Fine Arts in the Machine Shop: ‘A Wonderful Partnership’


“I’m practically computer illiterate,” claims Louise Hamlin, laughing. But that hasn’t stopped the George Frederick Jewett Professor of Art—a master printmaker and painter whose work has been exhibited around the country—from using state-of-the art technology to develop a printmaking technique, thanks to a collaboration with the staff of Thayer School of Engineering’s recently renovated machine shop.

At Thayer’s machine shop, from left, Peter Fontaine, special instructor, Kevin Baron, shop manager, and Professor Louise Hamlin talk about one of her prints. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

It’s unusual in academia to find artists and engineers working side by side, says machine shop manager Kevin Baron. But at Dartmouth, he says, “it’s symbiotic; it speaks to the whole rationale for having an elite engineering school in the middle of an elite liberal arts community. The knock on engineers is they make everything look like Legos; the knock on artists is they’re afraid of technology. We have a lot to learn from one another.”

Hamlin’s latest works—colorful prints of garlic scapes, the elegantly curving flower stalks of the pungent allium (on display this month at Long River Studios in Lyme, NH)—aren’t ordinary etchings. Hamlin drew the scapes with pencil and then brought scans of the images (made with the large scanner in the Evans Map Room in Baker-Berry Library) to Peter Fontaine, special instructor in Thayer’s machine shop. Fontaine helped Hamlin use a laser cutter to carve the images into acrylic plates as a series of dots, the density of which can be controlled by computer. The plates are then inked, wiped, and printed with various inks onto various papers, much like traditional etchings on zinc or copper.

But the process is much more versatile than traditional printing methods, Hamlin says. She’s been able to change the scale of images without having to redraw them, and to experiment with digital superimpositions before actually engraving the separate plates.

“The possibilities are endless,” Hamlin says. “I’m experimenting with a lot of different things right now, and I feel like it’s just the tip of the iceberg, so it’s really fun.” The product, she says, “is a nice combination of hand and machine.”

Hamlin is not the only member of the studio art faculty to make use of the machine shop. Associate Professor Soo “Sunny” Park, who currently chairs the studio art department, worked with Baron and Fontaine and others in the shop to cut acrylic sheets into the small shapes used in her sculptural installation Unwoven Light, which included thousands of pieces of the material attached to waves of chain link fencingand was exhibited at the Rice Gallery in Houston.

Special Instructor Peter Fontaine helped Professor Louise Hamlin use a laser cutter to carve images into acrylic plates. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

“With the digital tools you can make changes really quickly to make sure which shapes will work best for the project,” Park says.

Karolina Kawiaka, a senior lecturer in architecture, uses the machines to design furniture and digitally fabricated architectural models and elements. She and Park regularly encourage undergraduates to use the shop.

“Not many places make this kind of state-of-the-art equipment available to students,” says Kawiaka. She notes that many Dartmouth studio art majors modify their course of study with engineering, and vice versa. “It’s been a wonderful partnership going back and forth, and students are making incredible work.”

The 5,400-square-foot machine shop combines the latest fabrication equipment—including rapid prototyping machines—with a skilled staffed trained to help all users build whatever they can imagine. According to Baron, this staff will soon include an undergraduate teaching assistant with experience in both art and engineering to “serve as a conduit for others interested in accessing our shop for their art projects.”

“It’s not just the tools, but the knowledge. Those guys—I can’t praise them enough,” says Park.

The feeling is mutual. “The arts community is more than welcome in the machine shop—they are needed,” Baron says. “The presence in engineering workshops of diverse user groups—from the fine arts, architecture, computer science, music, theater, business—is the validation of the concept of a liberal arts education.”

Hannah Silverstein, MALS '09