International Sculpture Center


Maquette Education & Technology

Computers and Sculpture in Education:
Reshaping the For(u)m for the 21st Century

               by Byron Clercx

The university and the world are rapidly changing and the studio arts environment needs to evolve in order to remain competitive and germane. Presumably, the days when sculpture instruction consisted of pointing the students toward the plaster and chicken wire after showing them Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth, and George Segal slides are behind us. While much can be salvaged from the academy model, strictly formalistic approaches to materials and delivery ring hollow in a global interface environment. This does not suggest that traditional tools, techniques, and problems need be abandoned. It means only that a three-dimensional pedagogy predisposed toward faithful figure modeling, rusted metal assemblages, and the principles of design does not sufficiently prepare students for the future. New studio technologies and methodologies, coupled with hands-on training and experience, will ready students for shifting roles in industry, practice, and education. This generation of future educators, practitioners, and arts lovers should get the fullest bang for their academic buck.

While the issues discussed here arguably apply to any contemporary arts institution trying to determine how well computers mesh with sculpture programs, they also raise important questions about the future of art education and what role immersion technologies will play in shaping goals and assessing outcomes. Whereas incorporating computers into any program takes time, patience, and money, the benefits of implementing digital technologies should far outnumber the shortcomings.

Why Do Computer Technologies Make Sense in a 3-D Arts Curriculum?

While some educators remain wary of technology in general and computers in particular, most students are not. Nor is Malcolm McCullough, who effectively argues in his insightful and timely book, "Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand", that computers refine and extend human expression by furthering imaginative powers. Apprehension by arts educators that time and resources devoted toward digital technology would compromise programs by reducing attentiveness to traditional craft seem unfounded and overly dramatic. If anything, computer-enhanced programs should become more efficient at meeting students' creative needs.

"One might argue that the ultimate symbolic systems -great software- could eventually just do all the work. But this is not the case, for there will always be intentions that we cannot or choose not to express in symbols...In all likelihood, a human-computer partnership will continue to surpass either the unaided human or the autonomous algorithm for some (important) aspects of work." -- Malcolm McCullough 3

However, skepticism of public arts funding and higher education has forced cutbacks in many public institutions, including land grant universities. This makes it difficult for less pragmatic, and subsequently less advantaged programs, like art departments, to meet rising class sizes and software costs. Survival will likely hinge on forging internal and external collaborations. Some departments are taking measures to ease the economic strain by forming technology partnerships to maximize increasingly scarce delivery dollars. University of Idaho (UI) art professors Jill Dacey and Frank Cronk recently secured a $230,000 grant to form the Idaho Art Net (http://www. to streamline statewide research, delivery, and outreach. This provides one answer to the catch phrase of the '90s-do more with less.

"People learn in different ways, and some information is conveyed best in specific ways. The sage on the stage and the wise guide in the studio are still generally effective modes; however, emerging technologies of the Internet and the Web offer us new possibilities to build enhanced and extended learning environments. We are helping students to prepare themselves for their future, not our past." -- Frank Cronk 5

The University of Idaho, where I teach, has taken a progressive stance toward computer technologies by making them accessible to all faculty, staff, and students. Thankfully, colleagues in the art department and at UI Educational Technologies Services have enthusiastically supported an electronically enhanced sculpture curriculum. To date, UI has a fully integrated Web site and is in the process of easing layout and 3-D modeling programs into delivery. UI is also looking into software programs that would allow students to farm out labor- or cost-intensive fabrications to industry. This better equips them for the profession and alleviates capitol outlay for expensive equipment that some departments, like UI's, may be unable to furnish or replace in the future.

How Do Computer Technologies Enhance Sculpture Delivery?

