‘Ghost Forest Seedlings’: using code and NFTs to make Maya Lin’s art breathe
It’s rare you can purchase a work of art that unfolds before your eyes and allows you to see something unique take shape in real-time. NearForm got to experience this in a project we worked on with world-renowned artist Maya Lin and E.A.T__WORKS, an “experimental cultural production studio”.
This is the story of a very special project for us, one where collaboration turned into friendship and using code and NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) helped make Maya’s art breathe.
Maya Lin is an award-winning designer and sculptor who creates environmentally-themed works of art
Maya Lin is an American designer and sculptor who is world-famous for creating historical memorials and environmentally-themed artwork. Deeply inspired by nature, such as water patterns, rock formations and solar eclipses, through her unique works, she seeks to “Give people a different way of looking at their surroundings”, explaining: “That’s art to me.”
Maya came to prominence aged just 21, and while still completing her undergraduate studies at Yale University, when she won a competition to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. That was just the beginning of a hugely successful career that has spanned over 40 years, with Maya having 37 subsequent works and numerous awards listed on her Wikipedia page.
At the time of writing, the final selected work on Maya’s Wikipedia page is ‘Ghost Forest’ — an installation made up of 49 dead Atlantic white cedars. This piece would serve as inspiration for Maya’s next project, ‘Ghost Forest Seedlings’.
The beauty of nature is it’s perfectly imperfect, making every seed, leave and tree unique
Tree roots are largely hidden underground and this means they possess an almost secret beauty. Their twisting patterns represent how nature strives towards perfection, but somehow always imposes imperfection on itself to deliver unique works of natural art.
Maya wanted ‘Ghost Forest Seedlings’ to be a project that used digital technology to enable people to see the beautiful journey of creation that roots take, radiating as a seed from a central point. This gave us a starting point of creating generative art.
However, the goal of this project wasn’t just to create generative art, but to generate images that resemble Maya’s artistic style. In short, it had to replicate the imperfect perfection of nature and get inside Maya’s head.
If this sounds hard it’s because it is, as Maya’s own words make plain: “Art is very tricky because it’s what you do for yourself.” How then did this project come to life? By using code and leveraging NFTs.
We used code and leveraged NFTs to bring Maya’s seedling art concept to life
Working in conjunction with E.A.T__WORKS and Maya, we set out to create purchasable NFTs representing unique root structures. Each NFT would grow into a completely unique root pattern or seedling over a period of time ranging from minutes to months. They would be hosted on a blockchain platform and start growing after the NFT was minted.
To replicate Maya’s style, we analysed her portfolio and assessed drawings of various tree roots. We paid close attention to distinct characteristics, recurring motifs, brush strokes, composition, and her balance between realism, abstraction and minimalism.
Speaking about the early stage work of the project, Giulia Teggi, one of NearForm’s Senior Developers says:
“One of the first things we did was to create our roots generator application that would allow Maya Lin to experiment with different colours, shapes, sizes and numbers of seeds based on her feedback.”
“We then iterated on the design and on the underlying algorithm, which is a completely custom algorithm, using recursion to generate the root. The idea was that the roots would have been randomly generated and completely unique, so that there would be a surprise element for those who purchased them.”
To ensure the roots looked as authentic as possible, we adjusted the underlying algorithm and randomness thresholds to mimic the perfect imperfections in Maya’s work.
Each root is composed of multiple line segments drawn using HTML Canvas. Every segment has a random length, random angle and random bezier curves. Once a segment ends, a new one will begin by using the previous segment’s length and angle to calculate the starting X and Y coordinates.
With each new segment, the line width gradually decreases and fades in opacity. As the segment count increases, random sub-segments with the same characteristics are created to branch off of the previous segments at slightly different angles. The angles of these lines are random, but also weighted to optimally fill in the available space of the canvas.
So people can purchase Maya’s generative seed art, each NFT is minted on the Ethereum blockchain. Every NFT follows the history of how the seedling grows over time, so the owner can both see it evolve and end up with an art piece.
Maya’s eyes lit up when she saw the algorithm in action
This was such a fun project for us to be a part of, one that allowed us to use our technical expertise and commitment to innovation to deliver something unique for Maya. But what was truly rewarding was to see in Maya’s face that we’d delivered what she wanted. As Dee O’Callaghan, NearForm’s Global Head of Design and Engineering, explains:
“She’s really engaged and really passionate about what she does. That really came through in all of our meetings and what I noticed was, in the final meeting we had with Maya, her eyes lit up when she saw the algorithm in action. And she was just blown away that we were able to take the vision she had in her mind and bring it to life. That was something fun to watch and see in person.”
Another thing we enjoyed about working on this project was that our collaboration with Maya and E.A.T__WORKS built friendships, as Dee O’Callaghan reveals:
“My fondest memory of the project was when we started to do weekly syncs with the team at E.A.T__WORKS and to see how we started to collaborate. It became a really enjoyable project where we’re producing something very different to what NearForm typically does and doing so in such a friendly way. You walk away feeling like you’ve not only delivered something very cool, but you’ve built friendships along the way.”
We’d love to use our expertise in coding and NFTs to help you bring your project to life
Together with E.A.T__WORKS, we were tasked with writing an algorithmic generative script that creates intricate tree root patterns based on world-renowned artist Maya Lin’s unique style.
By dissecting the nuances of her portfolio and translating them into code, we created generative art that evokes the emotional and visual impact of Maya’s original works. It means people can use the NFT market to buy a seed or a group of seeds and end up with one of her great art pieces.
An exhibition of select Ghost Forest Seedlings is on display at Pace Gallery in New York City from Monday 18th September 2023 through Saturday 23rd September 2023. The entire collection is available to browse and purchase at verso.pacegallery.com. Each artwork includes the NFT which starts out as a seed and grows into an intricate root system, a unique, signed 23”x 23” print, and a time-lapse video that shows the growth pattern of the seedling from start to finish.
If you have a project you’d like to collaborate on, contact NearForm today. We’d love to chat about how we can bring your vision to life.