Clays of future past: Herron ceramics class embraces 3-D printing while kicking it old school

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Senior Courtney Murphy attaches a handle to a cup during a summer ceramics class. Tim Brouk, IU Communications

The whir of cutting-edge technology is barely heard underneath the din of hip-hop music and the enthusiastic chatter of 15 Herron School of Art and Design students.

Senior lecturer Corey Jefferson's summer ceramics class is a mix of fine arts majors and other IUPUI students earning electives in studio art. This class introduces several methods of clay-throwing. A few students mold vases on the electric wheel, the most familiar style of ceramics creation, while others use cutting tools to sculpt figurative works.

Then there is 2017 Herron Master of Fine Arts graduate Sam Toland, a resident expert on utilizing a 3-D printer to create clay vessels. The machine he maintains -- a 3D Potterbot -- takes a clay recipe similar to any beginning ceramics project and stacks streams of the stuff into an attractive, intricate piece. Toland used 3-D modeling software Rhino and Slicer to convert the design into a file Potterbot could read. An arm moves the platform around as the nozzle remains static. Thin ribbons of clay stack to create intricate designs. The printer takes about 35 to 40 minutes to produce an average-sized vase.

"It adapts to systems that we use for plastic printing," Toland explained. "Over the last few years, there's been a lot of invention in how to extrude the clay and make it work."

While 3-D printing using plastic resin has been in the mainstream for about a decade, printers that build ceramic art are a newer breakthrough. Toland is quick to point out that while the printer is fast, he must monitor the work. A recent class saw the printer having some trouble building the foot of a vase. But after a few quick tweaks, the printer hypnotically started to form a kiln-ready vessel.

"Once it's fired and glazed," Toland said, "there are so many more opportunities for experimentation and creating a durable, valuable object." 

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A vase being created on the 3-D printer. Tim Brouk, IU Communications

Kicking it old school

While Toland observed his latest 3-D-printed work, senior John Buschbacher executed a more primitive ceramic method just a few paces away.

The informatics and computing student threw some clay on a pottery kick wheel that required no digital files. It didn't even need electricity. The young artist used his foot to kick a wheel at the bottom of the machine that spun the plate on top fast enough for a vessel to be shaped out of the wet clay he had placed on it. Buschbacher used similar methods to that of an electric wheel, but he had to make sure the momentum stayed at a workable level. To do that, he looked like a skateboarder pushing along to gain speed. Some physical coordination was obviously necessary.

"You have to kick the whole time you're throwing," Buschbacher said. "You get really involved with it. With this wheel, you have to put your foot down for it to slow down.

"It took some getting used to, getting everything in sync so I'm not pushing the whole piece off-center."

Since his major explores how people use computing and technology to live, work, play and communicate, Buschbacher is interested in how 3-D printing could create art.

"I love the old-fashioned stuff," Buschbacher said. "But bringing in technology and using it in ceramics is a really interesting thing for me, and I'd like to pursue that in the future."

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While a 3-D printer creates ceramic art from digital files, IUPUI senior John Buschbacher creates vases with no electricity via the pottery kick wheel.

Art that spans millennia

During a recent class in the Eskenazi Fine Arts Center, Jefferson guided students using the pottery kick wheel and gave tips at the electric wheel. He also took students outside to check on raku-fired work. Vessels had been baking in an outdoor kiln at almost 2,000 degrees. A student pulled up a heavy chain to lift the metal oven to show vases glowing orange.

Under Jefferson's watchful eye, other students donned safety gloves, aprons and goggles to maneuver long metal tongs. They grabbed the intensely hot clay works and gently lowered them into metal trashcans filled with newspaper. Flames immediately flashed upward. A second later, the flames died down and lids were applied. 

Raku is an ancient method of firing clay works. Glazes applied to the clay interact with the combustible material. Reducing the atmosphere for the glaze stains the exposed body surface with carbon, creating interesting finishes in color and texture.

Like a well-choreographed dance, the students quickly and safely fired a handful of pieces that will surely find some gallery time later.

While 3-D printers continue to improve, Jefferson, who has taught ceramics at Herron for 13 years, believes the most ancient art form will continue to interest students.

"There's a big insurgence in fine craft," he said. "This is one of the crafts that takes discipline and practice. It's a nice break from smartphones and technology for the students. It's a skill that can expand past art-making. It teaches patience. It teaches persistence. It teaches a lot of hand dexterity as well. There are a lot of life skills that can be learned from throwing pots on the wheel."