- Associated Press - Friday, December 19, 2014

ST. JOSEPH, Mo. (AP) - As 3-D printing becomes cheaper and more widely available, some of its original adopters locally are using it to enhance their art.

Art and sculpture professors at Missouri Western State University and Northwest Missouri State University have been honing their skills with 3-D printing for several years and watching the possibilities expand.

The two colleges have different mindsets concerning the technology, yet their goals are similar: helping students adopt a new outlook at how art can be made, the St. Joseph News-Press (http://bit.ly/1uIdixU ) reported.

Glenn Williams, an associate professor of art at Northwest, says when he first came into contact with one, he knew a new avenue was opening up for sculpture, jewelry and pottery constructing.

“It was a way of making their programs more relevant. To some degree, they’re considered kind of antiquated. So, any time you can combine new technology with old methods and find new ways to produce things, that becomes an interest in the art realm,” he says.

At Missouri Western, Neil Lawley, assistant professor of art in sculpture and 3-D design, not only helps students create 3-D sculptures and art pieces but also was the guiding hand for them when they agreed to build the printer the college is currently using.

In addition, Lawley and his students also have created a device that will be used to extract filament, the material used to print the 3-D creations. Since a spool of the material can range from $40 to $80, he says, they’ll be saving money by creating their own.

While the printer isn’t perfect, it’s necessary to help the college’s art program stay both current and progressive.

Lawley showed off different sculptures he and his students have created, some looking like an explosion of triangles to a current project Lawley will submit involving canoes.

“If I’m trying to make something big, I can break these into fragments, roughly (a smaller) size … and build them into something bigger,” he says. “At the scale we operate here, it’s mainly for prototyping and modular sculptures.”

He adds: “Bigger 3-D printers exist. We just don’t have them.”

At Northwest, the 3-D printer and scanner are a bit more sophisticated.

In 2013, Dr. Philip Laber, a professor of art at Northwest Missouri, needed a piece to enhance his already mind-bending handmade 3-D piece, “Sequester Assemblage.” Wanting an egg-shaped component within a 3-D playing card, he printed the two on the college’s 3-D printer.

“I suppose I could have carved those, I could have poured them with plaster or metal or something. I could have done that in a lot of different ways,” he says. “What ties it into printmaking is creating multiples.”

After the piece was finished, the result was it being accepted into the Boston Printmakers 2013 North American Print Biennial, an achievement Laber had been shooting for years.

“The idea originally was a way to bridge a gap between three-dimensional, traditional areas and computer graphics,” Williams says.

After using the printer for several years, the two professors have seen it being used in a variety of ways, from one student scanning his body to make a 3-D composition to it being used to print different types of pottery.

“This is close to bringing us to the ‘Star Trek’ replicators,” Laber says, laughing.

Laber and Williams’ mindsets differ from Lawley’s when it comes to the impact 3-D printing has on the art world.

“I do think it’s going to revolutionize the art world. But I don’t think it’s going to eliminate traditional sculpture-making,” Lawley said. “It brings in a completely different (crowd). It’s like we’ve invented a new type of sculpture-making.”

Williams and Laber take a different stance.

“It’s not that revolutionary. It’s just another tool that we use to create our art. It’s not an end-all,” Williams says.

Laber adds: “We know the potential. But in the art world, there’s a lot of ways to do the same thing. This, more or less, becomes a tool to get at something in the same manner.”

All three admit that while the technology has a lot of trial and error, it’s not as creatively satisfying as something carved, formed or etched from a person’s own hands.

“It can eliminate the artist’s hand in a way. It can eliminate error that if I were carving this by hand, (I) wouldn’t be able to get the same accuracy,” Lawley says. “And that’s the most important part of art - the mistakes.”

Yet in a time of tighter higher education budgets, a printer that can be used to create other things, from art to tools to parts to build other 3-D printers, it seems like a logical route.

“In higher ed, we’ve had a lot of cuts. We are doing more less funding. We’re finding creative approaches to make things happen,” Lawley says.

On top of that, there’s no denying the future. As 3-D printers and accessories get cheaper, the more they will be adopted in households.

“Once upon a time, Photoshop was a high-level introduction and now, kids use Photoshop in junior high. Three-D printing will be the same way as the technology gets simpler,” Laber says.

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Information from: St. Joseph News-Press/St. Joe, Missouri, http://www.newspressnow.com

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