Square Dancing With a 3-D Printer

Photo of a figurine created using a 3-D printer Photo: William Atkins

When the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design unveiled its end-of the-year thesis exhibition, NEXT, this spring, a group of little plastic dragons celebrated the opening with more revelry than anyone in the gallery. The winged creatures had completed a journey through a 3-D printer to become part of “Square Dancing with Dragons,” an installation so chipper it seemed to come alive if you stared hard enough. 

The buoyant spirit of the piece—a gaggle of nine diminutive dragons—is not a surprise, coming from artist Dong Soh, BFA ’15, who says his childhood essentially took place in animated worlds. He grew up with video game controllers perennially at his fingertips, using the buttons to traipse through Game Boy and Nintendo landscapes. He paid attention to the lines that made up Super Mario, Megaman, Sonic and Pokemon characters, and consumed cartoons and anime from his parents’ native South Korea, the epicenter of animation. 

After picking up video game design skills at Washington State’s DigiPen Institute of Technology, Mr. Soh went to the Corcoran School to perfect his drawing and animation. But for NEXT, he decided to take his art to another level. He wanted to bring his illustrations to life, to make the characters “spring off the computer screen,” he says.

The problem was that clay, wood and other mediums he tried couldn’t quite capture the mix of globular shapes and jutting angles that he created digitally. 

“Why can’t you get something as sharp as those?” he recalls Professor of Art and Design Janis Goodman asking one day, while gesturing toward Mr. Soh’s meticulous sketches. He suggested trying a 3-D printer.

The burgeoning technology offered razor-sharp precision. Still, the process was its own dance, with missteps and trial and error. Mr. Soh would spend six to eight hours designing characters in a 3-D program, then turn to another piece of software to ensure the geometry would print just so; yet another program would give him the file to inject into the 3-D printer.

The printer might spit out inverted or collapsed pieces of plastic, and Mr. Soh would have to start again from the beginning. But eventually, he generated charming characters that previously had existed only as flat figures on a computer. 

“One of my favorite artists, Makoto Fujimura, writes about how art can bring happiness to other people,” Mr. Soh says. “I think that’s what ‘Square Dancing with Dragons’ does, and the 3-D printer helped me get there.”

— By Julyssa Lopez


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