KCAI Sculpture Department Gets a High-Tech Fablab

The Kansas City Art Institute is getting a technology upgrade this summer. As students prepared to graduate, construction crews embarked on major renovations to the school’s sculpture department, along with the construction of a new digital fabrication lab, the David T. Beals III Studio for Arts and Technology. Made possible by a $1.5 million donation from the David T. Beals III Charitable Trust, Bank of America, N.A., Trustee, the fabrication lab will boast a variety of 3D printers, scanners, computers and other devices, intended to bring the school into the 21st century.

When finished, the digital fabrication lab will have 3D printers capable of creating objects from plastic, wood pulp, clay and other materials. There will be a 3D scanner that does just the opposite, scanning physical objects and creating 3D computer models. The lab also will have a CNC router, milling machine, digital loom and laser engravers. Holding it all together will be a number of computers, a 5-year plan for maintaining and upgrading, and a soon-to-be-hired director for overseeing the lab.

To make way for the new equipment and infrastructure, KCAI is doing much-needed renovations to the sculpture department’s old Volker Building, including better climate control, a new forge, welders and a larger gallery and critique space. Yet despite all this new stuff, the building maintains much of its old brickwork and its gritty industrial charm.

Sculpture department faculty members have expressed excitement at the renovations and equipment. Plans are underway to incorporate the digital fabrication lab into the department’s required sophomore class, “Materials and Processes,” and teachers are already learning how to use the new tools.

“I need to know about it for two reasons,” said Michael Wickerson, sculpture department chair. “I need to know it,” he said while gesturing at himself. “And I need to know it,” he said while gesturing around the sculpture department building. Assistant professor Jill Downen chimed in, “We’re co-learners here.”

While the department is embracing 21st-century technologies, instructors still teach traditional methods. The sculpture department’s end-of-year exhibition features everything from laser cut engravings, digital films and mechanical automatons, to handmade furniture, metal casting and even stone carving. In many cases, students are already moving seamlessly back and forth between digital design and physical production.

Asked if this was the right time to invest and get involved in these new digital fabrication technologies, Downen chuckled, “Yeah, 2016 is the right time to join the 21st century.” But all of the professors agreed that the technology was now mature enough to warrant large investments of money. Professor Karen McCoy, looking toward future possibilities, expressed interest in the ability to 3D print with sustainable and recycled material.

“We’re on the cusp of a new era,” said Wickerson. And he’s right — the medium of sculpture is undergoing a tech revolution, much like what has happened in the fields of film, photography, printmaking and animation over the last two decades.

But in many ways, the technology isn’t what is important. Downen explained, “Nothing is really changing. Our philosophy is to teach students to be their own core best, to work from the inside, no matter what materials or techniques they choose.”

Above: Rendering of the Kansas City Art Institute’s new David T. Beals III Studio for Arts and Technology, scheduled to open this summer. Image courtesy of Gould Evans.

Neil Thrun

Neil Thrun is a writer and artist living in Kansas City, Missouri. He is a 2010 graduate of the Kansas City Art Institute and was a resident artist with the Charlotte Street Urban Culture Project in 2011 and 2012. He has written for publications including the Kansas City Star, Huffington Post and other local arts journals.

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