A Minneapolis artist thinks we can save the natural world — by creating virtual ones

Paige Dansinger

Paige Dansinger

The Special Collections section of the Minneapolis Central Library probably isn’t the first place you think of as a window to the great outdoors. It sits behind a gothic-looking archway made of dark, imposing wood, as if to warn wanderers they’re approaching serious nerd territory. But within, you’ll find the Spencer Natural History Collection: precious nature books from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.

The pages are yellowed, the titles long, the spelling inconsistent and cumbersome. There are accounts of “monftrous flowers,” the “general hiftory, virtues, and ufes of plants,” and a depressingly large hardcover volume from 1907 labeled simply “Extinct Birds.”

But tucked between blocks of old, stuffy words, you’ll find the illustrations: ivory-billed woodpeckers with each feather lovingly rendered by hand; spidery prints of poppies, worts, and “flouring reed;” a “fox-taile graffe” drawn methodically from root to tufted seed.

Hundreds of years ago, people living right where we live now looked at some of the same wild plants we see today and tried to record and preserve them for posterity. A book lasts longer than the average poppy, but the collection too has a limited shelf life. Some of these volumes are kept in little protective cases, so the pages won’t be lost when the binding inevitably crumbles.

And unlike real poppy fields, only one or two people can enjoy them at a time, under the watchful eye of a librarian.

Enter Paige Dansinger. Before she was showing art at the Guggenheim, presenting at the Met, or participating on Minneapolis’s Nobel Peace Forum, she was a Twin Cities kid in love with her mother’s garden. She spent hours drawing the flowers as an elementary school student, and she still has a painting of her daffodils hanging in her Minneapolis home.

Jeffrey Fortson Photography

Jeffrey Fortson Photography

“All my flowers are honestly done as a tribute… to my mom and people close to me,” she says.

Dansinger still draws flowers, but not the way she used to, and certainly not the way the botanists featured in the Central Library’s collection did. Now she creates digital poppies, dandelion fields, and waterlily ponds with a set of virtual reality paintbrushes.

As an artist-in-residence with the Minneapolis Athenaeum, she worked with Central Library’s Teen Tech Center to create VR versions of that 18th century botanical art: apple blossoms you could hold and turn with the flick of a wrist, sunflowers you could regard from every angle. Some of the teens’ renderings were projected onto the library ceiling during the 2018 Northern Spark arts festival. Some you could even wear, with the help of a flower patch that burst into a 3D colorscape when scanned with a phone.

Meanwhile, in her Better World Museum space downtown, Dansinger and countless community members worked together to paint a virtual garden bursting with flowers and glittering butterflies and design an “edible” garden where the public could use advanced tech to grow real plants.

And this year, at the MIT Reality Hackathon, she created an augmented reality (AR) program that let people plant, pollinate, and grow virtual gardens wherever they were in the real world—like Pokemon Go, but for dandelions. You can check it out by downloading the ARize app on your phone and searching for her name.

Dansinger’s a futurist through and through. She likes using the latest technology available and playing in spaces beyond what we understand, even for tasks as seemingly simple as drawing a daisy. But that doesn’t mean the future doesn’t scare her.

Like a lot of us, she thinks a lot about the looming, existential threat of climate change, and the uncertainty of our future as a species. Minnesota is one of the fastest-warming states in the nation. Parts of it are now between 1 and 3 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than they were a century ago, just a few years after “Extinct Birds” was published. A lot of Minnesota’s flora and fauna are already sallying northward to cooler climes, lest dryness and disease take them.

But Dansinger sees her medium as part of the solution.

“There are studies about VR that signify a growth of neural activity different than any other art form,” she says. Being immersed in a world you create can have interesting effects on your imagination, your sense of empathy, and your emotions. Researchers are currently exploring its implications for art therapy, but Dansinger thinks it can help us face the future, too.

“I believe when people draw together, they literally draw together into communities,” she says. “That in itself creates a model for resilience building. It dissolves isolation and feelings of powerlessness.”

Like dusty old library collections, VR may seem like an unlikely tool to better connect us to nature—let alone help us save it. Usually it conjures up visions of future humans sitting alone in blank rooms, pretending to be someplace lush and sunny without ever really going there. But Dansinger says VR, like the future, is what you make it, and she chooses to make it a blossoming utopia.

“Nature and technology are each other’s reflections,” she says. “A positive view of the future is very easy to create within technology.”

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