fine arts Tag

By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities

Susana Butterworth

RICHLAND, Wash. – The emotionally powerful, poignant “Empty Photo Project,” created by Washington State University Tri-Cities student Susana Butterworth, that details the tragic and emotional experience of what it is like to lose a child, will be on display from Jan. 12-Feb. 8 in the WSU Tri-Cities Art Gallery.

The exhibition, which Butterworth began in a fine arts course at WSU Tri-Cities after losing her own son in utero, tells the story of 25 parents who have lost a child, and the physical and emotional impact it has had on their lives and their relationships with family, friends and even strangers. In addition to the written stories of each parent featured, each features a photo of the parent taken by Butterworth, which represents both the physical and mental hole left in the parents’ lives after the child’s passing.

The Empty Photo Project offers insights into the emotional stories of 25 parents, like Miriam, who have lost a child.
The Empty Photo Project offers insights into the emotional stories of 25 parents, like Miriam, who have lost a child.

An opening reception for the exhibition will be held 5 p.m. Friday, Jan. 12, in the WSU Tri-Cities Art Gallery.

Butterworth lost her son Walter in March 2017. Butterworth’s son suffered from a rare condition known as Trisomy 18 where the baby develops with an extra chromosome. The condition disrupts the normal pattern of development in significant ways and leads to death in approximately 50 percent of cases. Butterworth’s son passed away at 36 weeks in utero.

“After losing Walter, I was experiencing a lot of grief, but there was also this disconnection with people that I was feeling,” she said. “I wanted to explore this realm of capturing emotions that people go through, but I also wanted to make it relevant to what I was going through. Coming out of the hospital, I want to show that losing a baby is a big deal. Some people don’t realize that or know what to say.”

The Empty Photo Project has now been viewed by thousands after being featured by a variety of platforms, some of which include Babble (a parenting website operated by Disney), the Huffington Post and Pop Sugar. Butterworth said she plans to continue the project as long as there are people who want to contribute their stories to the project.

“Child loss is not going to stop,” Butterworth said. “One out of four women experience miscarriage and approximately 26,000 pregnancies result in stillbirth. I think that so often as child death happens, there is always going to be a need to talk about it. As long as people want to share their story, there is always going to be a need for this project.”

For more information on Butterworth’s project, visit or her Facebook and Instagram pages.



  • Susana Butterworth, WSU Tri-Cities student,
  • Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities public relations specialist, 509-372-7333,

By Maegan Murray

RICHLAND, Wash. – Neon rainbow pathways, smoldering ember-lit caves, eerie forests and bridges that lead to mystical lands, are just some of what individuals experience in virtual reality environments created by students as part of a fine arts sculpture course at Washington State University Tri-Cities this semester.

Student experiments with sculpting in virtual reality

WSU Tri-Cities student Alana Ahquin sculpts an environment in virtual reality.

Jonah Firestone, assistant professor of education and director of the Simulation and Integrated Media for Instruction Assessment and Neurocognition (SIMIAN) Lab, first approached Sena Clara Creston, clinical assistant professor of fine arts and digital technology and culture, this semester about using the virtual reality technology in the lab as a means for student course work in the arts.

Creston decided to have her students explore the medium to create 3-D settings that can then be enjoyed and explored by others.

She said typically with art, students are limited in what they can create, as it has physical and monetary limitations. Using Google’s Tilt Brush program in virtual reality, however, students can create 3-D masterful creations that extend beyond what is physically available in the traditional art sphere.

Students created three environments using virtual reality software

Students created three different, but detailed, environments using virtual reality software as part of a sculpting class at WSU Tri-Cities.

“It’s an opportunity for students to create within the parameters of their imagination, rather than within their physical parameters,” she said.

Using imagination to explore beyond physical limits

Students worked in three teams, each group intricately designing and planning for what they would include in their environments. Using basic tools, much similar in scope and style of the Paint program on the Microsoft operating system, the students created complex worlds, each with their own flare and style that encompassed 360-degree views of colorful landscapes.

Student Athena Marquez said even though the parameters of the program were simple in concept, it forced them to use their imaginations to bring scenes and objects to life.

“It’s really freeing,” she said. “You had to use your imagination to create a whole environment.”

