New student-designed mural to debut at Swem Library

By Jordan Williams, William & Mary Libraries

W&M Libraries is adding a mural that will leverage art and technology to inspire conservation action and sustainable behavior change.

The reveal of the augmented reality mural will occur on Tuesday, April 19 (4-6 pm) at the Swem Library Patio, near the Omohundro Institute. The event will include ice cream, conservation activities, and opportunities to learn about how to get involved in conservation in Williamsburg.

Sarah Wicker ‘23, Katie Lee ’22, Sofia Geislinger ‘22, their mentors and project manager Erica Garroutte

The creation of the artwork is led by a group of students with strong connections to Swem. Sofia Geislinger ‘22 and Sarah Wicker ‘23 both work with the library’s circulation team, while Katie Lee ’22 was part of the Swem’s RFID project last summer. The students have been receiving support from an interdisciplinary team of mentors to bring their mural concept to life. 

The Institute for Integrative Conservation (IIC) managed the development process of the immersive conservation mural. The department started the process March 2021 by inviting interdisciplinary teams of W&M students to pitch concepts for the mural, which included a cash prize for the winner.

Geislinger was the first among her friends to catch wind of the competition and believed her computer science background, combined with the artistic talents of Wicker and the environmental knowledge of Lee qualified the group to develop a pitch. Even so, Geislinger and her friends were surprised when it was announced they were the winners.

“I did not expect us to win,” she said. “There were three or four other teams with really cool pitches as well, but it felt really exciting to win the competition and surreal that our idea will come to life.” 

The development process of the AR mural

Geislinger, Wicker and Lee came up with the concept of displaying the mutualistic relationship between plants and pollinators and the unique way that pollinators see the ultraviolet (UV) pigments of plants. The mural will include a diverse community of Virginia’s native plants and pollinators, celebrating their vibrant colors, interesting shapes, and relationships that contribute to Virginia’s diverse ecosystems.

The focus on plants and pollinators was inspired by Lee after one of her classes held a discussion about the way flowers look under UV light.

“When looking at a flower, we can only perceive so much with our eyes, but a bee or a bird can see it in an entirely different way,” Lee said. “It was the main idea we homed in on and using an augmented reality filter to allow people to see the flowers as a bee does.”

Wicker believes the mural and its AR element will lead to conversation within the W&M and Williamsburg community about different conservation strategies and techniques.

“Everyone comes to art with different perspectives, biases and knowledge,” she said. “I think the augmented reality portion will give audiences a new perspective that is non-human centric and let people think about their interpretations of nature.”

Erica Garroutte, IIC Research Program Manager, has been the project manager for the mural. She said highlighting the relationship between plants and pollinators correlated the most with the mission of the IIC.

“What stood out about their pitch was the broader conversations it would inspire,” Garroutte said. “It is important to the IIC because we want to identify solutions that not only promote conservation of the environment but also the benefits of human wellbeing. To do that, we need to bring together communities with diverse perspectives, knowledge, and connections to nature so that we can come up with more holistic and effective solutions.”

Garroutte shared she has also enjoyed seeing artists, computer software programmers, and conservationists all leverage their expertise to contribute to the art piece. The projects partners include W&M Libraries, Muscarelle Museum of Art, W&M Sustainability, Augmented Island Studios and the Art & Art History Department.

Sarah Wicker painting one of the birds on the mural.

Augmented Island Studios has been a significant contributor to the partnership. It is an AR/VR studio based in Portland, Oregon and owned by Enrique Sanchez-Rivera, MBA ’07, Mauricio Fernandez, Maria Jose Valencia, and Guillermo Alvarez. Sanchez-Rivera advised the IIC on combining art and technology to portray a message about nature.

Sanchez-Rivera said one of the advantages of AR technology is its ability to provide digestible information more immediately than any means of traditional art. 

“Augmented Reality is important because it does not put you into a VR headset and makes you disappear from the world,” Sanchez-Rivera said. “AR actually helps you interact with the real world. It adds layers of 3D information and 3D characters to the world that is in front of you and helps you appreciate a lot of information you previously did not have.”

With the mural debuting in just a few days, Sanchez-Rivera hopes it impacts students from every field of study.

“There are so many messages in this mural from a cultural and environmental standpoint,” he said. “Students will be able to see it and get inspired in terms of conservation, art, technology and multidisciplinary projects. We hope more students and the community will want to get involved with Institute for Integrative Conservation, which has a very big job to do.”


*RSVP here for the Augmented Reality Conservation Mural Reveal Party.