USCB students make creative use out of new 3-D printing technology

lisa@eatgoodbread.comApril 4, 2014 

This past March, art students at the University of South Carolina Beaufort filled the Sea Island Center Gallery, a former inn with a grand view of the river, with the results of their New Media Art class. No canvases, no paints, no gold frames â€" their creativity took the form of 3-D printed objects, video and interactive pieces. Three-D printers have medical and industrial applications too. While artists are producing sculptures, scientists are building vital organs.

These techno-opportunities are the main reason that Levi Kinnard, a junior from Columbia, attends USCB. "Anything with new media helps you get a career ... that's a great draw for me." He also likes the small campus. "Brian, my professor, is phenomenal. And just look out the window, how can you not get inspired?" Kinnard said. He is also intrigued by the architectural elements in downtown Beaufort.

Most of the pieces in the show were diminutive and monochromatic. The walls were dotted with student-designed action figures (one sliced in half to show the honey-combed interior), and commemorative plaque-like pieces that looked a lot like Han Solo getting carbonized in the "Empire Strikes Back." I imagine that this show in Beaufort looked like the prototype rooms in the Nerf factory in China, or the Alessi design factory in the Italian Alps.

The students used smartphones, online design programs, and 3-D scanners to build to the specifications of their imaginations. They are limited to tchotchke-sized dimensions and one color by the printer, though I found the palette of cobalt blue, steely gray and brilliant orange quite satisfying.

Sophmore Megan Gilbert presented a line of characters called "Mad Hatter Cafe," which is also a story she is writing. All her characters are female, and Alice is Al. When the digital sculpture assignment was announced, her professor Brian Glaze told her she needed a theme, and she thought "Well, I've got one."

Working in an online sculpting program, she started with a sphere, and "pulled from it to make the hair" much like you would with clay, she explained. Now that she's made the 3-D versions of her characters adapted from Lewis Carroll, she wants to put her story into a graphic novel. That's an admirable New Media life-cycle for her theme.

Most pieces of art took advantage of the limitations of the materials and tools.

Kinnard created "Splatter" a series of spheres manipulated to be in the stages of a drip, dangling from the ceiling in a straight line. Freshman Chloe Threatt designed lipstick, nail polish and mascara containers in deep fuchsia, titled "Famous Berry c027." They were to scale, like you could pick them up and smear them on, but entirely seamless and rounded at the edges.

When an artist sets up an everyday object this way, it transforms into art, the way a vase automatically looks good in the center of a table. In this show, these objects were just the tip of the ... artsberg? The process was the point. The college students spoke about charting the intricate steps from camera to design program to printer. They explained the effort of trying to understand what's beyond the screen out there in the open source, DIY, wiki-world, and narrated the stretches they took to build a bridge from the digital to the analog.

Craftsmanship and design is nothing new in Beaufort, just ask the weavers of cast nets and sweetgrass baskets.

Even beyond common lipstick, this process, and their imaginations, are relevant to Beaufort now. "Helio Nock" was custom-designed plastic fletching for arrows; I bet the Buck, Bass and Beyond crowd might enjoy seeing those. Perforated objects could be sewn into projects at Tabby Fabric & Studio. Architectural elements could be replicated and placed in unexpected places -- finials for your Volvo, cornices for your baby carriage?

Professor Glaze spent two months printing 40 or so objects for the show. "The printer was behind a window, so everyone could walk by and see it," he said. He and the students are also building another 3-D printer -- with printed parts, of course. And it will print in three colors.

"My only building experience was Legos," Kinnard said, "so this is a big step."

Lisa Annelouise Rentz lives and stretches her creative muscles in Beaufort.

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