One of the teams created a world featuring neon and bright pulsating lights, rainbow paths, banana peels and monsters, inspired by that of Nintendo Mario Kart’s rainbow road. Another group created an enigmatic world that featured a dark and mysterious cloud-like environment featuring archways of trees that led to a cave that showcased flickering golden embers. The last group created an extravagantly detailed dual environment that first welcomes the viewer into a cloud-like nebula that then encourages the viewer to enter into a fantastical forest featuring rich trees, waterfalls, pools and other features.

The students were required to spend a minimum of 20 hours in the lab, but many ended up spending more than 30 hours working on their environments.

A hands-on, enriching experience

“I didn’t know what to think about it, at first,” fine arts student Audrey Danielson said. “But as soon as you started doing it, you become crazy about it. It definitely gave me a great perspective on what is possible with art. There is so much space and you’re free to create these large environments that other people can then explore.”

Experimenting with virtual reality environments

WSU Tri-Cities student Adam Whittier logs into a virtual reality environment that he created with a group of students in a sculpture course at WSU Tri-Cities before putting on the VR headset to immerse himself into that environment.

Student Adriana Iturbe said what she enjoyed most about the project was the fact that it blends elements of art with elements of technology and engineering.

“I think this is something that many more students should experience,” she said. “As an engineering major, what I like is seeing and exploring the connections between disciplines and using those different disciplines to bring a project to life. This project really does open your mind to other experiences.”

Student Adam Whittier said he hopes the opportunity is extended to students from a variety of different backgrounds, as it provides a learning experience like no-other that is useful to the students’ diverse academic tenure.

“There are so many capabilities,” he said.

Creston is now partnering with Bob Lewis, associate professor of computer science, and his graduate student Antonio Ledesma, on an interactive virtual reality art environment. Lewis is planning on teaching a course to program interactive environments. Creston plans to partner with him and his students to conceptualize, design and program these interactive environments.

“We want to make these environments interactive, instead of just static,” she said.

For more information on the SIMIAN Lab at WSU Tri-Cities, contact Firestone at For more information on the digital technology and culture program at WSU Tri-Cities, visit

By Adriana Aumen, College of Arts and Sciences


RICHLAND, Wash. – Peter Christenson, assistant professor of fine arts at Washington State University Tri-Cities, has received the Governor’s Arts & Heritage Young Arts Leader Award from the Washington State Arts Commission.

Christenson is a multidisciplinary artist and filmmaker. He co-founded Left of Centre, an artist collective and guerrilla-marketing firm, and has been the catalyst behind Null Set, a locally produced interventionist magazine and collaborative organization in the Tri-Cities.

He also initiated the Guest House Cultural Capital Residency, a short-term residency program that invites scholars and creatives from across the globe to Richland.

At WSU, Christenson teaches in support of the fine arts and digital technology and culture programs with a pedagogy and research agenda focused on multidisciplinary, new media and social art practices.

Peter Christenson, WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of fine arts, helps artist Joe Batt set up his art exhibition in the WSU Tri-Cities Art Center.

Peter Christenson, WSU Tri-Cities assistant professor of fine arts, helps artist Joe Batt set up his art exhibition in the WSU Tri-Cities Art Center.

“This award is particularly meaningful for me as an artist and scholar committed to culture-building and community-based development across the state,” Christenson said. “I’m very honored and grateful to the Arts Commission and Governor Inslee, and feel so indebted to the communities whom I’ve had the pleasure of working with here in Washington.”

Christenson is a recent recipient of a US–UK Fulbright Scholar Award in Art & Design. His current practice is rooted in new media and video, collective campaigning and protest, performance, psychosocial and interventionist art, and site-specific installation. His research is significantly informed by his previous experiences as a social worker and licensed psychotherapist.

“Peter continues to build a reputation as a practicing artist in the Northwest, across the country and around the world,” said Squeak Meisel, chair of fine arts at WSU. “It is nice to know that the state of Washington values his contribution to the cultural landscape. His research is a model for how all students can choose to be innovative in their approaches to making and having a career as an artist.  I look forward to what he does next!”

Originally from Metro Detroit, Christenson holds bachelor of arts and master of social work degrees from the University of Michigan and a master of fine arts degree in intermedia from Arizona State University.

