Singing Redwood

class project @ UC Berkeley

To design an VR exhibition and display sculptures from an auditorium that no longer exists.

Alisa Khieu, Ieje Kim, Larissa Cope, Maggie Chen, Mimy Arias, Vivian Liu, Alisa Khieu, Gwen Gettle

︎ Research
︎ Interior Design  (Sketching, Whiteboxing, Unity)
︎ Protoyping
︎ Curating

Keywords: VR Exhibition, Sculpture, Disability, Education

Along with Art Historian Justin Underhill, our team worked on designing an VR experience to display a reconstruction of an auditorium for in the California School for Deaf and Blind in Clark Kerr, Berkeley, and two sculpted panels that used to there. It’s an interesting yet challenging project, because the physical auditorium no longer exists, and there is relatively limited information on the artworks displayed.


“Hidden Gem” from a torn-down auditorium

In 2009, a set of redwood carvings from a torn-down auditorium in Clark Kerr, Berkeley was sold by UC Berkeley to a private art dealer as a “surplus” for less than $200[1]. Turns out, this set of redwood panels was produced by a renown African American artist, and were later valued at over $1 million.

Panel 1

With an interest in the artist who have produced the work, Justin Underhill, Art Historian and instructor at Cal, supervised our team as we designed the VR exhibition “Sargent Johnson Art in Context Recreation“ for the two redwood panel sculptures, as we worked with a curator at The Huntington.

Panel 2


History of the Artist

Sargent Johnson was a versatile artist known for his painting and sculptures of African American subjects. He is the first African American artist on the West Coast to achieve a national reputation and was a significant contributor to Harlem Renaissance artistic movement of the 1920s.

Johnson drew inspiration from African sculpture and Mexican/European Cubist art. In the 1930s, he began to explore aspects of Abstract art and Mexican Muralism. His early figure style can be characterized by its simplicity. While he mainly worked in wood, copper, terra-cotta, cast stone, and black clay; he also experimented with new materials like porcelain on steel panels, cast bronze, and forged enameled wire later.

History of the Space

In 1867, the new school for the deaf and blind consisted of one large building that contained classrooms, dormitories, and a kitchen and dining facilities. This original building was consumed by a fire in 1875, and temporary buildings held the school until further construction was completed. By 1890, the complex was made up of several buildings: an educational building, two dormitories for male students and two for female students, a kitchen and dining room, a laundry room, a stable, a workshop, and a private residence for the principal.

Disability and in the Early 20th century

Prior to the creation of vaccinations and antibiotics to prevent and treat measles, mumps, rubella, and polio, many children would lose their hearing, vision, or both after an onset of severe childhood illness. Children that fall into this category would often find themselves eligible for care at a school like the California School for the Deaf and Blind.

Early institutions that served children who were not allowed to attend school because of disability were established as training schools.These schools were often publicly financed by the home state, and facilitated both educational and vocational programs. These types of schools for children with disabilities were sites for eugenic segregation.

Alexander Graham Bell, in 1884 as part of the eugenics movement, warned the American public of the creation of a “deaf race” and pushed for a removal of sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools for the deaf.

The American Eugenics Movement was rampant in the 19th and 20th centuries, and several pieces of legislation came from efforts on the part of doctors, politicians, and social philosophers. The Virginia Sterilization Act of 1924 proving sterilization laws constitutional. Between 1909 and 1979, over 20,000 men and women had been sterilized in the state of California alone. This act was subsequently upheld by the May 2, 1927 Buck v. Bell ruling that stated the legality of sterilizing persons assessed as “socially inadequate”. Carrie Buck had been institutionalized and sterilized after being raped and becoming pregnant with an illegitimate child.



We brainstormed different ways to display the sculptures, imagining how we can design the space with a catalog to display the two objects and provide context for the audiences.

Inspired by the exhibition space in the Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum, we decided to use suspended poster panels to display content from the collection catalog, which will provide context for the sculptures, including the artist’s background, significance of the art, history of the space, and disability in the 20th century.

Exhibition space in the Gaylord-Pickens Oklahoma Heritage Museum, from Museum Display Design
(2012, Design Media Publishing Limited), Jasmine Yu.

Sketches and White-boxing

To visualize the design of the exhibition space, we started with sketches on paper and white-boxing in Unity so that we can focus on the overall design instead of the details of the actual 3D objects in the space.

whiteboxing during the first iteration

sketching during the second iteration

In the final iteration of the design, we added a wall with video projection in the back (see video below) to provide a clearer guided path for viewers to walk through. We also added in more details such as textures and object movements, so that the final design would be more realistic in VR.


First Person View of the exhibition space

We are wrapping up the final production of VR design, and below is a video of what the exhibition space looks like from first person view as of now.

The final product will have a few more movements and audio embedded, and at the end of the exhibition space, the viewer will be teleported into the reconstructed auditorium space, instead of the empty space at the moment.


Sargent Johnson Art in Context Recreation

This exhibit reconstructs the auditorium of the California School for the Deaf and Blind in Berkeley, California as it was in the 1930s. This auditorium was particularly notable because it was a stage for disabled children to perform and celebrate their skills and accomplishment in a time when in other places they would be cast aside or discouraged from pursuing art. The auditorium had two 22-foot gilded redwood panels carved by Sargent Johnson, a prominent African-American artist whose works arose from the Works Progress Administration. His thoughtful work depicted an Edenic scene with children singing in the company of animals and nature, celebrating the beauty and physicality of sound. This exhibit is currently being made for the Huntington Library, who owns one of the redwood panels in their public collection.


Project lead: Alisa Khieu
Research: Ieje Kim and Larissa Cope
Unity/VR development: Maggie Chen, Mimy Arias, Vivian Liu, Alisa Khieu, Gwen Gettle
Supervisor and 3D model provided by: Justin Underhill

Our team is a UC Berkeley team participating in the Microsoft Mixed Reality Academic Program. We use the Unity game engine to create VR apps that recognize underprivileged people and their art.

Read more on the Huntington’s website!