Mud and Fire and 3D Printing

Tayo Heuser's 3D printed ceramic sculpture
Tayo Heuser’s 3D printed ceramic sculpture

3D printing is fascinating, witness the media hype (3d printed guns?) and artists are not immune.  I got the bug early and have been 3D printing since working on the Ascent Project back in 2010. Ceramic artists are doing it too.

I spent a few days at the NCECA ceramics conference in Providence RI where I saw two presentations about 3D printing ceramics.  3D printing is a broad term that covers all sorts of technologies. And the ceramics people have tried several – FDM (Fused Deposition Modeling – which is like the PLA resin process I have been using) where a slurry of ceramic slip is extruded into the sculptures.  This is much like old fashioned coil construction that potters are familiar with.  But more common in the ceramic arts today is a powder which is solidified by a binder which is sprayed on the powder layer after layer.  When the shape is completed the un-sprayed, un-bound powder is removed (and can be reused) revealing a piece of green-ware ready for bisque firing, glazing and final firing.  This process allows for much more complex shapes thanks to the support provided by the un-bound powder.  Another 3D printing process I saw was using the 3D CAD file to define a shape which was CNC milled (subtractive manufacturing) in aluminum which was then used to cast a plaster mold which was then used for conventional ceramic slip-casting.  In theory they can simply FDM print in PLA and then use it for a “lost PLA” mold like the traditional “lost wax” molding technique.

ceramic robot
Marnia Johnston’s TE+ND ceramic robot

The first lecture was by Marnia Johnston, an artist and educator in San Francisco who talked about her project to build a ceramic robot. The robot is inspired by Theo Jansen’s strandbeests. She did some very sophisticated CAD designing in Rhino and Grasshopper and Solidworks which was rapid prototyped in a FDM PLA process until it was ready to be CNC machined in aluminum that was then used to create a plaster mold for slip casting.  It seemed a long way around the barn, but I suppose it was necessary to use the aluminum castings instead of PLA models to ensure the molds were precise enough to make the functioning robot sufficiently robust.  The slip-cast parts were fired and glazed and assembled with real bearings, motors, and a computer to guide the robot to follow the sun.

The second event was a panel discussion centered on “HIfire RESolutions – 3D Printing in Clay” an exhibit of 3D printed ceramics at Chazan Gallery . The show included work by Kate Blacklock (curator), Jonathan Bonner, Chris Gustin, Tayo Heuser and Andrew Raftery. They used a variety of approaches, but mostly used the powdered ceramic technology. All of the artists worked with a digital tech to realize their visions.

Chris Guston tea bowl
Chris Guston’s wood fired, 3D printed tea bowl

I found Guston’s work most appealing because it combines his non-digital aesthetic with the new ways of working.  He started by recording the resonant tones of a song being sung into one of his traditionally created urns.  Then he used the wave-form of the song to create a shape which was then repeated to become a cup shaped form.  Finally he digitally deformed the cup form to be more like a tea bowl like those he makes by hand.  The piece was 3D printed and wood fired.

I continue to be amazed at how each artist uses the technologies in their own personal ways. Affordable 3D printing for artists is in it’s infancy so there is going to be a lot of experimentation and learning.  I left NCECA with a lot to think about.