Washington State Arts Commission (ArtsWA) is a state government agency established in 1961. Among its various activities is advocating for the public value of the arts; building leadership in and for the arts; strengthening arts education in Washington public schools; documenting the impact of and building community participation in the arts; and acquiring and caring for artwork in the State Art Collection at K-12 public schools, colleges, universities, and state agencies.

Other ArtsWA programs include Art in Public Places, Arts in Education, Poetry Out Loud, and Washington Poet Laureate.



By Adrian Aumen, WSU College of Arts & Sciences

In a cold, dimly blue-lit room, a strange human–animal hybrid paces before the entrance to a fiery red cave. When the “Huminal” senses a viewer approaching, it stops, turns its head to stare at the visitor and emits its own red-hot glow. The viewer must then decide how to respond to the apparent challenge: continue toward the creature or retreat.

WSU Tri-Cities fine arts professor Sena Clara Creston and engineering student Gordan Gavric work on the "Huminal," an interactive robot that responds to its environment.

WSU Tri-Cities fine arts professor Sena Clara Creston and engineering student Gordan Gavric work on the “Huminal,” an interactive robot that responds to its environment.

The Huminal is an interactive, kinetic sculptural installation featuring an autonomous, mobile robot that senses and responds to changes in its environment. Created by an interdisciplinary team at Washington State University Tri-Cities, it incorporates research and techniques in fine arts, design, electrical and mechanical engineering and robotics to provide a unique platform for exploring the relationship between humans and machines—and, it turns out, between artists and engineers, too.

Two years in the making and nearing completion this month, The Huminal is the third and most complex art-machine designed and built in as many years by fine arts professor Sena Clara Creston in collaboration with WSU engineering students and faculty. It debuted recently to rave reviews at a robotics exposition for employees of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, where Gordan Gavric, a key member of the Huminal development team, is an electrical engineering intern.

“The feedback we’ve gotten so far is really great,” said Gavric, a senior in engineering and president of the WSU Tri-Cities Robotics Club. “People recognize it’s a robot, but at the same time they’re a little creeped out. How do people want to interact with a creepy robot?”

Designed to pique curiosity along with uneasiness, the Huminal is about the size and shape of a large dog and covered with white plastic discs resembling scales or fur. Its four jointed legs give the appearance of walking as it rolls in an elliptical path outside its apparent den.

Multiple internal sensors, a camera and a small Raspberry Pi computer communicate with microcontrollers across two electronic systems to direct the robot’s movements and trigger the pulsing red LED lights in its chest. The steady hum of its heart—two 8.6 volt motors—is interrupted only when a sensor detects nearby movement. At that point, the Huminal is programmed to stop in its tracks, turn its head to face the approaching object and transmit its warning glow.

“I look forward to seeing how more people react to it,” Gavric said. “Is it alive? Is it human? The mystery is unnerving and it’s this uneasiness that Sena is trying to exploit.”

A corporeal experience

new media artist, Creston builds interactive art-machines to create a corporeal experience for viewers. Her artworks invite people to engage with machines and familiar materials in unfamiliar settings and ways. Environmental impact and social consciousness are frequent themes.

Sena Clara Creston and Gordan Gavric work on the Huminal

WSU Tri-Cities fine arts professor Sena Clara Creston and engineering student Gordan Gavric work on the “Huminal” at WSU Tri-Cities.

“Some people get really aggressive with the work and some are really careful with it,” she said.

By enabling viewers to choose their response to her art, she hopes to help them understand other ways they affect the wider world.

From the haunting Huminal to the satirical Machinescape—an immersive environment of post-consumer electronics—to the dreamlike Umbrellaship—a land-roving, steampunk-style sailboat—much of Creston’s art employs fantasy while exploring intersections between the natural and the man-made.

“Part of it is movement, part of it is response, part of it is material and part of it is social engagement,” she said.

She will talk about her innovative artwork at 1:00 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 16, as part of TEDxRichland events at Uptown Theatre in Richland, Washington.

To create the Huminal’s skin, Creston cut up dozens of discarded plastic water bottles—familiar and somewhat controversial objects that connect the organic and inorganic.

“Many people across the world live with an unsafe water supply, yet we think of water as the source of life and the source of health and wellbeing, and water bottles deliver that,” Creston said. “However, the water bottle itself is not biological or biodegradable—it’s inorganic and it’s not going away. So the material itself becomes this questionable component.

