An artist and an engineer have invented a new process for 3D printed ceramics | Arts & Theater

It is unlikely that you have ever seen ceramic sculptures like those of Albert Pfarr. He wouldn’t say they don’t exist anywhere else, but as to how they were made, “it’s a completely new process,” he said.

The works in his exhibition, “Vessels of Communication,” look like open books, made up of rows of loops, all of glazed porcelain, which could not be made by hand or with traditional molding techniques. An MIT engineer recruited him to help design a way to adapt ceramic molding to 3D printing.

“He really became my mentor, he really opened my mind in a way that I had never opened before,” Pfarr said.

The process

When Pfarr lived in New York, he worked at Greenwich House Pottery and taught classes, including one in experimental ceramics. Through a student, he met an engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology named Stuart Uram who had an original idea. People were using 3D printers to make things – why not use the printer to make a mold, which could then be used to cast ceramic material and cast an object?

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Pfarr’s first thought was that it was impossible, but worth pursuing. Within months they had a prototype for a process that Pfarr still uses.

He can design molds for sculptures and print them on a regular 3D printer with standard biodegradable plastic. He then pours a proprietary liquid clay into the mold and after a few hours it will harden. Once in the oven, the mold will burn.

A sample mold has a spout so small you can’t pour normal liquid into it, but their process makes the clay flowable enough that they can.

“It’s a common material. But we use it in a very unusual way,” he said.

They approached a company called Shapeways that 3D prints individual orders, which purchased the rights to their material. Pfarr worked for them for several years on the process, but it was eventually deemed too expensive and was phased out, he said.

Uram passed away in 2019 and Pfarr continued the process which, to his knowledge, has not been replicated by anyone else.

“He really became my mentor in many ways. And he always had a glimpse of the material. And I always brought my insight into the material. And I’m still developing it to this day,” he said.

“Communication vessels”

The Vessels of Communication pieces, all made within the last six months or so, are works of reference and information. The physical form of the book is a nod to his wife, Julie Stevenson, a literary agent.

The basic building block he chose are rows of loops which, although delicate, are structurally sound. An example title is “Book L-202”, where the “202” is the number of loops in the piece.

Circular loops allude to information and electricity, which is “just one loop.” It goes out, it activates something, it comes back,” he said.

Some have built-in personal meanings – “Books of Closure L-360” is a set of three books in an unusual “closed” form, each in a different color. They refer to three deceased relatives – his parents and his older brother. The fact that 360 loops entered the room was a significant accident.

He created a series of sculptures that interpret the Butterfly Effect’s ability to spread misinformation and “how a lie can somehow move around the world faster than the truth,” he said.

The physical forms represent one of Uram’s original hopes for the process. The butterflies rest on the tips of their wings, which is possible because the mold had supports that have now disappeared.

He applies the process to tiles with photographic images – he can take a photo, print a mold, then cast a tile that gives relief. You can print anything you want and use it in home decor or put it in a frame.

His art has gone through phases ranging from figurative to abstraction. Prior to this series, he made sculptures 14 feet tall, constructed from approximately 700 components.

“I like to grow, I like to develop, I like to change,” he said, which “drives the art world crazy. I think they like you doing a product, and the same, again.

Ten years ago, he could not have imagined doing such work.

“Hopefully I will continue to evolve,” he said.

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