Thomas Schmidt is a professor and artist, interested in 3D modeling and fabrication involving ceramics. I’ll let him describe his academic role and explain more about what’s happening in the academic world. He also took some time to explain the evolution of his artistic interests and his experiments with qualities and attributes of clay.
JW: Will you please tell me a little about your role as Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary 3D Study and Digital Fabrication?
TS: Currently I teach as an Associate Professor and Coordinator of our new 3D Interdisciplinary Studies area at UNC Charlotte. In response to the increasing cross-pollination of disciplines in the contemporary art world, our entire art program has made major curricular changes to give students the ability to move more freely across media. As part of this effort we recently combined our Ceramics, Fibers, Sculpture and Digital Fabrication studios into one 3D area. Within this area I am teaching primarily 3D Modeling and Digital Fabrication, Ceramics and Installation art courses.
JW: Would you say this type of BFA program is representative of emerging training for ceramic artists, or is it fairly unique to UNC?
TS: There are a number of programs around the country which are integrating ceramics with mixed media and digital tools, but I think the way in which each program tackles this is quite different. I talk with a number of faculty at different programs, and we are all sharing our experiences to navigate this relatively uncharted territory. One of the main challenges is that ceramics is such a highly technical medium, so much so that a student could exhaust all their studio art classes in ceramics and still have more to learn. On top of that, ceramics is incredibly broad in terms of content and output, from utilitarian work to performance and everything in-between. For these reasons, we have made our degree quite flexible so that students can choose to load up on clay content, or to integrate other media and vice versa, depending on their long term goals. While I am constantly geeking out about bringing together digital tools with ceramics, interestingly many students take ceramics as an antidote to digital technology, and it can take some nudging to get them excited about combining the two disciplines. Of course, once they finally do they wish they had taken the plunge sooner!
JW: You say you’re interest is in “mining the zone between 2D and 3D space”. Will you tell me more about what that involves?
TS: While in grad school at Alfred University I was studying Ceramic Art but had the opportunity to work in the printmaking studio as well. Through a number of experiments I basically became obsessed with the materiality of paper, and the printed image.
I wondered at what point does our perception shift from seeing a printed image to seeing ink on paper. This led me to scan sheets of crumpled paper at very high resolution and then reprint the images at a large scale. In doing so, one could see the individual fibers that comprised the sheet of paper. In other variations, an image was magnified so closely that the original subject was no longer distinguishable but the halftone dots that comprise the image were revealed.
I continued to challenge my own preconception of paper as a two-dimensional plane. I sanded through large sheets of printmaking paper and then hung the distressed result in the center of a space. The sheet had become perforated in places, allowing one to see through holes as if looking through a screen; the ability to walk around the sheet further emphasized its dimensionality. In the same vein, I tried to compress three-dimensional space by printing images of crumpled paper onto flat sheets of paper. With each iteration, I was systematically breaking down my own assumptions about objects in two and three dimensions, as well as breaking down the time-based experience of interacting with static objects within a space. For my MFA show I translated some of these ideas to clay with a modular tile piece cast from crumpled paper with a piece called Sampled Spaces.
JW: You are also interested in exploring the properties of various materials, including recycled ceramics and manufacturing materials. Will you describe what you’re doing in this area?
TS: After grad school I had the opportunity to assist Wayne Higby on the fabrication of a huge tile work that was later installed at the Miller Center for the Arts in Reading, PA. For this project Wayne had built a relationship with a ceramic tile factory in Foshan, China. He carefully studied the existing workflow and production at this massive site, and was given permission to interject his own experiments within a couple key parts of the factories existing workflow. This project left me completely inspired by the potential of an artistic intervention in a factory setting. That project with Wayne was a crash-course that just barely prepared me for the next four years, as I accepted a teaching position at the Alfred/CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Art) Ceramic Design for Industry Program in Beijing, where I lived for four years. As part of the program, we would often visit factories in Jingdezhen, China. During one of these visits we discovered a factory that had mountains of plates that had been discarded due to minor defects.
During this time, my friend and collaborator Jeffrey Miller and I became interested in using industrial waste and scraps to produce artwork. The most exciting of these experiments was when we poured molten recycled aluminum onto porcelain shards. The aluminum flowed and curled around the shards, then held the shards in place once the aluminum had cooled. Through lots of testing we developed this into a consistent tile surface that we still produce today, both as artwork but also interior and exterior tile surfaces. You can see more of this project here: www.recycledchina.org
JW: Some of your earlier work looks focused on qualities and characteristics of clay material itself – perhaps as that material is subjected to physical forces (e.g., Pivot Rifts, Remnance, Release). Is there an evolution of your work that you see?
TS: Looking back I think that much of my earlier work was about pushing the boundaries of what clay could do, and this act of exploration just kept opening up new possibilities. Pieces such as Tension and Rest Series, Pivot Rifts, and Remnance were all generated from a single series of experiments in which I began slip casting porcelain into solid blocks. Whereas one would normally use slip casting to reproduce thin-shelled functional objects, in this experiment I simply cast a cube, and allowed the casting slip to settle and dry for weeks rather than draining the mold after approximately ten minutes, as one normally would. Each day that I returned to the studio, the porcelain slip had settled into the mold a little further, producing visible ridges as the water was gradually absorbed by the mold. In this way the clay became a document of atmospheric change, made evident by any deviation from the shape of a cube. The firing then became another variable, essentially fusing this “event” in time.
Jumping off from the slip-casting experiments, I became interested in other forms of sampling or recording, including the use of photography and 3D scanning. The use of digital tools as well as my experience teaching in China gradually pushed my sculptural work closer to industrial design, with work such as Map Series and Network Series.
JW: Maybe even a bigger question: if you do see an evolution to your work up to this point — where do you think your enquires and investigations will take you in the future? Any upcoming projects?
TS: Overall, I have become very interested in the intersection of craft and digital fabrication. Recently I produced a piece titled “Future Flora.” This sculpture is an abstract assemblage, representing the role of craft in the post-digital age: Slip-cast porcelain modules produced on residency in Jingdezhen China, are derived from 3D printed models and assembled to create a tangled network of spheres. Attached to these modules, using 3D-printed connectors and zip-ties are historical pottery shards, industrial ceramics, 3D printed parts and various found objects, as artifacts within this cloud of material. As an homage to traditional floral surface decoration, the ceramic decals are produced from photographs of moss, lichen and other plant-life in the forests of Jingdezhen, China. With all items at some point passing through a digital process, this tangled collage is intended to represent a physical manifestation of virtual forms, and the complicated role of ceramics in the post-digital world.
I have a number of other projects in the works that I am excited to share in the near future. These include some large scale wall-based works, some experiments in 3D printing in clay, and functional objects using recycled 3D printer scrap. Once they are ready to share I’ll be posting some pics on Instagram @tomschmidtstudio as well as my website thomasschmidt.org!