3D printed cast bronze reliquary assignment

In fall 2015, I taught an advanced sculpture course in the West Virginia University School of Art and Design focusing specifically on metal casting processes. One of the assignments for this class involved creating both a cast bronze sculpture and a customized container for this sculpture. I asked the students to think of this project as a 21-st century reliquary, engaging broader conceptual issues of memory, belief, history, family, spirituality, and time. There was also a strong writing and research component to this assignment, which enabled students to develop their ideas more fully over the course of the term.

For this project, students were required to make their bronze patterns using 3D printing and scanning processes. Most of these students had never cast bronze before, so 3D printing their patterns forced them to work at a smaller, more accessible scale. This technology also helped students get intricate pattern detail much faster than conventional pattern making. In addition, PLA plastic patterns can be burned out of investment molds just like wax patterns, which allowed students to learn the most fundamental principles of lost wax casting.

Students began this project by gathering family heirlooms, memorabilia, keepsakes, and other personal objects they deemed important. Next, they used a rotational tabletop 3D scanner to record these objects. Some students worked directly, scanning items imbued with personal significance & sentimental attachment, while other students invented or modified objects that evoked these strong qualities of memory. From these scans, PLA plastic prints were created using a MakerBot Replicator Mini Compact 3D Printer. To offset the material needs of this endeavor, I was happy to receive an Academic Innovation Technology Integration Grant from the West Virginia University Teaching & Learning Commons Sandbox

Students then assembled these patterns onto wax sprue systems & embedded them in traditional plaster and sand investment molds. After the patterns were evacuated from the molds in a burn out kiln, these hot molds were transported to the foundry area and filled with molten bronze. Students then explored finishing and patina processes to clean up their bronze castings, while resolving the final version of their sculptures using a variety of fabrication, construction, and display methods. I think my students successfully bridged the gap between traditional sculpture making processes and emerging technologies with this project, resulting in some excellent solutions to the idea of a contemporary reliquary.

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