"This is no different than a wheel you're going to throw something on," said Brad Allen.
The director of the University of Montana's School of Art was standing in the new "fabrication lab," a repurposed classroom stocked with digital equipment.
"This is no different than a set of chisels you're going to carve a block of wood with. It's just a different tool. The mind behind it, the concepts behind it, are still unique and are still your domain," he said.
The "FabLab," as they've dubbed it, is stocked with two 3-D printers, 3-D scanners, 3-D pens, a vinyl cutter, an oversized printer, and soon a laser engraving machine.
Allen is effusive about the potential for using the equipment, the province of industrial designers and forward-thinking hobbyists and tinkerers, in the context of fine art.
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"There are a lot of programs on campus that deal with software and digital design," he said. "Where we see an opportunity is, 'How is this all applied?' 'How do we make (art) objects?' "
As an example, he said a ceramics student could take a clay form and scan it in 3-D. Then their handmade design of a vase could be digitally altered using algorithms so that changes in its surface are made consistently across the entire vessel.
Or take the laser cutter – an enclosed, computer-operated 40W CO2 laser engraver that can etch or cut most any material besides metal.
He said a printmaking student could capture information in the form of a photograph or an algorithm, and laser-cut it into a block of wood, and then create a traditional print.
Those are all ways students can integrate new technology into their age-old disciplines.
"We're not saying that this is the way of the future. It's just a way. It's a possibility," he said.
UM assistant professor Matt Hamon has already been using modified vinyl cutters in his work for almost six years.
He took the computer-operated device and replaced the blade with a ball-point pen to "print" precise, curve-heavy designs generated in a software program. He adds complementary hand-drawn elements with a pen or brush so that it's not "purely" machine-like.
It's just one "iteration of traditional processes and contemporary technology," he said.
Hamon and Allen have been thinking of more "tweaks and hacks" for students to use in their artwork.
"The potential is really quite amazing," Hamon said.
He also hopes the lab will be a space to collaborate with other departments and academic disciplines and boost the school's visibility on campus.
The lab is just one facet of an overall facelift at the Fine Arts Building.
A&E Architects redesigned the stairway out front, and Dave Reynolds Construction carried out the work. The front of the building is decorated with two large banners to increase its "presence."
Once inside, there are new glass cases on the north and south walls to display students' art, in addition to a gallery space just off the entryway.
The "FabLab" has its roots in the sculpture and photography divisions. The photography school began acquiring some equipment as it moved toward digital from darkrooms.
The sculpture division, meanwhile, made some purchases, such as the Replicator 3-D printer and the CNC router, a computer-controlled cutting machine, which they built from a kit. (It still resides in the sculpture division, since the 4-by-8-foot device won't fit comfortably in the former classroom.)
Others, such as the laser cutter, are new purchases.
The equipment in the lab has been paid for with student and course fees, and faculty members from the various art programs "making sacrifices" by pushing some needs back. It hasn't received any private donations or additional funding from the university administration.
Allen hopes the lab will function as a "proof of concept" that could lead to such support and continue expanding the lab.
They also must establish interest from students themselves.
Eventually, the space will have open studio hours with trained supervisors to offer guidance.
Allen said the school is discussing how the lab will be integrated into the existing programs – ceramics, sculpture, photography, printmaking, painting and drawing, so that each learns how to "use the technology in its own way."
In the spring semester, for example, he'll be teaching a Sculpture II: Digital Fabrication course in the lab.
"We'll have students in here twice a week, two to three hours at a time, building stuff, making things and pushing what this stuff can do in an art capacity," he said.