “Terminal Front,” a virtual reality experience that allows people to visit a remote and uninhabitable landscape in Greenland. Using scientific data gathered from the site—via custom laser scanners built by the Army Corps of Engineers Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory—paired with detailed drone photography, the VR user can immerse in a massive and detailed landscape of a glacier’s surface. 

art by Assistant Professor Cy Keener

Keener and Bendell are among faculty instructors in the new immersive media design major, co-taught by faculty from the Department of Art and the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences. The program prepares students to use digital tools and technologies including virtual and augmented reality, digital art, projected imagery, computer graphics, 3D modeling and user interfaces spanning audio, visual and tactile platforms.

Additional participating faculty artists include: Emily Conover, Patrick Craig, Pete Cullen, Brandon Donahue, Wendy Jacobs, Richard Klank, Matthew McLaughlin, Brandon Morse, Irene Pantelis, Narendra Ratnapala, John Ruppert, Justin Strom, Athena Tacha, Jowita Wyszomirska and Rex Weil. 

In addition, an In Memoriam section recognizes the vast contributions to the Department of Art made by longtime faculty members David C. Driskell (1931-2020) and James Thorpe (1951-2021). 

Visit the Faculty Exhibition 2021 at the University of Maryland Art Gallery in the Parren J. Mitchell Art-Sociology Building until Dec. 3, 2021. Free and open to the public, Monday-Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. 

Photos from top to bottom of page: Visitors at Faculty Exhibition 2021; Mollye Bendell's video project “Sketch for Sleepers;" Foon Sham’s “Covid 19, 2020; " A visitor experiences Cy Keener’s “Terminal Front.” Photos by Thai Q. Nguyen.


By Christine Zhu

The University of Maryland is debuting an immersive media design major this semester, the first undergraduate program in the country that synthesizes art with computer science.

There are two tracks available in the program: an art track leading to a bachelor’s of arts degree from the college of arts and humanities, and a computer science track leading to a bachelor’s of science degree from the college of computer, mathematical and natural sciences.

The program works with creating virtual and augmented realities, offering a wide variety of courses for whichever track a student wants to take. 

One of the classes, Introduction to Immersive Media, covers history and research in the field. Its projects involve sensors, augmented reality and virtual reality.

Another class, Introduction to Computational Media, teaches students about the computing that’s required for each type of media. For example, imagery deals with computer graphics and sound deals with synthetic audio.

“We’re investigating ways to use modern technology and media to take the place of information that you would perceive with your senses in a natural environment,” said Stevens Miller, an adjunct lecturer in the department of computer science. 

As a result, students can create artificial environments where they control interactions with the senses — sight, sound and even touch and smell in some cases.

Studio arts lecturer Mollye Bendell used the Artechouse, an art center in Washington, D.C., as an example of a virtual reality experience that uses immersive media design. 

“[It’s] a gallery that specializes in the intersection of art and technology,” she said. “[An example is] an augmented reality application where you’re looking through the camera on your phone and … you see a 3D model appear.”

An immersive media design exhibit was held at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center as a part of NextNOW Fest in mid-September. About 15 students displayed their projects, Bendell said. 

In one student’s project, people were able to play chess remotely with others around the world, Miller said. 

“Instead of being limited to a two-dimensional point and click-with-your-mouse way of interacting with the chessboard, you actually saw a three-dimensional chess set in front of you that you could manipulate even though it doesn’t actually exist,” he added.

While all immersive design students need to have coding ability, the computer science track covers more of the technical components while the art track focuses on the perceptive side, Miller said.

Sophomore Maggie Letvin, a studio art major and hopeful immersive media design major, is planning on the art track. She’s used to approaching projects from the angle of an artist, and said that programming was hard for them.

“[With] programming, you have to know what you want to do ahead of time,” she said. “I approach art from a standpoint of, ‘I have the materials, I’m just gonna work with my hands and figure out what happens,’ but you can’t exactly do that with coding.”

