I envy current college students, to be honest. When I was in college, 3D printing had existed for a couple of decades, but most people I knew hadn’t heard of it. I didn’t know what it was at the time, and I definitely didn’t know of any schools that had 3D printers; mine certainly didn’t. Now, almost all higher education facilities have at least one 3D printer, and students and professors are using them in ways that I couldn’t have imagined back when I was still in school.
I’m particularly envious of the students in the ceramics department at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), because in February the department completed the installation of the college’s first ceramic 3D printer. I’ve never seen a ceramic printer in person, but I can’t get enough of videos of them printing. I worked with ceramics quite a bit in high school and college, and I love clay – the feel of it, the look of it, the satisfying thump it makes when you pound it on a table to get the air bubbles out. Most of all, I love the incredible beauty that artists can conjure out of what is, essentially, just thick mud – and that’s why I find ceramic 3D printers so fascinating; they lend themselves to entirely new geometries.
Bryan Czibesz, artist and ceramics professor at SUNY New Paltz, is fascinated by the capabilities of ceramic 3D printers, too. He’s even more fascinated by what people can create with them. Not only do 3D printers allow for more design freedom, but their very nature generates new ideas. Czibesz came to RIT to help the department build and program their 3D printer, which they did in a mere three hours. He was impressed not only by the speed and skill with which the students built the printer, but by the artistic ideas they came up with for its use.
“…I love doing these workshops,” he told the RIT Reporter. “I love the contact, the ideas that come and are generated by the presences of people thinking about this machine that can be so abstract. As soon as someone sees something in motion, it reminds them of things. As soon as people see the potential of forms, the potential of the language of the machine – things occur. This is the way new things come. Not all great ideas come out of vacuum – very few do.”
Although I’m personally fascinated by ceramic 3D printers, I could never imagine abandoning traditional hand-building and wheel-throwing techniques. There’s just something about holding clay, physically shaping and molding it, that is almost addictive to many artists, and Czibesz, despite having built 40 clay 3D printers over the course of his career, can’t fully abandon the traditional ways either. Even as he 3D prints his pieces, he continues to manipulate them, both during and after the printing process.
“I try to print them in a way that’s really hands-on, physical,” he said. “The structure is really tenuous, the manipulation needs to happen in order to keep it standing up, I’ve been making additions to it while it’s building…So, it’s something that I can micromanage on the printer as it’s happening. I like that I can tinker with it.”
In that way, a 3D printer is just another tool, which is how most artists who work with the technology see it. The work is still coming from the mind and the hands of the artist, making the printer no more a stand-in for the artist him- or herself than a pottery wheel is.
“I think there is also this tendency to label ceramist as ‘luddites’ or people who don’t embrace technology – but that’s not true,” said Czibesz. “Clay is a really sophisticated and nuanced material technology. But, digital is a new one. And I like how 3D technology kind of bridges the gap, that it’s just one next step on the continuum of making things.”
Czibesz’s work is done at RIT, and the students are now on their own to develop their own methodology for creating ceramic pieces with their newly built 3D printer. Deciding how they want to leverage the new machine to work with such an ancient medium will likely inspire a lot of creativity, and that’s the beauty of the intersection of art and 3D printing. Figuring out one’s own way to use a new tool of creation, especially one as versatile as a 3D printer, is something of an art form in itself. Discuss in the RIT forum at 3DPB.com.