Bonsai on blockchain: how former Google engineer Lawrence Rogers is innovating with fully onchain art

Steph Kunkel
September 30, 2022
“I thought, the more on-chain, the more native with web3 blockchain art; the art will exist and live for a long time.

An ex-Googler, Lawrence toyed with the idea of working at a start-up after leaving the web2 giant. But after delving deeper into web3, the technologist and creative saw a chance to combine both interests in NFTs. He talks to Steph Kunkel about bringing collaboration and time into his art, creating entirely generative and onchain pieces, why smart contract technology is revolutionary.

A ten-year-old boy huddles over his graphing calculator, coding. He experiments with particle effects and physics theory, uncovering a new passion and an entirely new world. In high school, the Kentucky native codes an Android game with his friends that thousands of users pay to play. Lawrence Rogers then went off to Stanford and built his career at Google, peak web2, before pivoting to web3 to embrace the disruption wrought by smart contracts across art and beyond.

Last year, Lawrence set out on his own start-up to incorporate blockchain into video games, but found streamers were hesitant to promote crypto games. Looking to pivot, Lawrence dived further down the rabbit hole, researching how blockchain engineering and smart contracts were reinventing industries from the ground-up, rather than just adding something new on top. He quickly became enthralled in the web3 space and decided to make another pivot. This time, to art.

Lawrence wasn’t new to artistry. In the past, he’d done everything from music and painting to the less familiar, designing custom wedding rings and building his own furniture. An artist as well as a builder, it gave Lawrence a unique point-of-view in his NFT work; a creative and a technologist.

“Can I create an NFT that lives and grows over time?”

— Lawrence Rogers

His genesis project, Jackson, was inspired by a video about bonsai trees. Lawrence tells me of one bonsai that has lived for a thousand years and recently sold for a high price. “What makes one bonsai tree so valuable?” I asked. Lawrence smiled, “The bonsai tree is reflective of its past.” This was what prompted Lawrence to ask a question that has influence the trajectory of his creative intent – and his career trajectory more broadly: “can I create an NFT that grows over time?”

In pursuit of his vision, Lawrence began generating algorithms that would portray a bonsai tree changing and growing over time. “I wanted to build something completely on-chain. I thought, the more on-chain, the more native with web3 blockchain art, the art will exist and live for a long time,” Lawrence says. The collection website proudly declares, “As long as Ethereum exists and web browsers can read SVG images, you will be able to view and grow your Jackson.”

Jackson #28, christened "the duck" by the Jackson community.

The name 'Jackson' comes from Jackson Pollock, known for creating brush strokes of different textures. It gave him the initial to simulate 1,000 NFTs with 30 random strokes each, though as Lawrence viewed the collection in order, it didn't feel right. The strokes weren't varied enough, whilst the final product was too busy. He wanted variety, evident uniqueness, and complexity. After dozens of iterations and tweaks, he finally reached his decision.

Lawrence created Jackson as a 100% on-chain generative art project that grows over time, with each new mint adding a new block to their own canvas, as well as up to twenty of those before it. (The first ten minters have the perk of receiving every new block.) The intention was to grow over time: pieces would gain new brush strokes as more Jacksons are minted, though the collection sold out in 7 minutes.

Collectors could also customise their stroke through a custom mint functionality. Lawrence considered removing the ability to create unique brush strokes, “What if someone creates a black box and attempts to ruin the collection?” In the end, Lawrence decided to keep the customisation element and someone did create a black box, Jackson #308, which encompassed the entire canvas, but it didn’t turn out the way you’d expect. “It’s part of the experiment and the customisation adds a unique element to the collection.”

Once the collectors mint their pieces, their unique brush stroke will be added to previously minted canvases, evolving their canvas into a new piece of art. Then collectors can sit back and watch their canvas grow. As others minted their Jacksons, each canvas collects brush strokes and evolve over time. “You can see whose mint it came from, each stroke, on the website; you can see all the Jacksons you’ve painted on,” Lawrence explains.

“I thought, the more on-chain, the more native with web3 blockchain art; the art will exist and live for a long time.”

— Lawrence Rogers

Inspired by the bonsai, Lawrence was drawn to the idea of aging art, and how anything, even a tree, can hold multiple stories over its lifetime. “One of the promises of blockchains is eternity. As web3 and NFTs evolve, change, and interact over time, it can really influence the opportunity to combine longevity and prosperity.”

Jackson embodies the experimentation in web3, utilising collaboration – he’s keen for his smart contract to serve as inspiration for other generative artists –  community mints, and generative work. In doing so, Jackson peers into the future of the potential and promises that web3 holds. Lawrence gives us a collection where we can track Jackson in all its stages of life and watch it evolve; we see Jackson in the past, present, and future. He is currently working on V2 to continue the its evolution and his future NFT projects even over time, even after the mints are completed.

Jackson 308 was a customised brush stroke — a black square that engulfed the canvas. Based on the collector’s wallet, their generated brushstroke would have been a large blue vertical rectangle in the left-hand corner of the piece.

At 157 eth in volume, Jackson is by far Lawrence's most successful project, but the follow-up to his genesis, MergeFlowers, takes collaborative, generative art into new territory. A compilation of 850 on-chain flowers that bloomed upon the completion of the merge, turning collaborative art into a collaborative experience. Pre-merge, all flowers appeared as green buds, their traits hidden. Post merge, the flowers bloom, revealing the unique trait combinations underneath. This process allows the collector to mint their own unique flower, be a part of the minting process, and watch their flower bloom alongside others, marking a historic moment in unison. This progression gives the project life, echoing the lifecycle of natural flowers —  growing, changing, living.

“One of the promises of blockchains is eternity.”

— Lawrence Rogers

Lawrence is currently building on his ideas from Jackson and MergeFlowers while continuing to combine his generative art with smart contracts to explore how blockchain technology can enhance interactive digital art that tells stories over time. He’s exploring new ideas for creative minting processes and hopes to include more interactive elements to enhance artist collaboration and community engagement.

In particular, Lawrence is taking what he’s learnt back to gaming, working to make the space easier to access, trust, and enjoy. He’s currently working on an NFT Space Invaders minigame designed to grow over time. Each collector will mint their own spaceship, with various features based on the gamer’s wallet address much like for Jackson, though a lot more intricate in design variations, visualisations, and how interactive the assets are. And the Invaders that players are tasked to battle? They are volunteers from the players themselves: those who mint can enter by colour, size, or speed.

“Are there new concepts we can use to create interactive and collaborative art?”

— Lawrence Rogers

Lawrence believes that utilising these interactive elements creates a sense of excitement and embodies what web3 is all about – the evolution of art over time and the interactive story being told. “Jackson could have ended up very different without the algorithms and smart contract, but each piece and brush stroke has a meaning. This brush stroke is this colour because you were the 40th person to mint, or the brush is based on your wallet address, which provides a sense of identity to each collector.”

When creating new work, Lawrence always asks himself, “are there new kinds of art that we could not make before? Are there new concepts we can use to create interactive and collaborative art?” Lawrence urges other artists to do the same, creating pieces that are unique to that specific collector. Ultimately, he makes us stop and wonder: what is the purpose of this NFT being on-chain? As it turns out, there are many answers to that question.

Lawrence used each minter's wallet address to create the pseudo-random rectangles that form the core of his collaborative genesis.
Lawrence used each minter's wallet address to create the pseudo-random rectangles that form the core of his collaborative genesis.
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Steph Kunkel
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Steph Kunkel is a US-based writer, choreographer, and brand/marketing specialist. She is an art enthusiast with a passion for all things creative. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, drawing, and dancing.

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