A student hurrying in or out of the library at Northern Virginia Community College’s Manassas campus might make some assumptions about the sculpture installation just across from the library entrance.

That the puffy clouds are soft to the touch. That the black bars behind the clouds are stiff. That the babies’ onesies suspended among the clouds are made of fabric.

Touch, and he would find it all quite different.

“I want to fool you from a distance,” says sculptor Jessica Gardner. “I think as adults, we’re not surprised very much.”

Gardner made sure her sculpture would hold surprises for those who approach it, no matter what their age. Those placid clouds feel bristly. The seemingly unbending bars are just yarn. And the onesies that resemble everyday laundry are actually hard clay, made to look like fabric by dipping real cloth in clay, then letting the material burn away entirely in a super-hot kiln.

Manassas artist Jessica Gardner explains how she created her sculpture "Weight," on display at Northern Virginia Community College's Manassas campus. (Julie Zauzmer)

Gardner, an art instructor and student life administrator at NVCC who has sold and exhibited sculptures nationwide, has a lot to say about adulthood in her latest work, called “Weight.”

The onesies in the piece seem to be floating, but they are tied down by a net full of toys: a child-size telephone, teacup, clock and hammer. Gardner calls them “preparatory toys” — playthings that show a child how to operate in the grown-up world.

“It’s about the infinite possibilities of childhood and how we weigh them down with all these adult expectations. Those expectations are what slowly take some of the color and some of the lightness out,” Gardner says. The onesies in her piece are brightly colored, fading to dull whitish-gray near the toys.

She says she sculpted empty baby clothes, rather than putting infant bodies and faces inside, so that every onlooker could picture him or herself being tied down.

“A lot of times we don’t let our imaginations run wild as adults. And it limits us,” she says.

Gardner, 31, says she spends only half of her working hours as a sculptor touching clay. Much of her time goes into research that informs her work. To arrive at the concept for “Weight” and other sculptures, she read textbooks on child psychology.

She and her husband, who live in Manassas, are expecting their first child. “I think it’s going to be so interesting to see what happens to my work when I actually have my own child,” she says. “I think because I have been over the years so introspective, there is this fascination with which memories he’ll latch onto.”

One cherished memory from her youth: her certainty that she wanted to work with clay. “I actually started out asking my mom for a bag of cement when I was 10. I knew I wanted to build things. I wanted to make things that were bigger than papier mâché,” she says. “I saw someone with a pottery wheel on television, and I told my parents, ‘That’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.’ ”

NVCC will celebrate the installation of “Weight” — the centerpiece of a larger display that is called “Wait” — at a reception Wednesday at noon. It will remain on view until the end of the month. Gardner invites viewers to reach for the clouds — although in this case, they will find that those clouds prickle.