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DELTA Staff Brighten the Community

Colorful animated environment of plants, insects and light.
"Unseen Nature" aims to share knowledge and love of flowering plants native to North Carolina.

A DELTA duo is lighting up the local community. 

Creative Director for New Media Development Mike Cuales and Immersive Media Producer Rhett Hissam recently collaborated on a public art installation to make Downtown Cary glow. The animated virtual reality (VR) mural titled Unseen Nature can be found dancing across the corner of N. Chatham and Academy Streets as part of a series of pop-up light installations called GLOW, which aims to surprise and delight viewers when the artworks are discovered. 

The project is produced by Cuales and presented by the Academy Street Artwork Project and the Cary Arts Center. Associate Professor Patrick FitzGerald of the NC State College of Design, a former instructor and mentor of alumni Cuales and Hissam, recommended they apply to the open artist call from the Town of Cary. Cuales served as the executive producer and Hissam as the artist and designer. 

“The technical challenge of setting up a large-scale projection was really intriguing for me. This was also a chance to build on some previous VR events we hosted for the North Carolina Museum of Art. I was excited for the opportunity to learn something new while investigating a different approach to digital murals, immersive tech and audience engagement. I generally never pass up a chance to play with expensive toys,” says Cuales.  

The mural is “an animated journey into the energetic realm of flowers found in North Carolina.” Hissam hand-painted the mural in VR using the now open-sourced application called TiltBrush. The dynamic mural was created from the imagined perspective of an insect, and was inspired by Craig Burrows‘ UV flower photography which illuminates pollen and other aspects of flowers to look otherworldly. 

Sketch of a red flower in the VR paint application.
Hissam’s early sketch of a plant that would become part of the larger environment.

“Flora and plant life are sources of infinite inspiration in my personal artwork and daily life. In the past year, I have focused on modeling flowers in VR as a way to explore a variety of different forms, colors, and textures in the realm of 3D painting,” she says. 

For Hissam, the project was both a joy and a challenge. The mural’s temporary location changed a few times before a final location was chosen, so the composition fluctuated a few times as well. The mural is also the largest piece Hissam has created in VR with Tilt Brush, pushing the limits of her computer and the software. 

“I knew that I wanted to create a whole environment, so I began building the individual species to create some assets that could be arranged in whatever final ratio we went with,” says Hissam. 

This piece, like most of Hissam’s recent work, incorporated audio collaboration as well. Even though the mural was painted in VR, it was not meant to be viewed in VR. But she wanted to give the audience a chance to interact and personally connect with the piece. 

“Once I had the environment built, I connected with Donovan Moran and put him in the headset to get a feel for the energy of the piece. From there he created a soundtrack which provided some guidance for timing.” 

The mural’s accompanying QR code leads you to a full video of the piece alongside Moran’s soundtrack “xylëm,” so viewers can plug in headphones and listen along with the visuals. 

Hissam’s favorite part of any project is seeing it all come together with her audience. 

“Aside from bringing some excitement, beauty, and joy to passerbys, I hope that the viewers of this installation will have a moment of contemplation about their relationship to their environment. I also hope it interests some to learn more about native and local plant species,” Hissam says. 

Hissam walks up to her artwork projected on a wall.
Hissam examines her work during production.

Unseen Nature can be seen via car or sidewalk during sundown and after dark on the corner of N. Chatham and Academy Streets in Downtown Cary. Get a sneak peek, or bring a mask to visit in person! The exhibit runs through Feb. 24.