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3-D Printing: Art made real

By Cody McFarland, associate editor
On April 8, 2014

  • Robert Smith explains his dream of using 3D printing to create living sculptures in the Eddie Rhodes Gallery on March 13. Christian Urrutia / The Advocate

The shapes and sizes of the art on display in the Eddie Rhodes Gallery are as intriguing and diverse as the possibilities of the ever-progressing media used by the featured artists: 3D printing and computer numerical control carving.
Titled "Return of the Thing," the exhibit features the work of four local artists - Robert Geshlinder, Robert Michael Smith, Kim Thoman and Andrew Werby.
The reception took place on March 13 from 4:30-6:30 p.m., during which time guests were provided refreshments and allowed to peruse the gallery, interact with the artists, try their hand at using digital sculpting software and attend a guest lecture by Smith, who has worked with 3D printing since the late '90s and is an associate professor of fine arts at the New York Institute of Technology.
Throughout the reception, a desktop 3D printer set up in the gallery provided a live demonstration of how the technology works.
"I believe this is only the tip of the iceberg, in terms of the electronic revolution," Smith said during his lecture. "(3D printing) technology will take a decade to become ubiquitous, and another decade before it is of the desired quality. Then again, my projections tend to be longer than what happens in reality."
Objects that are 3D printed require either a full-color printing process in which a gypsum powder and a binding agent used to solidify the object are set and CMYK is applied, or the extruded method where a filament material is melted and deposited in layers to create the object. CNC carving is a subtractive technology that uses computers to precisely carve raw materials, such as stone and wood.
Today, a small desktop 3D printer can be purchased for about $300, and Smith expects the technology to only grow more efficient and less expensive.
Aside from art, he said that he sees the future of 3D printers as practical household devices that will specialize in making replacement parts. One application of 3D printing commonly used today is printing new cellphone cases to repair or protect smartphones, he said.
During his lecture, Smith described his history in foundry work and sculpture while previewing his body of work spanning back to 1978. He narrated how his artistic vision changed throughout the years. But the air of the discussion changed from art to science after Smith showed a video of one of his recent projects - a regenerative medicine project that uses 3D printing to make a living sculpture with human tissue.
"The art of sculpture has always had an element of shock value," he said. "My original idea was to make a sculpture out of human meat, a living sculpture that moves about on its pedestal. I realized I needed a much more hard science reason, and to not just make something for the shock value."
Collaborating with Dr. Anthony Atala at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine in North Carolina, Smith was put in charge of designing and developing the bio-sculpture concept, called "Biophormatalasmith." This served as a first step for Smith's aspiration to manufacture non-sentient human simulators to test the viability of long-distance space travel, with the goal of landing one of his living sculptures on Mars one day.
Currently, 3D printed structures comprised of living cells can live no longer than two to four weeks, he said. Of course, ethics and policy boards strictly regulate what researchers are allowed to do with living genetic material, he said.
Bruce Beasley, a local artist who has worked with digital sculpture since 1986 and was called a pioneer in artistic 3D printing by Smith, holds a more conservative view on the technology and said he doesn't think the technology will become common in households anytime soon.
"What stood out to me (about 3D printing) was the ability to make different shapes - the freedom to make any shape I could think of," Beasley said. "(Today,) the technology is bigger, faster and better. But it's not fast enough, not big enough, and not cheap enough."
Beasley was originally going to be featured in the gallery, but did not hang his work due to uncertainties around the college's insurance policy for lost or damaged art, he said.
Kim Thoman, a featured artist and guest curator of the gallery, collaborated with adjunct fine arts professor Dana Davis to put on the exhibit.
She said the piece she submitted to the gallery is a 3D rendering of a recurring shape she has painted many times before. In spite of making a flat surface appear 3D by use of perspective, she decided to make the shape's contours tangible.
"I thought, 'Why not make it real?'" she said.
Tim Volz, a photographer and friend of featured artist Werby, said 3D printing is a testament to the human imagination.
"That's part of being an artist: having a slightly different way of seeing the world," Volz said. "Artists can see what's not there or what could be there, then create it."
Smith said his works are "artifacts of contemplation" that reflect the eternal questions of life, like in the way people attempt to explain the unknown and make sense of the world, though such questions are truly unanswerable.
"Art is about humanizing technology," he said. 

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