“How do we actually feel for the inorganic and how do these things elicit responses?”

Collaborating in uncommon opportunities

Giving form to Creston’s layered ideas and complex inventions often requires more technical skills than she possesses. So for the past 10 years, she has been learning and implementing modest means of physical computing and mechanical engineering.

WSU Tri-Cities fine arts professor Sena Clara Creston and engineering student Gordan Gavric observe the Huminal as it interacts with its environment.

WSU Tri-Cities fine arts professor Sena Clara Creston and engineering student Gordan Gavric observe the “Huminal” as it interacts with its environment.

“But, as my mentor explained, I didn’t need to learn how to do everything—I needed to learn how to collaborate,” she said.

Fortunately, interdisciplinary collaborations are strongly encouraged and available at WSU. Engineering professors Changki Mo at WSU Tri-Cities and Charles Pezeshki and Jacob Leachman at WSU Pullman recognized the uncommon opportunities Creston’s projects offered their students and wove them into their coursework.

“Her projects presented the perfect combination of an interesting customer, an achievable design and the monetary scope to take some risks in a shared learning experience,” Pezeshki said.

Students in Pezeshki and Leachman’s junior-level design classes worked remotely with Creston to create The Umbrellaship and Machinescape. The installations were designed, like The Huminal, to question the relationship between humans and their perceived environment.

Eric Loeffler, a May graduate in engineering who constructed the Huminal’s aluminum frame, said he and other students on the project gained a variety of valuable hands-on experiences not usually available to undergraduates.

For example, Loeffler learned new design software applications that he can use in his master’s degree program, and he expanded his welding skills to include aluminum materials.

“There were a lot of new things to work with from an engineering standpoint, and getting the chance to interact with Sena as a client was huge, too,” he said. “There’s really not a class that teaches you how to interact with a person who has their own particular wants, ideas and capabilities. That experience will definitely be useful in the future.”

Shared purposes, different approaches

“Some people might think engineering and arts are very different, but artists and engineers kind of have a shared purpose,” Gavric said. “They create things. They bring things into existence, and have ideas and concepts that they want to make. The difference lies in medium and motive. An engineer might design a circuit board to save a life, while an artist might paint a picture to change a life.”

“Working with Sena, I kind of opened up to ‘why are we doing this this?’ Oh, it’s for the aesthetic, or it’s for trying to get the point across.”

Gavric admits, “There’s no way I ever thought I’d be working on a robot for an art project.” But even before Creston finished presenting her concept sketches to the Robotics Club, he was hooked.

“It intrigued me immediately as an interesting concept and totally something new. There was a lot of back and forth on what we could do with the given technology and funding, and a lot of compromises, abstractions and problems that were solved. It was a rare opportunity. I’m glad I did it.”

Loeffler especially appreciated the chance to think outside the box.

“I really enjoyed the opportunity to collaborate and come up with different ways to solve a problem,” he said. “I think we’re fairly close to what Sena originally envisioned, with the aesthetic and the function she was looking for, and that’s very satisfying.”

The interactive art machine projects encouraged the engineering students to consider their role as engineer, inventor, creator and artist, Creston said. As they grew comfortable working on art projects and expressing their own creative ideas, they sought new collaborations with artists and invited them to participate with the Robotics Club.

Some of the rising engineers began working with fine art students on interactive media projects and even created an interactive art installation of their own, called Lux Flux. The large-scale ceiling installation was designed to sense when a viewer entered a darkened hallway and to send a river of light shooting along the ceiling.

“The project was completely collaborative with a fluid crossover between artists and engineers filling in the rolls of conceptualizers, designers and technicians as needed,” Creston said. “It was beautiful to see.”

Creston is now working with a team of mechanical engineering design students to develop their collective senior year project. Her creative and scholarly work has received financial support from the WSU Office of Academic Affairs, the Department of Fine Arts and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, as well as a chancellor’s seed grant to provide tools and materials and a project grant from Artist Trust.

The interdisciplinary projects align with the WSU Grand Challenges goal of improving education. They further the University’s Drive to 25 efforts by delivering innovative teaching, community outreach and transformative student experience.

Photos and video by Maegan Murray, WSU Tri-Cities marketing and communications