“Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination” Transforms the Renwick Gallery Into a Post-Apocalyptic Haven of Hope

Exhibition of Traditional Craft and Augmented Reality Opens June 28
June 21, 2019
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flower sculpture

Ginny Ruffner with Grant Kirkpatrick, Liriodendrum plausus (Flapping tulip), 2017, sculpture (handblown glass with acrylic paint tree rings), island (plywood, low-density foam, fiberglass, epoxy, sand, pebbles, and acrylic paint), and holographic image. Sculpture: 19 x 12 x 9 in. Background: Bronze Tree (center island), 2017, plywood, low-density foam, fiberglass, epoxy, sand, pebbles, acrylic paint, bronze, and lampworked glass. Overall: 50 x 63 x 49 in. Installation view at MadArt Studio, 2018. Courtesy Ruffner Studio. Photo by Fiona McGuigan.

Imagine an apocalyptic landscape. It appears barren, devastated and hopeless. It is not. At the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, internationally renowned artist Ginny Ruffner creates a seemingly bleak environment that suddenly evolves into a thriving floral oasis by combining traditional sculpture with augmented reality (AR) technology. In collaboration with animator and media artist Grant Kirkpatrick, Ruffner brings to life a colorful world where glass stumps suddenly sprout mythical flora that have adapted to their surrounding conditions in unexpected, beautiful and optimistic ways. By transforming the gallery into a multidimensional experience, “Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination” calls into question the very notions of reality and fantasy, of concrete and abstract, and of desolation and hope. The exhibition will be at the Renwick June 28 through Jan. 5, 2020.

“We strive to spark imagination and encourage creative thinking in our visitors with exhibitions that highlight important contemporary issues,” said Stephanie Stebich, the Margaret and Terry Stent Director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. “Ginny Ruffner questions the artificial divide between nature and technology. She unites them in her immersive environment of glass and botanical drawings that spring to life through augmented reality to create a Ruffnerian vision of a regenerative future.”

“Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination” is the latest project at the Renwick Gallery to explore an expanded definition of contemporary craft and new technologies. Ruffner is among a vibrant group of artists bringing AR to museum installations. By using this technology as another art media, she transforms visitor experiences. Robyn Kennedy, chief administrator at the Renwick Gallery, coordinated this presentation of the installation, which was first shown at MadArt Studio in Seattle in 2018. “Reforestation of the Imagination” is presented in conjunction with the Renwick Gallery’s exhibition “Michael Sherrill Retrospective,” which also features botanically inspired sculptures.

The installation consists of five landmasses, each featuring intricate handblown glass sculptures of tree stumps, with painted tree rings that function as discrete QR codes. These five islands surround a sixth landmass that supports a large fiberglass stump sprouting beautifully grotesque bronze and glass appendages. Other than the central stump and the painted shelf mushrooms and tree rings on the surrounding stumps, the scene appears colorless and desolate; however, when viewed through AR’s technological lens an alternate landscape is revealed.

Visitors can download the free app “Reforestation” on their phones or use the iPads in the gallery to bring this second reality to life. When the tree rings of a stump are viewed through the device’s camera lens, a hologram of a fictional plant appears to sprout from the sculpture. These imagined fruits and flowers have evolved from existing flora, developing dramatic appendages and skills necessary to flourish in this radically different environment. In this reality, tulips develop stem flexibility, pears contain windows to the outside world and flowers take on the form of birds. The installation includes Ruffner’s tongue-in-cheek descriptions of her fanciful flora and their remarkable, sometimes humorous adaptations, as well as 19 original drawings by the artist that were the inspiration for the AR images.

“This is nature reimagining itself,” said Ruffner. “The imagination cannot be exterminated. It just re-creates itself. To me, ‘Reforestation’ is about hope.” 

Ruffner is based in Seattle and trained at the University of Georgia, graduating with a master’s degree in fine arts in drawing and painting. She is an artist best known for her elegant sculptures and mastery of glass techniques. Ruffner has had more than 85 solo exhibitions and several hundred group shows, and her artwork can be found in numerous national and international collections. Ruffner has also lectured and taught extensively and has served as artist-in-residence at schools and universities around the world.

Kirkpatrick, also based in Seattle, received a master’s degree in fine arts from the Cornish College of the Arts and is an emerging animator and new-media artist. His interests include the intersection of art and technology, particularly VR/AR, game design and mixed-media work.

Free Public Programs

The Renwick Gallery will host a film screening Thursday, July 11, at 6 p.m. in the Bettie Rubenstein Grand Salon of A Not So Still Life (2010; 80 mins.), a documentary that chronicles Ruffner’s artistic journey after a life-altering, physically debilitating car accident in 1991. A Q&A with Ruffner moderated by Kennedy follows the screening.

Related pubic programs for the exhibition “Michael Sherrill Retrospective” include a talk with Sherrill Thursday, Sept. 12, at 6 p.m. in the Renwick’s Rubenstein Grand Salon and a nature walk with Sherrill, Smithsonian Gardens and the Golden Triangle BID Friday, Sept. 13, at noon to explore landscaping in the Renwick Gallery’s neighborhood. 

“Field Guide” Publication

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has published an interactive “field guide” to the AR images featured in the exhibition. The booklet, written and illustrated by Ruffner, features pictures of the glass sculptures with the QR code embedded, making them compatible with the “Reforestation” app. It includes Ruffner’s 18 original drawings and detailed explanations of the artist’s naming conventions for her flowers. The booklet also features an interview with Ruffner in which she discusses her artistic background and her inspiration for “Reforestation of the Imagination.” The publication is available for purchase in the museum store and online ($18.95, softcover).


“Ginny Ruffner: Reforestation of the Imagination” is organized by the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Generous support has been provided by the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, Elizabeth and James Eisenstein, Ed and Kathy Fries, Shelby and Frederick Gans, James Renwick Alliance, Colleen and John Kotelly, Betty and Whitney MacMillan, Jacqueline B. Mars, Kim and Jon Shirley Foundation, and Myra and Harold Weiss.

About the Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum is the home to one of the largest and most inclusive collections of American art in the world. Its artworks reveal America’s rich artistic and cultural history from the colonial period to today. The museum’s main building is located at Eighth and F streets N.W., above the Gallery Place/Chinatown Metrorail station. Museum hours are 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 25). Its Renwick Gallery, a branch museum dedicated to contemporary craft and decorative arts, is located on Pennsylvania Avenue at 17th Street N.W. The Renwick is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily (closed Dec. 25). Admission is free. Follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. Smithsonian information: (202) 633-1000. Museum information (recorded): (202) 633-7970. Website: americanart.si.edu.

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Note to editors: Selected high-resolution images for publicity only are available through the museum’s Dropbox account. Email AmericanArtPressOffice@si.edu to request the link.