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When the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts asked Fernando Orellana, associate professor of digital art, to create an exhibit that might get the attention of famed American painter Thomas Eakins, Orellana had to take something very particular (and peculiar) into account.

“The special consideration is that ghosts exist,” Orellana said. “Without that, the rest of it doesn’t work.”

 Fernando Orellana, associate professor of digital art

Fernando Orellana

And that’s because Eakins has been dead for a century.

But this didn’t stop Orellana from creating “His Study of Life.” On display in PAFA’s Morris Gallery this fall, the exhibit was designed to help Eakins’s spirit (or any phantasm) make art once more—with the help of four robots.

Custom-built by Orellana, each machine was equipped with sensors that detected electromagnetic field, infrared and temperature fluctuations. The idea was that an apparition could manipulate one (or all three) to control the sensors and thereby use the robot to: mix paints on Eakins’s old palette; open Eakins’s old paint box; sit in Eakins’s prop chair; or use one of Eakins’s brushes.

“This last is the most elaborate. The sensors allowed the brush to be driven up, down, left, right—sort of like an Etch-a-Sketch,” Orellana said. “A ghost could draw a picture, which is one reason live nude models were part of the installation—to inspire ghost artists.”

As they inspired Eakins.

The former PAFA professor was influential in the history of art education. He insisted on using the nude figure in his classes at a time when that was not necessarily acceptable, Orellana said. It was this passion that eventually got Eakins fired.

“I’m actually the biggest skeptic ever. I’m open to ghosts, I just can’t honestly say I’ve ever had a paranormal experience,” Orellana said.

Attitudes toward the nude figure are different in the academy these days,though attitudes on ghosts vary according to who you ask.

But he is a thinker, and that’s how he got into making machines for the dead.

The machine containing Thomas Eakin's paint brush

The machine containing Thomas Eakin's paint brush

“A while back I was walking in Manhattan and this seemingly deranged guy came up and whispered in my ear, ‘Can you hear them? Ghosts are jealous.’ It was freaky but it resonated in my mind,” Orellana said. “Why are they jealous? Maybe because they can’t interact with our world anymore.”

“It really got me thinking about user interface. How do you design something for someone who hasn’t just lost an appendage but an entire body?” he continued. “And I don’t know if the dead can learn anything, they don’t exactly have brains anymore.”

He decided what he needed (and what he used in his first paranormal project called “Shadows”) were objects ghosts are familiar with.

“So for Eakins, I didn’t use this crazy new iPhone interface, I used his painting palette,” Orellana said. “I used something he’d normally use—or posthumously use, in this case.”

To watch a PBS segment on the exhibit visit www.pbs.org/video/2365860195 

And learn more about “His Study of Life,” “Shadows” or Orellana himself, at fernandoorellana.com