As we are well into the new century, there is little left in our lives that has not been touched and transformed by the digital revolution of the late 20th century. Even the humble potter, with hands in the earth, markets on social media, buys supplies online, and relies on digital programming for the kiln. Nevertheless, the basic work of transforming an idea into clay remains as it has been for centuries. Pittsburgh spatial artist and designer Brian Peters is changing all that. Using 3-D printing technology, Peters creates ceramic blocks and tiles for architectural installations and for smaller-scale art pieces, starting not with a slug of clay but with a computer.
There are as many versions of the creative process as there are artists. At its simplest, it involves an idea and an execution. Whether the finished product is the execution of an idea or an idea born out of execution, the process is complex and varied. Even the most intuitive potter has an idea of what he or she is aiming for and it is the gap between idea and execution that is the crux of what Peters is doing with 3-D printing.
Peters earned a B.A. in Studio Art before going on to study Architecture at the University of Illinois Chicago. He was working at an architecture firm in Chicago and found himself thinking a lot about the intersection of art, architecture, and fabrication. He moved to Spain and enrolled in the Institute for Advanced Architecture of Catalonia in Barcelona, studying there for two years and earning a second master’s degree. When an opportunity arose to work with an experimental group in Amsterdam, he made the move to the Netherlands. “We built a gigantic printer that was housed in a shipping container,” he says, “at first working with bioplastics.” He began to work independently with clay and secured a residency at Sunday Morning at EKWC, an international workplace for eminent artists, designers and architects, dedicated to the study of the technical and artistic possibilities of ceramics. “During this time,” Peters says, “I developed the technique. Very few were printing in clay. It was pretty cutting edge. I’d best describe it as ‘rethinking the brick.’” In 2012, he exhibited his work at Dutch Design Week, a large design event in northern Europe.
It is the concurrence of Peters’ skill sets that perfectly serves the concept of 3-D printing in clay. His solid background in studio art coupled with the rigorous mathematical discipline of architecture speak to the execution/idea basis of the creative process. Starting with the idea, Peters uses the computer to carefully map out the parameters of the piece he has in mind. Just as text from a digital document is converted to ones and zeros – coded – in order to rematerialize as text on a printed document, so are Peters’ ideas broken down into blocks – or bytes – before the 3-D printer can reconstitute that form in clay. The building process uses regular wet clay that is extruded in individual components, thus building the piece in layers. The computer and the printer become tools that supplement and refine the creative process.
Peters describes himself as a more cerebral artist, beginning with a concept. He says, “This is how I’ve been working most of my life. It’s just a different tool. You start in the world of digital design. It passes through the computer first. The machine is very similar, in a way, to slip casting. You have an infinite mold making machine, however with no physical mold.” Although the process sounds magical, in a way, Peters says that there are still as many things that can go wrong as with traditional making. “There are the limitations of design, of the printer itself, and the materials,” he explains. “You go back and forth between the digital and physical. It’s not a linear process.”
When Peters returned to the US from Europe, he was ready to move in a more academic direction. His work had developed to the point where it was refined enough to be passed on. He found a home at Kent State University, where he had his own research arm in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design. After four years there, his wife was offered a position at Carnegie Mellon University, which is what brought Peters to the Pittsburgh area. His self-built 3-D printers are in his studio in Carnegie, right outside of downtown Pittsburgh. He developed his business, Building Bytes, which he describes as the true focus of his work – the blending of architecture, craft, and art. He crafts large architectural installations from printed ceramic blocks and tiles. A secondary business, Coded Clay, focuses on smaller pieces for interior home design. “I’m still trying to market myself,” he says, “and have started a new webpage – brian-peters.com – that hopefully brings it all together.”
All technology is suspect at first. It is easy to discount the digitization of creativity as somehow lessening the final product. But thought of as a tool, the 3-D printer is no less useful than a pencil and ruler to sketch out dimensions, a wheel to create a perfect round, or a scientific formula to create the perfect glaze. Brian Peters’ installations and designs are pieces of beauty in the fullest sense of art.
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