When he’s out for a bike ride in the Rattlesnake or taking a day trip around the Missoula area, Gary Batzloff might come upon on interesting spot on the landscape.
While most of us might stop at a cellphone photo to remember these experiences, he marks these areas with a GPS device, either a Garmin, or his watch.
Back in the studio, the ceramics and sculpture technician at the University of Montana’s Art Annex has turned the geolocation data into his latest series of work, called “Mountaintop/Riverbottom.”
The works, which were on display at the FrontierSpace gallery last First Friday, come in two forms. There are small, square topographical sculptures of mountains and valleys, cut with inhuman accuracy. And there are long, thin horizontal pieces that re-create the flows of river bottoms.
One of the mountain pieces pulls data from a point north of the Franklin Bridge in the Rattlesnake Recreation Area, several others were deep in Sawmill Gulch.
They’re “all places I’ve been, set foot on or ridden my bike in,” he said.
Using a handful of software programs and the UM Fine Art Department’s CNC router, a computer-controlled cutting machine, the final sculptures accurately replicate the terrains of the places he visited.
He looks up the locations in Google Earth and imports the terrain data into a series of 3-D modeling programs, some designed for architects and industrial designers. Once it’s been massaged into the right format, the data can be sent to the CNC router in the back of the Art Annex woodshop.
Brad Allen, associate professor of sculpture, helped build the router from a kit ordered online about two years ago.
They purchased it to build furniture that might be needed in the shop or the art school, and to build models in collaboration with the science department.
Beyond the usual uses for the devices, which are common in furniture shops and other industrial settings, they bought it because it allows artists to push the limits of sculpture.
“It allows an amount of specificity that’s never been possible before,” Allen said.
For instance, one of Allen’s students needed hundreds of circles cut from acrylic for a project, a task that would take months of work with a band saw.
The CNC router got it done in one night.
For one of Allen’s own projects, he’s building a coffee-table piece that will mimic the surface of the ocean. Now, he can use algorithms to generate accurate wave forms, rather than attempting to reproduce them by hand.
Batzloff notes that he could create similar work with casting, carving or another medium. The 33-year-old studied sculpture for an MFA at Minneapolis College of Art and Design, and a BFA from the University of West Florida.
He became interested in CNCs in 2008, when he taught a course on them during a stint at the University of West Florida.
He took a break from academia and ran a bike shop on Martha’s Vineyard for year before seeing an opening at UM. For his current job, he maintains all the equipment in the materials-heavy ceramics and wood shops.
“There’s not a teaching component, but I do interact a lot with students. It’s a big part of job – my favorite part of the job,” he said.
As he and Allen point out to students, the CNC is just another tool or process to learn.
And it’s certainly not a time-saver.
It requires levels of design work and calibration. For his sculptures, Batzloff has to test different materials to see what suits the shapes he’s designed, and what cutting tools are required for those materials.
Some of the “Mountain High” works were made with a florescent plexiglass base, medium-density fiberboard and then laminated with colored wood glue. Others were cut with styrofoam, a popular modeling medium.
For a terrain piece built for a sculpture park in Minnesota, he’s using a fast-growing variety of Indonesian hardwood that can stand the weather without any treatment.
Once he completes that large-scale piece, which is 8 feet long and 5 feet wide, he’s eager to see where this style of work leads him.
“I see myself as being at the beginning of this process,” he said.
As Allen said, most people are just learning what the machines are capable of.
“It does let you do some things that by hand would be nearly impossible,” Allen said.