In later years, students from the art track are paired with students from the computer science track. As a result, students are able to work with a partner from a different background and learn more from each other.


By Jessica Weiss ’05

From aboard a fixed-wing Cessna airplane, Associate Professor of Art Shannon Collis got a bird’s-eye view of some of Canada’s largest mining projects last year. 

That aerial footage—which includes open-pit mines, waste ponds and refineries—is among the elements of her new installation, “Strata,” a multi-sensory experience that allows visitors to travel “above and through” the areas surrounding Fort Hills Suncor Oil Sands and Syncrude Oil Plant, the third-largest known crude bitumen reservoir on the planet. That’s where millions of barrels of oil are dredged up each day from beneath thousands of miles of boreal forest. 

Presented as a multi-screen projection with surround sound, “Strata” is currently at the Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College in suburban Philadelphia. “Strata” is a reference to layers in the ground, or what happens when earth is being excavated.

The project “reveals the human imprint on the region and the range of its social, economic and environmental implications,” Collis said. “And it invites visitors to contemplate and process these issues at a time of unprecedented environmental urgency.” 

Collis, who is from Canada and now lives in Baltimore, was awarded a $10,000 Rubys Artist Grant through the Baltimore-based Robert W. Deutsch Foundation to travel to the oil sands in western Canada in early 2020 to capture digital video, drone cinematography and sound recordings of the area. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Collis was forced to return to the United States in the midst of her field research. So, she began to explore possible ways to collect footage from afar. She found a number of collaborators in Fort McMurray Aviation and the local YMM Angel Flight Club, who helped her gather additional video footage. 

“I initially felt defeated and disappointed, but I realized that some of the work could be done remotely with the willingness and support from others in the industry and beyond,” she said. “I was really excited about this possibility, which opened my eyes to new research methods.”

Collis is a faculty member in the new Immersive Media Design (IMD) major at UMD, a unique collaboration between the College of Arts and Humanities (ARHU) and the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS), which allows students to learn to create their own immersive media. 

Being forced to shift course in light of the pandemic was a challenge, Collis said. But ultimately, it expands future possibilities both for her and her students. 

“The whole experience has truly redefined the way I think about my research—and the immersive nature of my work,” she added. “I think this could make future research richer.”

“Strata” is currently only available to a small number of Ursinus students and faculty, but plans are in the works to implement ongoing virtual programming and virtual visits of the gallery space.   

Learn more here


By Jessica Weiss ’05

Assistant Professor of Sculpture and Emerging Technology Cy Keener has received a grant from the National Science Foundation to continue his work blending science, technology and art to convey the thinning of Arctic Sea ice.

The five-year grant, totaling nearly $207,000, will allow Keener to develop and test a low-cost, open-source buoy to provide meteorological and oceanographic data, a project he has been working on since 2018. In collaboration with research scientist Ignatius Rigor, a senior principal research scientist at the University of Washington, Keener will also travel to the Arctic and make visual art with data collected through the instruments deployed.

Given that such buoys normally cost thousands—or even tens of thousands—of dollars, the $300-$500 device Keener is seeking to develop could potentially “double the number of sensors” currently being used in the Arctic Ocean, he said. That could enhance a critical dataset used in weather forecasting and studies of climate and climate change.

“It’s an honor to be involved in this work,” said Keener, who teaches art and electronics at UMD. “And to use my art to get people to understand what’s happening up there.”

Keener first traveled to the Arctic in Spring 2019 with Rigor, who is the coordinator of the International Arctic Buoy Program (IABP), whose members maintain a network of buoys across the expanse of the Arctic Ocean. On that trip, Keener installed measuring instruments that he then used to create a series of art pieces. 

Cy poses with the digital ice core

At VisArts Gallery in Rockville, Maryland, he displayed “Sea Ice 71.348778º N, 156.690918º W,” an installation that used hanging strips of 6-foot-long, blue-green polyester film to reflect the thickness and color of the Arctic ice as collected daily via satellite from the buoys.  

