Graduate students Ryan Lawless and Chad Smith share a vision of art that hovers at the intersection of the digital and the physical.
Lawless comes from the “dirty” world of clay pots but wants to experiment with the digital production of a highly tactile medium. Smith comes from the “clean” world of computer science but is looking to transform the virtual objects of his imagination into something tangible.
Lawless and Smith are two of a handful of art students and faculty who made their visions a reality as part of a collaboration between the Art Department and UW-Madison’s new Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery (WID).
More than a year ago, WID Programming Director Laura Heisler connected with 4D Art Professor Steve Hilyard to explore creative ways of using the WID’s three-dimensional printers to expand its interdisciplinary mission.
3D printers were originally developed for scientific applications such as creating models of animal skeletons or molecular structures. But they have piqued the interest of artists who envision producing works that defy traditional methods and mediums.
"Breakthroughs can come from unconventional perspectives to conventional challenges,” Heisler said.
While Heisler looks to enhance the scientific processes at WID by tapping the creative problem-solving skills of artists, Hilyard sees opportunities for artists to use scientific tools and processes to advance their own field.
Hilyard hopes his students will expand their practice by using digital tools, such as the 3D printers, to compliment other media they are using, he said.
“They can use these tools to explore other directions as artists and go somewhere they haven't gone before,” he said.
The bus hit a bump in the road on Lawless’ ride to campus and another imperfection found its way into the design of a mug he was throwing on his pottery wheel.
The pottery wheel is actually an iPhone application that he used to design a pair of mugs and bowls. The “app” allowed him to throw the 3D images on the bus, at home on the couch, or anywhere outside of the ceramics studio.
He imported the images onto his laptop computer and sent them electronically to a technician across campus in the WID printing lab. The technician loaded Lawless’ image files into the digital printer that “printed” 3D mugs and bowls from an opaque plastic.
Lawless never got his hands dirty – until he used the plastic prototypes to create plaster molds from the printouts. He revels in the possibilities that come from a combination of old and new techniques.
His printed mugs and bowls, and their castings, have both crude and pixilated qualities revealing that they were designed with only two thumbs on low-resolution software.
“They look prehistoric,” Lawless admits. “Yet, technological.”
In the craft tradition that he comes from, where pride and value is placed on the visceral “hand of the artist,” Lawless maintains that his digital mug has the same spirit of a “handmade” object sculpted from clay.
“There’s such a stigma in the ceramics world about things being handmade,” he said, adding that throwing pots on an iPhone makes the art of craft more democratic. “If I am designing a mug on the bus on the way to school, why can't anyone else?”
Smith’s views his 3D printed creations – like his depiction of a human head morphing into the shape of an electrical plug – as trophies of our reliance on contemporary technology.
"For me, there's a clear metaphor between monsters and how we view technology, and the ubiquity of both of them,” Smith said.
Many people have come to rely on technology and high-tech devices for much more than function alone – a wall plug is a trophy mount for smart phones and other gadgets that often serve as fashion accessories, he said.
“In time, cables will serve as a nostalgic objects – we won't really need them,” he said. “They are weird objects to me, but at the same time there's something beautiful about just a line.”
Smith finds inspiration in the cords and cables that make electrical products, as well as computer-generated monsters on movie and videogame screens.
The digital printouts of Smith’s imaginary creatures have a Frankensteinian quality, he admits, but he stretches them beyond the traditional concept of monsters. The possibilities of the clear resin 3D printer allow him to create more polished and elegant objects that would be time-prohibitive if he sculpted them by hand.
“I do enjoy the digital craft of making these objects – and there certainly is one, a lot of people would argue – but it's not the driving goal of what I'm making,” Smith said. “It’s about being able to create completely digitally, but it's super exciting to get a tangible object after that.”
One of the struggles Smith faces as an artist has been choosing the final format for his digitally rendered pieces. They could exist finally as a projection, a 2D print or a 3D print.
“The idea comes and then later I have to decide how I want it to exist – and do I want it to exist in multiple forms,” he said.