3-D Digital hub grows in Bennington

A sink carved from Vermont maple ripples in the exact topography of a valley in the Green Mountains. Karolina Kawiaka, the artist and architect who designed it, has used new technologies that have led to advances in cancer treatment, jet engines and housing on Mars.

Digital design and fabrication has advanced rapidly in this century, with 3-D printing, computer-assisted design software and computer-controlled machines to cut, drill, turn, weave and assemble those designs.

And Bennington, Vt., has become a hub for it without anyone realizing it — until Bennington Museum and Bennington College took a closer look.

This spring, they will highlight the region’s growing role in “3-D Digital: Here and Now,” the newly opened show running at the museum through June 15.

The show began with a tour of Kaman Composites, a Bennington company designing and fabricating medical and aerospace equipment, said Robert Wolterstorff, Bennington Museum’s Executive Director. Not long after this trip, he came across a Bennington College journal listing new courses in 3-D Digital Design taught by sculptor Jon Isherwood.

Isherwood is a leader in the field. He is also founder and president of the Digital Stone Project, an international nonprofit giving artists access to new stone-carving technology. A milling machine can rough out a sculpture, Wolterstorff said, cutting to within 1/4 to 1/8 of an inch of the design the artist has envisioned, and the artist can polish from there by hand.

In the last few years Bennington College has expanded its digital arts program, he said. With the technology available in the area, students can design furniture to be laser-cut out of plywood.

“There has been a profound change in how objects are made in the last 15 years,” Wolterstorff said, “and it’s often invisible to the public.”

A high concentration of the 3-D digital community has grown here, between faculty at the college and local designers and manufacturers. But few of them have been aware of others working in similar fields nearby.

In this show, Jamie Franklin, curator at Bennington Museum, has worked with Isherwood to assemble objects to reveal the role of 3-D technologies across many fields of industry and in art and design — works with direct connections to Bennington and the region, he said.

Architects have used computer-assisted design (CAD) for 15 or 20 years, Wolterstorff agreed, and now these tools are moving into manufacturing and art. They are allowing artists, scientists and manufacturers to design in ways they have never done before and to work with materials they have never used before — even with materials that have never existed before.

CAD designs are not simply blueprints, Franklin said. They can direct computer controlled (CNC) machinery — routers, lathes, looms and milling machines that can cut with lasers.

These precise machines can drill into hard materials or form soft ones like carbon composites, woven carbon fiber embedded in a resin. These composite shapes are cut and woven in 3-D, Wolterstorff said, though they look flat until they are inflated and the resin hardens. With CAD tools, a manufacturer can control the exact path of each carbon fiber, track thousands of fibers finer than human hair and design complex patterns.

This kind of composite can make jet engine fan blades stronger and safer than steel.

Some designers are even leaving the planet. Güvenç Özel, a Bennington College alum and an award-winning architect in L.A., placed fourth in a NASA competition to design housing on Mars. The Bennington exhibit will offer a digital walk-through of one of his structures — a colorful organic shape about 1,000 feet square. It looks like the spread fingers of a hand.

Özel answered an international call for proposals, Franklin said, imagining a way to make housing on a planet with an atmosphere less than 1 percent of earth’s, to build a habitat to protect people from the harsh climate. For this show, Özel chose a digital display rather than a model to give a clearer sense of scale.

“He wants people to feel what it would be like to experience it,” Franklin said.

In the future an architect will be able to send designs to Mars in minutes, Wolterstorff said, and use the materials in Martian rocks and soil to build them.

In beaming Özel’s plans across distance to build them in a desert, another kind of technology comes into play. While a milling machine will cut away rock or plastic like a super-fine chisel, another form of digital technology will build an item from scratch — 3-D printing.

As this new printing has emerged, Wolterstorff said, people have imagined bringing it home — inviting guests for dinner and printing out the cutlery while they are drinking cocktails. That technology is rapidly coming closer. He knows a company in Brooklyn, N.Y., that will print small batches of items for artists and entrepreneurs. And local innovators have used 3-D printing for everything from jewelry to dolls to satellites.

A 3-D printer heats material to melting point and creates shapes that dry quickly as they appear, Franklin said. The machine can “print” in metal, in plastic, in almost any kind of material — he has seen a film of one printing with chocolate.

R. John Wright, a Bennington doll-maker with an international following, has used one to re-invent an early 20th-century German technique for his craft. He creates figures like the actors in “The Wizard of Oz,” Wolterstorff said. Wright can take a CAD design from a film and print out a 3-D model of Ray Bolger, the actor playing the Scarecrow. He uses that model to make a wax sculpture, altering it by hand as he chooses, and from that he makes a mold for a doll’s body made in pressed felt.

Heather Dewey-Hagborg, a Bennington College alum and artist, incorporates the technology into art. She began collecting stray hairs, gum, detritus that could give her a DNA sample of the person who left it, and in an open-source lab in Brooklyn, N.Y. — and now at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — she has coded a program to envision a face to go with each sample. She prints 3-D portraits, masks in full color.

Taking a more somber look at surveillance, Franklin  also includes a 3-D printed satellite communications antenna and a military drone.

The sheer range of work in the show awes him.

“It’s inspiring pride,” Wolterstorff agreed. “I’m blown away by what’s going on here.”

He imagines a local high school student thinking “I don’t need to go to Palo Alto or New York City” — they can work at the leading edge of technology and design in Vermont.

People think of high-tech in terms of apps and programming, he said; this is a different realm. It has grown here through the college and alumni community, the local arts community with the museum anchoring it, and the town’s long history of manufacturing.

“Companies using these technologies are here because Bennington was a manufacturing center for more than 150 years,” Franklin said.

Today, with these technologies, artists and designers can make shapes they could never have made by hand, in metal, wood, plastic, glass, fiber and stone.

And a firm like Abacus in Albany, N.Y., can make a few or a few hundred objects easily. Working from a traditional mold is very expensive, Wolterstorff said, and a mold is hard to change. A designer can re-shape a digital 3-D design with a touch of the mouse.

Burton Snowboards, up the road in Burlington, can print out a new model for a snow board binding and test it on the slopes the next day, before the snow melts.

This story appears in the Hill Country Observer, April 2016. My thanks to editor Fred Daley. The digital image at the top shows a design for housing on Mars. Güvenç Özel, a Bennington College alum and an award-winning architect in L.A., placed fourth in a NASA competition. Image courtesy of Bennington Museum.

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