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3-D printing produces a fresh creative outlet for artists

Creating designs has been a transformative experience for those artists whose intricate works can now more easily come to life.

March 10, 2013|By L.J. Williamson
  • Neri Oxman’s art was shown at Paris’ “Multiversités Créatives.”
Neri Oxman’s art was shown at Paris’ “Multiversités… (Yoram Reshef, Objet/Stratasys )

Despite the chicken-in-every-pot hype over consumer-level 3-D printers, the technology still has a long way to go to be usable, or useful, for the average Joe. Designing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional computer screen is no simple task, especially for those unskilled in computer-assisted design or software. And for most people, there's no compelling reason to make a unique object from scratch when mass-produced equivalents are cheaper and simpler.

But for some artists, 3-D printing has been a revelation. The ability to design and build objects layer by layer, rather than through traditional methods such as casting or handcrafting, has created a new level of freedom. So while 3-D printing has yet to live up to its promise for consumers, for artists, the technology has been fueling a design explosion for more than a decade.

Bathsheba Grossman is amused by the recent flood of attention. "I've been doing it for 15 years now and suddenly it's fashionable," she laughs. Once a struggling art student, she says that discovering the process of creating her mathematically complex designs by computer has "saved my bacon."

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Grossman, a geometric artist living in Santa Cruz, was having difficulty bringing the designs inside of her brain into the physical world. In art school, she was hand-carving waxes and making molds out of assembled pieces, but after months of painstaking work, she would have only lackluster results.

"The guys that were my mentors in geometrical sculpture were brilliant craftsmen with old world training, and they were actually able to produce extremely sophisticated geometrical forms by using hand casting and lost wax casting," she says. "But let's put it this way: I wasn't that good."

Grossman was good with computers, however, and was supporting herself through art school as a programmer. "So when I found out about this 3-D printing thing, I matched it up with the designs that were in my head but that I couldn't make and I thought, 'I can do this. It's made out of software, so I'm going to be able to handle this.'"

Grossman now makes her living as a sculptor, and last summer had a sculpture installed at VanDusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, Canada, that at 6 1/2' feet tall by 5 feet in diameter may well be the largest 3-D print in North America.

Imagine a standard inkjet printer that squirts ink onto a piece of paper, in the shape of the letter "A." Now imagine that instead of squirting ink, the printer is squirting a layer of molten plastic. Then it places another layer on top of that one, and another on top of that. Soon, you would have a thick, plastic "A." That's an extremely simplified explanation of how 3-D printers work. But the selection of materials is no longer limited to plastic — ceramic, metal or even chocolate are available.

One of the chief advantages of such printing is that an object can be fabricated layer by layer, says David Cawley, director of the model shop in the 3-D lab at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, without the limitations of molds. "Three-D printing is very iterative — it allows you to quickly make something, change it and quickly make it again," he says.

Art and design students at the school make use of its seven 3-D printers, but those aren't enough to meet all of the student's needs, Cawley says, so many also use outside services and a handful have home units. Cawley sees promising developments in schools, where 3-D printers are slowly becoming more common, even at some middle and high schools. At his lab, students create files that are not necessarily perfect, but in a learning environment perfection isn't the point.

Three-dimensional printers are all over the news at the moment because of an industry push to make the machines smaller and more affordable for the consumer market. But in fabrication shops, 3-D printers, most commonly those made by leading companies Stratasys and 3D Systems, have been standard equipment for years.

Chicago artist Joshua Harker gained familiarity with the technology working in commercial sculpture in a prototyping shop, where he made action figures and Happy Meal toys, and that depth of experience gave him the skills needed to eventually bring his own ideas to life.

Harker says 3-D printing gave his art room to grow. For years Harker created complex drawings he called "tangles," which he had wanted to make into three-dimensional designs. He tried stone, wood, wax and clay, but found that his designs were too complex to be made in molds. Once he moved to 3-D printing, he was finally able to realize his vision. "It was liberating," he says. "Before, there was no way to make something this complex. Now, we can make the unmakeable."

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