McCullough details the value of a computer-enhanced studio environment by emphasizing "play" in relation to process and production, or more specifically, why students can, and do, take more chances with "pixeled" relationships than with physical materials. He contends that this is due in part to the temporal and reproducible nature of computation in contrast to the irreversibility of traditional materials and processes which must adhere to basic physical laws. Physical materials fail when worked over time but computer images remain archivally secure.1 Take, for example, a ceramics student wishing to experiment with a design or surface treatment. Structural elements or glaze colors must be changed in real time. Single solutions are often weeks apart and generally permanent after firing. This same student could visualize and eliminate many possibilities with a surface wrap software program or a cut and paste program like Photoshop, which may save time and bring them closer to a desirable, perhaps unforeseen, solution. Students also are less willing to experiment when material costs are measured against anticipated grades because pocketbooks often dictate production. Unencumbered by economics and entropy, students using computers will generally entertain a more comprehensive range of solutions before, during, and after fabrication.

Another area where play can assist production is in determining scale. When not predetermined by funding or faculty, students many times determine the size of an object arbitrarily. Perhaps it is simply based on their seated position at a studio work station or on what may fit on a table or mantle at home. More likely, however, the final product must be light and small enough to comfortably carry, to fit in a vehicle, or to discard at semester's end. Regardless, many beginning student works end up being tabletop or torso size. Unfortunately, when scaling is more closely linked to convenience than to the aesthetic needs or purpose of the work, students miss a critical learning moment. The following excerpt from an interview with Tony Smith reveals how carefully Smith orchestrated the scale of his cubes in direct relation to human proportion and perception. The key is locating an effective format for conveying this sense of accountability and accuracy to students.

Q:Why didn't you make it larger so that it would look over the observer?

A:I was not making a monument.

Q:Then why didn't you make it smaller so that the observer could see over the top?

A: I was not making an object.2

Figures A and B: Two examples of student models from a course assigment on scale relationships.

At the University of Idaho, prior to introducing computers to the educational process, we tried using a maquette project to help students overcome preconceptions about scale. We capitalized on the academic advantage of being administratively housed within the College of Art and Architecture by collecting all of the architectural maquettes discarded by architecture students at year's end. These well-crafted and scaled settings afforded sculpture students an opportunity to conceptualize solutions for potentially large works in realistic looking settings. Additionally, we hoped the recycled architectural backdrops would eliminate several efficiency concerns since their solutions would be small, manageable, and inexpensive. While some students excelled (figure A), others seemed less invested and took the miniature scale less seriously (figure B). However, in my opinion, it was the assignment that failed, not the students. We simply needed a better means of disassociating scale from the creative process.

Pragmatic scaling is a learned and sanctioned tendency based on familiar domestic and pedestrian proportions. Social and academic conformity is enforced during most students' primary and secondary education, where students are frequently encouraged to downsize their expressions into practical representations. Getting most undergraduates to unlearn this predilection for spatial congruity is not easy. This does not imply that bigger is better or that smaller is necessarily sacred, but only that students should thoroughly investigate all the scale possibilities before settling on convenience and convention. Claes Oldenburg provides us with a good example of how an artist can make the seemingly impossible downright plausible. Oldenburg's 1969 photo collage, "Proposed Colossal Monument in the form of knees, on the Victoria Embankment, London", (figure C) effectively conveys his concept. Computers can provide students with a valuable platform for temporarily divorcing scale from the creative process as demonstrated by the two examples (figures D and E) by UI graduate student Brian Ledwell. When students are comfortable with a program like Photoshop they can view ideas in a variety of visually convincing and intellectually compelling scenarios. The beauty in this is that digital technology expedites problem-solving, broadens creative possibilities, and yields appealing hard-copy outputs for professional presentations.

Figures D and E: Brian Ledwell, Computer-generated Photoshop images showing different sites for his sculpture.

