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Digital To Dreamscapes

An artist introduced digital tools to her ceramic studio practice and changed what her work could become.

   

Artwork by Sarah Heitmeyer left to right: In situ photo of artwork, Clouds Triptych, white and blue square tiles; Blue Velvet Water Tiles, a grid of dark, rippling water tiles; detail of Tide Pools, with a combination of gloss and matte surfaces
Artwork by Sarah Heitmeyer left to right: In situ photo of artwork, Clouds Triptych; Blue Velvet Water Tiles; detail of Tide Pools

I slid one last tile into place and stepped back to see the full composition of a mandala-like wall sculpture with an undulating, geometric surface. I had created the three-foot-wide mandala with a complex pattern after a long research period using parametric design software, 3D printing, plaster mold making, and slip casting.  My vision for the piece existed only as a rendering in virtual space and not in the tactile realm of clay that had always been my primary medium.  When those two worlds aligned, it was a magical moment.


Clockwise from top left: Artwork by Sarah Heitmeyer titled Beyond Knowing Tides, 36 inches in diameter; Sarah in the studio working on clay tiles; 3D printed prototype being cast in plaster molds; 3D printed
Clockwise from top left: Artwork by Sarah Heitmeyer titled Beyond Knowing Tides, 36 inches in diameter; Sarah in the studio working on clay tiles; 3D printed prototype being cast in plaster molds; 3D printed

Learning how to incorporate digital tools into my making process accelerated achieving the conceptual goals I had cultivated over years. It also opened opportunities for production, replication, customization, and collaboration that weren’t conceivable before. As a maker who started with clay, I didn’t see how digital design tools could be incorporated into my work and processes. My studio practice needed to evolve to be in the right place for it and the evolution of the technologies and availability of them was perfect timing.


I remember being devastated the first time I saw something being 3D printed. I felt a pang in my stomach. After years spent refining my craftsmanship, I found it hard to accept that a robot could make something better than I ever could. An important question to ask here is though, in what way is it ‘better’? Similar conversations are being had today around the potential and risks associated with using chatGPT and other AI software to create work. I learned that it’s still just as easy to make “bad” objects with 3D printing as it is to make something “bad” by hand. Robots can’t use discretion or discern all contextual choices an artist will make in a moment.


Before embarking on a new piece, understanding what a tool is best at and understanding the role that can play in your vision is key. 3D printers are good at replication. They are good at making exact, perfect things, and they’re good at making them quickly. Computer aided design is good for design iterations and connecting the exceptional craftsmanship of robots to the creative vision of an artist.


Left to right: image of finished piece next to digital rendering; Sarah pressing a tile; milling a new mold
Left to right: image of finished piece next to digital rendering; Sarah pressing a tile; milling a new mold

Integrating digital tools with craft processes is another skill altogether.  Although it is becoming more common, it is rare when these tools are seamlessly integrated to the point that it’s not obvious in the finished piece. Often, digital processes such as 3D printing have visual artifacts of the process such as horizontal filament lines, faceting from the mesh that determine a boundary of an object, or geometric shapes that are challenging to create by hand.


Interestingly, this creative process of iteration and discernment was first taught to me in a pottery class. A professor in undergrad would speak at length about the language of the lip of a cylinder or the belly of a pitcher and they would stress that these features are in communication with each other and the maker should consider that language. Whether you are building a sculpture out of tubular shapes created by an extruder or if you used extrusion commands in a CAD software, those shapes communicate a story as much as their color, material, and title. While I was using entirely hand processes then, I apply the same degree of scrutiny of every facet of a finished piece in my current work. Regardless of process, digital or hand, the resulting marks or visual language that comes with that process must be conducive to the overall vision.


It was that exact issue that turned me on to digital design.  I realized the artifacts from hand sculpting processes were getting in the way of the illusion I was trying to create and making the experience fall flat. The kinds of objects those processes could create were feeling limited and crafty, with a lower case ‘c’. In order to create compositions that drew your eye to a horizon line like a landscape painting or through a pattern that seemed to be frozen in time, I had to create an illusion of space with materials and processes that supported the illusion but didn’t distract from it. Creating through computer aided design and 3D printing was like creating through photography rather than painting. There is something about the way the digital process preserves a level of realism that allows for an illusion to be created.


Left: Artwork by Sarah Heitmeyer titled “Expanse”, 24 inches in diameter; Right: A “Skyspace” installation by James Turrell, photo credit: Florian Holzherr
Left: Artwork by Sarah Heitmeyer titled “Expanse”, 24 inches in diameter; Right: A “Skyspace” installation by James Turrell, photo credit: Florian Holzherr

I had been researching the transformative visual power of sublime experiences, such as when you see a monumental landscape that reminds you of the vastness of the universe. Throughout human history, people have distilled the essence of such moments in nature and incorporated them into architecture in order to evoke the divine. In cathedrals, extraordinarily high, vaulted ceilings mimic the curvature of the earth, suggesting a scale beyond what the eye can see. Stained glass projects colored light through rooms, changing how we perceive space and suggesting a metaphysical being.


The temporal and spatial works by artists Robert Irwin and James Turrell are a minimalist approach with similar effects. Their installations are a study on how we perceive space and light, and they create an immersive atmosphere that teases the senses, so we become truly present in the moment of perception.

Ornamentation through tile has been used for centuries to decorate and tell stories. Islamic temples with complex patterned mosaics and archways suggest there will always be something grand beyond comprehension. 

Murqarna ceiling at the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo credit: Sonia Halliday Photo Library
Murqarna ceiling at the Shah Mosque in Isfahan, Iran. Photo credit: Sonia Halliday Photo Library

For years I avoided specificity with the patterns I chose to make in tile because I couldn’t relate to the stories behind them. I knew I wanted to create a sense of fluidity and motion in the work and learning how to translate photographs of water into surfaces I could sculpt gave me the perfect content to work with. I was surprised to learn the tools in digital design spoke a language of tile, such as repetition, tessellation, array. Afterall, these tools were originally designed to work within systems of manufacturing, architecture, and engineering. Over time, these skills have helped me plan exhibition layouts, fabricate custom hanging hardware, and create hanging templates for pieces with multiple parts.

Artwork by Sarah Heitmeyer titled “Sky Window”, 84 inches in diameter
Artwork by Sarah Heitmeyer titled “Sky Window”, 84 inches in diameter

What you see in my work today are undulating surfaces like clouds or rippling water across sculptural wall tiles. Blue, gray and white glazes flow and gather in glossy valleys. The imagery is semi realistic to remind you of the phenomena in nature of rolling waves and clouds. My mission for this work is to create custom installations for wellness spaces that can act as focal points for mindfulness. These awe-inspired moments can be offered to an audience that can benefit from the proven restorative effects of exposure to nature and beauty. While my process is complex, it is designed for customization, replication, and variability. The work honors a long history of ornamental ceramics, while being elevated by innovative tools, to offer a quiet, immense moment.

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