He also created various versions of “Digital Ice Core,” a sculpture piece that used electronics, data and satellite communication to link a remote field site with a digital light sculpture, made up of one thousand LED lights. Viewers were then able to see a recreated version of the ambient light in the air, ice and ocean in close to real time. 

Currently, he is seeking to improve a custom circuit and code that he has been working on since 2016, that will go in the sensors. He is hoping to travel to the Arctic in Spring 2021.

Photos courtesy of Cy Keener.


By Jessica Weiss ’05 

Cutting across more than 2,000 miles of prairie, wetland and other rural landscapes from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in Illinois and Oklahoma, the Keystone Pipeline is a powerful symbol of human dependence on fossil fuels and its impact on people and habitats.

While much of the discussion and debate over the project have focused on the land it passes through, what about the area where the pipeline begins — the source of all that crude oil?

Shannon Collis, associate professor of art at the University of Maryland, is on a mission to tell the story of the lesser known Athabasca Oil Sands. That’s where millions of barrels of oil are dredged up each day from beneath thousands of miles of boreal forest.

“I want to capture the environmental effects of the industry … the abandoned open-pit mines, waste ponds and refineries,” said Collis, who teaches digital media and sound at UMD. “I want people to know what it’s like there.”

Collis, who is from Canada and now lives in Baltimore, was recently awarded a $10,000 Rubys Artist Grant through the Baltimore-based Robert W. Deutsch Foundation to travel to the oil sands in western Canada early next year to capture digital video, drone cinematography and sound recordings of the area. The resulting project, called “Strata,” will bring Canada’s immense oil fields to a gallery installation through immersive digital media. “Strata” is a reference to layers in the ground, or what happens when earth is being excavated.

“I create a space that envelopes people and surrounds them in sound and moving image,” she said. “So, you’re actually hearing this mechanical machinery, roaring off the landscape.”

Collis first learned of Canada’s massive oil sands 14 years ago. After graduating with an M.F.A. in printmaking from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, she moved to the boomtown of Fort McMurray to teach printmaking and art history at Keyano College. The area was cold and isolated but beautiful, and Collis loved to take in the natural landscape on long runs or drives. She often brought her film camera.

She found the oil sands on one of those adventures.

“I remember sitting on what felt like a crater in the earth, on the ledge, taking pictures and really thinking about how powerful it was to see the landscape altered in that way,” she said.

Alberta has the third-largest oil reserves in the world, after Venezuela and Saudi Arabia.

Collis’ work has since evolved from film photography and printmaking into a more interdisciplinary, technology-driven form. Combining her two-dimensional work with a background in computer science, she now creates installations and interactive environments with audio and visuals that allow people to immerse themselves deeply.

Collis’ work has been exhibited widely across North America as well as in Europe, Asia, Australia and Brazil.

“Strata” comes after a similar project, called “Kiewa,” in which Collis documented the ways a hydroelectric project has transformed Australia’s Alpine Valley. For that project, Collis spent two weeks in residence at the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture in the Australian Alps, absorbed in the terrain. The resulting work came in the form of six large right triangles that screened video collages depicting Australia’s Alpine National Park and the neighboring Kiewa hydroelectric complex. It was exhibited at the artist collective Grizzly Grizzly in Philadelphia earlier this year.

Collis’ art also focuses on urban architectural sites. “Singular Space,” a collaboration with Baltimore-based artist Liz Donadio, uses immersive video and sound to provide a portrait of Forum Fountain, a public sculpture in East Baltimore. It’s currently on view at the Arlington Arts Gallery.

For “Strata,” Collis tentatively plans to exhibit large-scale video projections and surround-sound audio. She’ll travel to Canada in March — when the temperature may still be around -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) — to begin her research and exploration.

“Calling it ‘research’ is appropriate because it’s something I’m investigating from all sides of this complex issue,” she said. “Things could shift depending on what I see and experience there. I’ll react to what I capture as data and then decide how to best execute it.”

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