Putting a Face on the Country

GPS helps artist’s rendering come to life in a big way on the National Mall.

The intrinsic beauty of GPS is rarely seen as clearly as it once was at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. There, an arsenal of GPS equipment and a small army of volunteer workers, helped bring the work of artist Jorge Rodríguez-Gerada to life, transforming the mall from a well-worn plot of grass to a six-acre earth/sand/gravel composite portrait. Rodríguez-Gerada calls a GPS rover his “digital paintbrush,” and, given the results of the “facescape” project in the nation’s capital, it’s obvious he wields it well.

In the beginning

The genesis of the facescape project dates back to late 2013 when Rodríguez-Gerada, who’d already done high-profile facescapes in several locations in Europe, was contacted by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery saying they’d like to work with him on a Washington-based project.

“We sat down and discussed ideas and locations and I came back to them with what I felt could be the ideal subject matter for the work,” he said. “In light of the fact that this nation is the consummate melting pot and so many diverse ethnic groups are responsible for how we got here and what we are today, I thought a large-scale portrait depicting that reality would be perfect.” 

"Topcon GPS technology is my paintbrush. This facescape would not be possible without the highly precise GPS equipment, as well as the technological expertise contributed by Topcon."

Contemporary Artist, Rodríguez-Gerada.

Putting a Face on the Country

Face time

The son of Cuban immigrants and a native of ethnically-diverse North Plainfield, New Jersey, Rodríguez-Gerada understands this nation’s melting-pot experience well, and wanted that richness to be evident in his work. With that in mind, he walked the National Mall for two weeks asking people’s permission to photograph them in his quest to create a “composite face,” reflecting the diversity of this nation. He pared those photographs down to 30 final subjects and set to work pulling unique features from each. The resultant image serves as the basis for the facescape, aptly titled: “Out of Many, One,” the translation of the Latin phrase, “E Pluribus Unum,” found on the Great Seal of the U.S. 

The artist scanned the original etching design of the composite image and converted it to a vector file to create the clean lines needed for plotting out the design on such a grand scale.  According to Scott Langbein from Topcon, the first attempt at vectoring was a classic case of “too much of a good thing.”

“The first generation vector generated 41,000 points, which was far too dense,” he said. “We used Topcon MAGNET® Office software, to clean up the drawing and when it regenerated, it gave us roughly 8,700 points and a much smoother design. Jorge was pleased with that result and we got ready to work.”

"Each contour of his drawing was redrawn in the field using stakes guided by Topcon GPS technology and software."

Mark Contino

Putting a Face on the Country

Breaking new ground

To create each element that makes up the image, those 8,700 points were loaded into Topcon HiPer SR network rovers — each equipped with a Tesla controller. Survey personnel from Clark Construction used the rovers to locate and pound a stake for each point, establishing a perimeter for each feature. The stakes were then connected using twine, resulting in an outline that would later be filled in using topsoil or gravel, depending on its position within the design. 

The unique situation on the Mall — as many as nine rovers at work in one condensed area — precluded the use of a single base station.

“We decided that the best approach for getting GPS/GLONASS correction data to those units was via a TopNETlive network solution,” said Langbein. “Working through the network of one of our subscribing dealers, Caron East out of Cumberland, Maryland, allowed every rover to deliver points repeatable to 1/8 of an inch, ideal for maintaining accuracies and ensuring the smoothness of Jorge’s design.”

At the end of each workday, data from every field controller — including stake reports and daily productivity rates — was uploaded to the cloud. “Topcon’s MAGNET software was extremely helpful in so many areas of the project,” said Rodríguez-Gerada. “It was key for work with the PDF/vector effort at the outset and it helped us track our progress through the cloud.” 

Art by the numbers

The “facescape” details were created using 2,000 tons of sand, 800 tons of dark, topsoil and seven cubic yards of white gravel. “It was a labor-intensive effort, made possible through the help of an all-volunteer workforce,” according to Laura Wachs, Clark Construction’s project superintendent. “I’ve never seen anything else like this before, but was honored to have been a part of it.”

Added Rodriguez-Gerada, “I’ve done a number of works on this scale using GPS now, and feel that I’ve really only just begun,” he said. “I’m forever thinking about art, what we can say through it, the directions in which we can take it, the difference we hope to make with it. With that in mind, I’m excited about the uses I can see for GPS and my relationship with Topcon as I move forward.”

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