Video+Story: 3D Printer Gives UTEP Art Students More Options

About 20 students from The University of Texas at El Paso have put a 21st century spin on ceramics, one of civilization’s oldest art forms, and their creations will be part of an exhibit that opens January 24, 2019, at the Stanlee and Gerald Rubin Center for the Visual Arts.

“Sections: New Cities, Future Ruins at the Border” will include 170 pieces of different shapes and sizes that were designed by students using a special computer program and produced via a 3D ceramics printer that used locally harvested and processed clay.

The show will be in the center’s large Rubin Gallery through April 6, 2019. The National Endowment for the Arts funded the exhibition and related activities.

The software and the printer were gifts from the Rubin’s visiting artists Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, educators, architects and co-founders of Emerging Objects, a San Francisco-based company that specializes in innovative 3D printing solutions for buildings, interiors and environments.

Kerry Doyle, the Rubin Center director, called this one of the most important collaborations between a visiting artist and UTEP students in terms of its long-term applications for the students. She said the 3D printer, installed in the Ceramics Lab during the fall 2018 semester, offers art students novel opportunities.

“We always try to connect our visiting artists with our students and we’ve had many successful collaborations in the past, but nothing as in-depth as this,” she said referring to their use of local clay and innovative 3D technology. “I think this will change the way our students make ceramics.”

Vincent Burke, associate professor of art who specializes in ceramics, helped Rael and San Fratello prepare for the exhibit. The pair rewarded Burke’s efforts and those of his students by donating the 3D printer, which Burke called “a disruptor” because of the polar views his students have about this new technology.

“No one was lukewarm,” he said. “I reminded them that (the printer) does not necessarily replace using our hands or a potter’s wheel. It’s a 21st century way to conceptualize our artistic practices and execute what is difficult if not impossible to do by hand.”

Burke said he was grateful that he and his students had the opportunity to work on this project. He called it a challenge for everyone involved including him, but a thrilling experience overall. The benefits ranged from interdisciplinary collaborations and working with professional artists to learning about native clays and how to use cutting-edge 3D technology.

“Our new 3D printer is an incredible tool that will provide our students with a great opportunity to learn a new skill that more and more artists are using around the world,” he said. “It’s a game changer for us. It’s really remarkable. The key is using it in the service of art and ideas that reflect our unique individual voices.”

Rael, who was at UTEP the week of January 7 to create a large display for the exhibit, said he donated the printer because he wanted to give the students an opportunity to combine their knowledge with local materials and new technology.

“The idea was, ‘How do we expand on cross-border cultures and allow the creativity of Vince and his students to produce a series of objects that come from this region materially and intellectually?’,” said Rael during an interview in one of the Rubin Center’s first-floor workshops next to a table full of the student art pieces.

He noted the diversity of the shapes, textures and complexions of the vessels, and said that each reflected the students’ personal narratives. He said the variety of pieces excited him and that they were beyond his expectations collectively.

“I’m overwhelmed by looking at each one of them,” said Rael, who complimented Burke and his students for the passion and the creative, intellectual and physical energy they brought to the project. He estimated that they all had put hundreds if not thousands of hours into the collaboration, which he called one of the best of his career.

Rael, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, and San Fratello, an associate professor of interior design at San Jose State University, decided to use native clay, which has its roots in the area’s adobe and pottery, to promote their environmental art for the Rubin exhibit. The difference from the student work is the Californians used an industrial-sized 3D printer to create what would become a circular adobe vessel that would stand more than 6 feet tall.

It was the artists’ desire to familiarize themselves with the region’s clay that brought them into contact with Burke during the summer of 2017. The pair worked with the UTEP professor to find different clays, process them, and test them to see which deposits would work best for their project. Burke, with the help of Richard Langford, Ph.D., professor in UTEP’s Department of Geological Sciences, mapped out different clay deposits throughout El Paso County. About 20 students, including Dina Edens, Burke’s teaching assistant at the time, participated in the labor-intensive clay harvesting.

Edens, who earned her bachelor’s degree in ceramics and metalsmithing in December 2018, said she was excited about every aspect of this project from digging, processing and testing the clay to assembling the 3D printer, learning how to use it and then sharing that knowledge with others.

“I’m used to using my hands for ceramics, but this (printer) is an exciting new tool that can be used in so many different ways,” she said. “I used it as soon as I could. It really blew my mind.”

Burke called the new 3D printer a dynamic intersection of disciplines where fine art, science and the humanities interweave and inform each other.

“It’s a different type of language and a unique process that will allow UTEP fine art students to conceptually engage with our ancient medium in new and exciting ways,” Burke said.

Author:  Daniel Perez – UTEP Communications