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UM fabrication laboratory puts scientific, manufacturing equipment in artists' hands

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Tyler Brumfield peered into the machine to see the laser at work.

"It's kind of fun to watch," he said.

When the red light had traced the lines he'd directed, Brumfield opened the machine and pulled out the slip of cardboard.

The laser had burnt a fine line around the material, but it hadn't gone far enough.

"I've got to bump up the power on the laser so it will cut through," said Brumfield, a sculptor and graduate student at the University of Montana School of Art.

The teacup Nahtanha Voss created started out as a warm thin smear of plastic.

Voss, an undergraduate student, is working on a sculpture about memory that will include some 17 or so teacups, and she's making them on a 3D printer.

"I can't throw pots. The last time I tried throwing, I threw my back out," Voss said.

As of last week, she'd created about eight different cups, light pieces that began out of a corn-based plastic rolled into a rope around spool.

The 3D printer warmed the spool, and a nozzle laid the material in a pattern on a plate with instructions for dimensions that Voss had sent from a computer.

In the room, scraps of plastic were scattered like confetti on a table, and a team of bright yellow octopuses rested on one side not far away from a tortilla burned with an image reminiscent of the Pietà.

Inside the bowels of the laser cutter, red and yellowish lights flashed, and a humming sound came from one of the 3D printers.

The room is called the Fab-Lab, a fabrication laboratory on campus that puts equipment and machinery more traditionally used by manufacturers and scientists into the hands of artists. 

The art students resist them some — and then they have their way with the various tools. This semester, they "hacked" a vinyl cutter so it used a ballpoint pen or crayon instead of a cutter, for instance.

The first Fab-Lab opened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology decades ago, said Brad Allen, director of the UM School of Art. In 2009, he went to a conference and saw that artists' use of manufacturing equipment wasn't a fad but a direction, and he decided UM would invest in it.

Like the student art gallery, the lab is front and center at the entrance to the Fine Arts Building, having been built in the past two or three years.

"The message that sends is that new techniques in manufacturing and in imaging aren't relegated to the sciences, but can also be implemented and expanded in art," Allen said.

Allen first saw a fab-lab at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine, and when he saw the laser cutter in action, he said the whole idea made sense.

At UM, the seed for the lab sprouted in the sculpture room with an old 3D printer. Little by little, the idea grew, and a couple years ago, the School of Art took the opportunity to create the actual Fab-Lab inside the Fine Arts Building, Allen said.

The lab was designed with a philosophy of access in mind, he said.

First, it doesn't function in isolation, as some art labs do elsewhere. Rather, he said, it's designed as a hub that works in tandem with other areas of the School of Art.

Secondly, the equipment is open to all artists, not just students who have special permission, a limitation he's seen elsewhere. The AGL Foundation, a donor from Whitefish, has financially supported the lab from its inception.

"Our idea as a group was to make it accessible in every sense of the word," said Allen, who credited others with building the lab including associate professor of photography Matthew Hamon.

The lab contains computers as well as the laser cutter, vinyl cutter, a row of 3D printers, large paper printers, and the camera for an XBox360 (yes, used to make art). 

All in all, the room holds some $50,000 worth of equipment, "not a staggering number when you compare it to a science lab," Allen said.

Last weekend, it served as host to nearly 300 high school students.

Daily during the week, it's open to students, with Voss as a guide to ensure people can not only operate the equipment, but can stretch with it in making art.

"I think we're in that stage right now where as a unit, as a school, we're trying to figure out what this technology means, art historically, and at the same time, we're trying to figure out how to use it to make art as part of a process," Allen said.

The first steps in the dance between the traditional artist and the manufacturing equipment can be hesitant ones.

Brumfield, from Oregon, said he's accustomed to making sculptures with his hands, and he likes that process.

"Relinquishing that control to a robot is a little tricky," he said.

At the same time, he sees the value, and he's interested in the intersection between sculpture and graphic design. Brumfield makes pieces out of cardboard sheets glued together, sandwiched with counter top material, and bound by bolts.

If he weren't using the laser cutter, he would have to hand cut 45 to 50 different pieces of cardboard using an X-Acto knife. It took him just four tries to dial in the laser cutter, and from there, it would punch out the exact piece he needed every single time.

Someone with arthritis can create art with the equipment that he wouldn't be able to make with bare hands, Brumfield said. Also, he said, the School of Art can print work that's created elsewhere and send to a computer in Missoula.

"So you can have an exhibition of someone else's work without having to ship it, which is pretty amazing," Brumfield said.

In the U.S., he said, the landscape inspires many artists, who use natural materials as media.

"Making the jump to using these kinds of materials is weird. It's a little uncomfortable," he said.

At the same time, Brumfield suspects it's the future: "I think there's value in trying to use new technologies because it's probably the direction the world is headed."

Nationally, schools are beginning to see fabrication labs as viable means of art production, Allen said, but UM remains unique in the state and fairly unusual in the region.

Going forward, he envisions an interesting relationship developing with people in the Media Arts program as both schools mature into the technology. Always, he'd like technology to remain in the background, the art to stay at the fore, and the students to remain inquisitive.

"Our students are amazing, and part of what makes them, I think, uniquely good at the creative process is constantly questioning their environment, relationships, contexts – and, certainly, technology falls into that," Allen said.

Voss, who speaks as easily about calibrating printer temperatures and speeds as she does about the concepts behind her teacup sculpture, sees and shares the opportunities.

Last weekend, she helped the high school students use the XBox camera to take scans of their own bodies and then send them to the 3D printers.

"They loved it," Voss said. "Definitely quite a few high school kids ... were pretty thrilled they got to take a sculpture of themselves home."

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