One drawback to looking at sculptures on a computer screen is that scale is so abstracted it does a disservice to already realized works (Ledwell's organic Fiberglas forms are actually about four feet long). However, it has always been difficult to properly represent three-dimensional works in slide or print formats. Detail shots are helpful but the additional views are often cumbersome and inconclusive. One solution is to depict sculptures in the round by combining a series of circumferential shots to form a moving three-dimensional animation on the computer. This gives the viewer a feeling of orbiting around the object(s) in space. The transitions between shots can be refined into a seamless continuum by adding additional views, although this takes a bit more time and money. Plus, in many cases, a rough version is sufficient. Regardless, it would appear that digital imaging and three-dimensional animations have redefined how we produce and experience art and life. For better or worse, it seems unlikely that even the elegant graphite renderings Maya Lin submitted for her "Vietnam Veterans Memorial" proposal, or the expressive immediacy of an Oldenburg collage would be able to match the visual persuasiveness of computer-generated outputs. Plus, we would be remiss if we did not adequately prepare students for a (r)evolving market certain to demand new technologies and expressions.

The Internet is another tool that procures opportunities and stimulates creative thinking. At the University of Idaho, we designed a sculpture Web site ( to bring the diverse aesthetic, technical, and conceptual resources from the Internet into our classroom. After students are introduced to basic Web navigation they are required to successfully conduct research, locate galleries, post images, and write evaluations of projects and lectures. They are also encouraged to form external contacts. Frequently, our electronically extended classroom welcomed contributions from external sources that initiated and advanced class discussions. Many students say the experience of conversing with professionals and students at other institutions helps contextualize what we are trying to do against what is being done elsewhere. Their observations are recorded on our chat line, which documents a growing resource for current and future students. Interested external parties who visit our site may also contribute information by posting notes to the chat line or by inviting us to cross-link our respective sites.

"Around 1900 technical reproduction had reached a standard that not only permitted it to reproduce all transmitted works of art...For the first time in world history, mechanical reproduction emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual. To an even greater degree the work of art reproduced becomes the work of art designed for reproducibility." -- Walter Benjamin 4

Figure C: Claes Oldenburg, Proposed Collosal Monument in the form of knees, on the Victoria Embankment, London, 1969. Photo collage, 10.25 x 15.75 in.

An added, but not unforeseen, bonus of integrating the Internet into the sculpture curriculum is that it readies a world of resources for students in varied programmatic or geographical settings. Advanced instruction is available to help motivated students develop their own personalized Web sites. This electronic outreach is particularly valuable to our students because we are a mid-sized department situated in a rural community. These electronic portfolios advertise their abilities to a wider audience that their slides and résumés might never otherwise reach. While it is too early to suggest to what degree, if any, the increased Internet visibility increases our sculpture students' competitiveness, we remain excited about the possibility.

Granted, an electronically extended and enhanced classroom may not work for everyone. New software programs and the Internet will only solve a small portion of our present and future delivery problems. However, digital technologies can diversify and strengthen programs by augmenting instruction, empowering students, and relieving faculty load. A self-directed multimedia studio environment can be a wonderful tool that accelerates learning and individual feelings of course ownership. This differs sharply from a modernist methodology where authority is guarded by the regulated dispersal of information. If everyone accepts that a student's rightful desire for autonomy (albeit earned) is inversely and inherently linked to the forfeiture of his or her instructor's authority (albeit willingly), then computers can guide us, jointly, through the uncharted terrain of the next paradigm shift. If not, we are failing a new generation of students and ourselves. Therefore, it is vital that we, as educators, care enough about leaving a more effectual system for ensuing generations than the one we inherited. Without a comprehensive overhaul that includes reinvesting in teachers and technologies, many flagship institutions could quickly become sinking ships.

Byron Clercx is an artist and assistant professor at the University of Idaho.


1 Malcolm McCullough, Abstracting Craft: The Practiced Digital Hand, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1997, pp. 221-2.

2 Tony Smith, quoted by Robert Morris in "Notes on Sculpture, Part II," first published in ArtForum: vol. 5, no. 2, October 1966, pp. 21.

3 Malcolm McCullough, pp. 103-4.

4 Walter Benjamin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Illuminations,1968, ed. H. Arendt, London, 1973.

5 Frank Cronk, "Art @ Idaho: Window on the World," Idaho Research, Spring 1997, pp. 10.

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