Working with 3D printers is a must for Professor Jeff Slomba, a sculptor and professor of art at SCSU. He believes that 3D printers will irrevocably change the art of sculpture. “It’s analogous to photography twenty years ago. Can you imagine a photographer twenty years ago thinking that digital is just a fad?” he said.
While 3D printing is more associated with engineering and manufacturing than art, the technology offers a unique set of advantages and challenges for sculptors. “It feels experimental. That’s what is exciting to me as an artist,” said Slomba. It also allows him to make models that are more intricate than he could fashion by hand.
Currently, Slomba and his students use a Makerbot printer in conjunction with a handheld scanner to create 3D printed objects. “The scanning is addictive…I’ve scanned found objects, my existing analog sculptures, and living models,” he said. The handheld scanner often glitches, causing imperfections in the capture. “It gets an impressionistic image like early photographs did. I bring that capture into an Auto CAD [computer-aided design] program,” said Slomba. Using Auto CAD, he is able to manipulate the mesh and even combine it with other mesh captures. The finished mesh is then sent to the printer, which exudes a thin strip of plastic slowly built up into the desired shape.
The manufacturing process for a single object takes up to twenty hours. “It is essentially a prototype machine. It’s not fast enough for production,” said Slomba. However, he believes 3D printing will rapidly advance in the coming years making production more feasible. 3D printers are rapidly becoming cheaper, faster, and more accessible.
3D printing offers ample opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. Slomba has worked with Dr. C. Patrick Heidkamp from the Department of Geography on social justice-oriented projects. Using a 3D printer Slomba was able to visually represent the differences in median income between Connecticut’s eight counties and all one hundred and sixty-nine towns. “It’s very different than looking at spreadsheets. The objects became a tactile experience that told the story of the data,” he said.
Besides the manufacturing time issue, there are also size constraints to consider. “I think large scale, but it prints out things the size of a loaf of bread. As a sculptor I like problem solving around it. I print things for use in larger constructions or build parts and then assemble things,” he said.
Slomba plans on continuing to utilize 3D printing more in his work. Recently he used a 3D printed object as part of a commissioned piece about the Lincoln Oak, which previously stood on the New Haven Green. The tree was uprooted during Hurricane Sandy, bringing with it skeletons from the Colonial Era. In the future, he hopes to incorporate 3D printing on a piece that will bring attention to climate change.