3-D printing can make everyone an artist
By Mark Jenkins
Published: Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
John Dreyfuss' studio is stuffed with his sculptures — some models and some finished, most representational but a few abstract. The studio, a high-ceilinged warehouse in Washington, holds pieces made by traditional means, including maquettes built from layers of wax, a venerable technique.
At the center of the work area, however, is a sleek contemporary device roughly the size of a refrigerator. It's a Dimension BST 3-D printer, made by a Minnesota company, Stratasys.
“Every sculptor I really admire is working on how to use it,” the gray-goateed Dreyfuss says.
“Printer” is a slightly misleading term for the apparatus. It doesn't spit out paper copies; it slowly builds plastic ones. A nozzle extrudes ivory-colored plastic, layer by sixteenth-of-an-inch layer, to fabricate an item designed with software.
Whether to create models or finished works, the use of 3-D printing in fine-art sculpture is still relatively rare. But those who employ it expect it grow, as the process becomes cheaper, more refined and simply better known. Some advocates of 3-D printing extol its ability to let anyone create sculptures, for good or ill. And artists in commercial design see a particularly promising future for it.
Dreyfuss, a onetime architecture student who dropped out of Harvard's graduate school in the mid-1970s to become a sculptor's assistant, heard about 3-D printing from his architecture contacts. “It seemed perfect for what I do,” says Dreyfuss, whose work relies on elegant, streamlined forms rather than, say, found objects or industrial-style brutalism.
He has used a computer with Rhinoceros 3-D software and his printer to make a mold that's ultimately cast in fiberglass, bronze and aluminum. “Once you cut the shape,” he notes, “you can make the sculpture⅜out of any material you want.”
It takes Dreyfuss' printer about seven hours to construct a piece the printer's maximum size: 12-inches high by 8-inches wide. If he needs something bigger, he prints multiple pieces and glues them together.
The ability to adjust size is important to Dreyfuss. His studio contains two life-size fiberglass models of lions, designed to flank the entrance to a condominium building. The sculptor loaned the models to his clients so they could contemplate their form before the final piece was forged in bronze. The condo developers ultimately decided the beasts should be 20 percent larger, which was easily arranged.
The current exhibition at Artisphere in Virginia, “The Next Wave: Industrial Design Innovation in the 21st Century,” showcases a lamp whose honeycombed plastic form popped from a 3-D printer. It was made by a Belgian firm with an apt name, Materialize.
“Right now, it is cost-prohibitive to make these products in mass,” notes Douglas Burton, curator of the Artisphere show and co-owner of Apartment Zero, a Washington design-incubation organization.
“This piece we're showing is a $4,000 piece,” he says. “The first time I looked at it, and didn't realize it was done by 3-D printing, I thought, ‘How in the world can this little plastic lamp cost that much?' But when you understand the technology behind it, it makes sense.”
A Dimension BST printer can cost up to $30,000. “It will take years for this technology to catch on and be used by many more people, and as that happens, it will become more and more affordable,” Burton says.
Currently, 3-D printing is being used to craft one-of-a-kind pieces for medical purposes. Patients who have lost body parts can have them replaced with duplicates. (The printer can also produce parts for firearms, a growing controversy.)
Three-dimensional imaging and printing, Burton says, “opens up the field of what can be designed. Incredibly intricate details can be designed.” In addition, the technology means that “pretty much anybody now could be a designer.”
This is what intrigues Jonathan Monaghan, who uses the process in his video work. “I'm interested in the democratization aspect of it,” says the artist, a 2011 University of Maryland master's of fine arts graduate who teaches at the Corcoran School of Art & Design.
Two years ago, Monaghan did a stint as artist-in-residence at MakerBot, a New York firm that makes some of the least expensive 3-D printers, selling for less than $2,000. He also participated in a 2012 “hackathon” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where participants used consumer-grade 3-D devices to make reproductions, interpretations and “remixes” of art from the collection.
Such technology “allows people to be more creative,” Monaghan says. “It turns everybody from a consumer to a content producer. And I think that is where it gets really interesting.”
Yet on his website, the artist, best known for video animations, classifies much of his work made with 3-D printers as “research,” not art. “Because the consumer-grade technology prints in a cheap plastic, I find it a little hard to call the projects I do with it fine art,” he says. “I like to think the art exists more in the process behind them than the actual object.”
Some of Monaghan's videos integrate characters from video games into environments derived from baroque and neoclassical architecture, and he has used 3-D printing to create sculptures that suggest Gothic cathedrals. “Those were created with a $30,000 Stratasys Dimension,” he notes.” That plastic, although it's similar material, is more expensive.
“The MakerBot's plastic is very cheap,” he continues, “so you can print out a lot of things and not spend much money. It really lends itself to experimentation, using it as a workshop tool, and to just having fun.”
When making his cathedral-like pieces, Monaghan essentially draws them with software. “I can make a simple geometric form within minutes,” he says, though his Gothic constructions “could take a couple weeks of tinkering around.”
Where Monaghan's work is often rooted in commercial digital imagery, Dreyfuss takes his inspiration from Edgar Degas, Alberto Giacometti and Constantin Brancusi, sculptors whose curves were created without computer software.
“I don't want to use the computer to make something I can't make,” Dreyfuss says. “I want to use the computer to make better things I can make.”
He always begins a sculpture by drawing it, then makes a wax maquette. Only after these traditional steps does he turn to the Rhinoceros software and 3-D printing. He follows this procedure whether devising a giant lyre to be exhibited outdoors in Qatar, where Islamic custom forbids images of living things, or the near-abstract “Inventions” that will be shown at the Kreeger Museum, beginning May 9.
“At each step, I'm trying to get ownership of the piece,” Dreyfuss says. One reason he's so pleased with 3-D imaging, he explains, is that “as the piece is enlarged, it doesn't lose the hand of the artist.”
Mark Jenkins is a contributing writer for the Washington Post.
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