April 28, 2011 — Across the University of Virginia's Betsy and John Casteen Arts Grounds, it's about the art of making and creating, and the tools used to explore possibilities and produce work are often the same. The departments of drama and studio art in the College of Arts & Sciences and the School of Architecture are sharing resources and expertise to expose students to the various tools each has in its workshops that will foster new skills and explorations.
Each shop has a specialty that could be useful to the others, so it makes sense to share, said Kirk Martini, associate professor and associate dean for academics in the Architecture School.
The studio art department has welding tools, equipment to fabricate casts, a new sandblast cabinet and a welder that works on aluminum. Drama has different welding tools, a wood shop and aerial and lift equipment, which studio art recently used in Ruffin Gallery.
The Architecture School has still other wood tools and a computer numerical-controlled, or CNC, router, a tool driven by a computer that can cut a variety of materials such as wood, Styrofoam and thick cardboard into intricate shapes that would take hours to make with other tools.
"Exploring tools and materials is part of the design process," said Melissa Goldman, who joined the Architecture School staff in January and directs the school's fabrication facilities.
"In December we had about a dozen students who were using the router," Martini said. "Now we have more than 100 students who have used it in some capacity." And that's just in the Architecture School.
Goldman has expanded the number of users to include drama and studio art students. Early in the semester, she met with Eric Schmidt, the studio art gallery and studio technician, and Steven Warner, a lecturer and technical director in drama. The trio decided to offer short courses to students in all the disciplines across the Arts Grounds on the use of the equipment and safety practices.
"When someone new comes in, it's an opportunity to rewrite the way we are going to work," Warner said. "When Melissa was hired, we decided we were going to work this way and it has been awesome."
Schmidt said, "We're still finding out what gadgets we all have. We may not have a need for it yet, but we have the resources to share."
The idea is to have an "open shop policy so students can get trained to expand their toolkit and their horizons," Goldman said. "It's good to have cross-pollination so we can have a wider discussion of design on the Arts Grounds and beyond."
Goldman's first course on the CNC router lured more than 120 students and Warner's first welding class had a waiting list within an hour of its announcement. Last week he held two additional sessions to introduce architecture students to welding and MFA candidate Jessica Cloutier-Plasse guided students in the use of vacuum form equipment.
"The short courses give experience, and then they can go deeper into it if it's something they really enjoy," Warner said.
Cloutier-Plasse helped architecture graduate student Michael Levy Bajar create a mold he will use for his studio project.
"I used the vacuum form process to create a formwork of a tree stump as well as tightly bound wood slats that will allow me to not only use it as a concrete formwork, but also to easily reproduce the object in many different iterations of concrete," Bajar said.
Experimentation with materials and mediums is ongoing in the Architecture School. Bajar said that "by encouraging a collaboration between us and the drama department, we are able to expand our knowledge and produce an incredibly diverse set of explorations that can help further our projects."
After Warner's first course on the welding tools, three architecture students returned to work with him. One sought help with constructing a model of a bridge that incorporated a wall to hold back sand on the beach.
"The opportunity to try something different and work with different students is cool," Warner said.
The success of the collaboration is highly visible in the stage set for the Drama Department's production of "Evita." What appear to be detailed, intricate, wrought-iron railings, which adds visual flair and unites the design, are actually pieces cut from medium-density fiberboard.
To cut the dozens of pieces using the tools in the Drama Department's wood shop would have taken about six weeks, according to Alan Perez, who together with Justin Smith, was responsible for the technical direction of the production. Their training in the CNC router and access to the shop facilities in the Architecture School allowed them to complete the work in just a few days.
Smith and Perez have fostered collaboration in other ways. They are taking Martini's structural design class this semester, which has given them new tools to blend practical and technical knowledge.
Keeping platforms steady, knowing how much weight structures can hold and being able to evaluate what materials are best for the job are part of the technical director's trade.
"In the drama department we work like a craftsmen's guild, passing on what we know will work from experience," Smith said.
Now, though, they will have learned how to analyze a structure. "That information is going to be life-saving," Perez said.
Warner is impressed too. He said he plans to incorporate the structure class in to the curriculum for the next rotation of MFA candidates in technical direction.