Tools of the Trade: Art and Technology

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“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road,” said writer Stewart Brand.

With Michigan roads as an apt metaphor, the Fine Art faculty at Mott Community College choose to be part of the steamroller.  Each passing semester, they have incorporated technological advances into their classes and curriculum, to give visual art students every advantage in preparing for careers in the arts.
While many people typically associate it with electronic innovations, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines technology as “a manner of accomplishing a task especially using technical processes, methods, or knowledge.”  The connection between art and technology began more than 37,000 years ago, when Neanderthals used their hands as stencils and blew pigments through hollowed-out bones to create cave paintings.

Great leaps in technology over time have allowed artists to experiment and hone their craft.

Great leaps in technology over time have allowed artists to experiment and hone their craft. “French Impressionists, such as Edgar Degas, embraced the newly devised camera (in the 1880’s) to create new compositional strategies,” explains John Dempsey, a professor in the Fine Arts Program at Mott. “For centuries before the camera was developed, artists experimented with a variety of lenses and optical devices to aid their drawing and to help transfer 3-dimensional views onto a 2-dimensional surface.”

Studio Art instructor Dustin Price adds, “There have been a few times in the history of Western Art that we could say that technology has changed things. Gutenberg’s press is definitely one. Around the late 70’s and early 80’s the computer began to have the most powerful impact on artistic practice that technology has ever had in the history of mankind.”

More recent developments in technology have revolutionized the visual arts in three very important ways: creation, reproduction, and marketing.  Utilizing these skills not only enhances an artist’s abilities, but can help make studio art a viable career option.

In the creation stage, artists begin with a concept or idea, and then execute their vision in a variety of media.  They can use computers and creative software packages throughout the creative process, from planning and design to the actual production of the work.

Uses of technology are limited only by the artist’s imagination. Some artists work in purely digital media, creating an image completely from their imagination, or combining photographs and other visual elements into digital mixed-media pieces.

Uses of technology are limited only by the artist’s imagination. Some artists work in purely digital media, creating an image completely from their imagination, or combining photographs and other visual elements into digital mixed-media pieces.  Printmakers can scan original drawings or create digital images, utilize laser etching machines to create plates, and then use traditional processes to produce the prints.

Utilizing technology in the creative process can give an artist an advantage in other arenas.  Public art is a great source of income for many artists. It can be an expensive endeavor as well, because of the size of and resources involved in producing the works.  Sculpture artists can utilize 3-D software to create a virtual maquette (mock-up) of a piece, complete with 360-degree views that put the piece in a virtual environment.  This gives a selection committee a better vision of the finished product, and adds a professional polish to the presentation.

Artists can also use low-cost reproduction technology to duplicate their work for commercial sales.  “Digital printing and wide format printers have made it much more financially viable for an artist at any point in their career to reproduce their work in a high quality way,” explains Price.  “Artists can cast a wider net then previously allowed in marketing their work, while also making the reproduction monetarily accessible to collectors who may not be able to purchase an original.”

Artists can reproduce high-quality copies of any two-dimensional art, including paintings, prints and photographs.  An artist can choose from a myriad of media, printing the work on canvas, metal, wood, or specialized papers to create a broad assortment of textural effects.

Another avenue available for artists is the self-published book, which are printed on demand.  Online services such as Shutterfly and Lulu allow artists to design and market a book globally, with no overhead for the artist or the printer.  This makes the cost reasonable for consumers.

In the Winter semester of 2013, students in the Photojournalism class at Mott College—under the guidance of instructor Bruce Edwards—created a photodocumentary book.  “A Closer Look: Faces of a Struggling Community” features the students’ visual reflections on the social concerns that impact individuals and families in the greater Flint area.  The book is available for about $25 through Shutterfly.com.

Similar sites, such as Café Press, allow artists to sell their designs on all sorts of products, from t-shirts and tote bags to bumper stickers, notebooks, water bottles and computer and phone cases.  Again, because the merchandise is printed on demand, there are no overhead costs for the artist, who gets a percentage of all sales.  Instead of managing inventory, the artist can concentrate his or her efforts on promoting sales through social media.

“The ease and ability for artists to create an online presence detailing their work and professionalism is not only a device to market yourself, but an industry standard,” says Price, who has created many online galleries for his work and that of his students.  “Galleries, museums and the general public now expect artists to have an online portfolio.”

One very important and unusual technological asset available to MCC art students is the college’s noted FABLAB. The MCC FABLAB, a dream-come true for all creative types, is a hands-on laboratory that provides the technology and modern fabrication tools to let people build their own creations and products for personal, artistic or commercial use. The FABLAB literally allows a person to turn an idea into a physical object.

Many of the Fine Art and Graphic Design faculty at Mott College have worked closely with the FABLAB to test the creative limits of what the equipment can do.  Dempsey was among one of the first Fine Art faculty to experiment with the opportunities afforded by the FABLAB.  He says that it is “fast becoming an ‘ARTlab’ where art students are introduced to new computer aided fabrication technologies that include 3-D modeling, computer aided laser cutting, routing and plasma cutting.”

Graphic Design professor Jim Shurter jumped on board quickly, too.  “In the Two Dimensional Design class, students create a simple black and white design on paper, which they digitize and take over to the FABLAB and have their design laser etched onto the surface of a metal water bottle. They have to think about a lot of different elements when they are planning that.”

“You get a problem set in front of you and then figure out a creative response to solve that issue. That’s what employers are looking for.”

There is more in store for Shurter’s students. “This Fall, my students will be designing a typeface,” he explains. “They will design the letters on a computer, then take them over to the FABLAB to be cut, then mounted and used to hand print type.”  The assignment brings new energy to an almost extinct process. “It’s taking this very old technology of letterpress type and giving it back to students and let them see the process of developing a typeface and producing printing with it. It will be exciting for them to see the full process.”

Price is just as excited to see his students using technology in new ways: “The way that we integrate all of this software and technology and the FABLAB with the more traditional elements of art is just an incredible way to learn.”

Dempsey believes that technology is critical to student success and the Fine Art Program’s mission.  “MCC’s fine art and design programs are working to introduce students to a variety of new technologies early in their art experience in order to ensure that they are positioned to take advantage of technology in their education and in their career,” he says.

All of which makes art students more employable.  “Student artists can transform themselves into all sorts of different positions and do quite well at it,” says Price.  “They have the ability to learn and adapt because that’s what we’ve been teaching them in the classroom. You get a problem set in front of you and then figure out a creative response to solve that issue. That’s what employers are looking for.”

Mary Cusack and Michael Kelly

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