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History Shines Through Cities of Glass

By Brendan Seibel

The advent of 3D printing has democratized manufacturing, facilitating small-scale production of everything from prosthetics to handguns. It’s also being adopted by artists to expand their craft and bridge digital and analog processes.

Michigan sculptor Norwood Viviano has been experimenting with 3D printing since the late 1990s and today includes the technology in the university art courses he teaches. His ongoing Mining Industries series uses historical data to create glass cities that reflect the relationship between people and commerce.

“My artwork explores my interest in the dynamic relationship between early American industry and the towns that grew up around it,” says Viviano. The artist is a child of Detroit, so he witnessed firsthand the effect manufacturing changes can have on communities. His long-standing fascination with how industry and demographics interrelate has been a guiding factor for many of his projects over the years.

3D sculpture by Norwood Viviano
3D sculpture by Norwood Viviano
3D sculpture by Norwood Viviano

THE PROCESS

Viviano begins by identifying the dominant industry of cities such as Detroit, Houston, and Seattle. He then examines how populations of those cities fluctuated alongside changes in the local economy. He selects iconic buildings to sculpt to help viewers relate to places whose shape and national significance have changed over time.

To accurately recreate a landscape, Viviano runs municipal LiDAR data through a 3D modeling program, then prints a rubber mold. He uses the mold to create a heat-resistant form through a lost-wax casting process, then packs the form with chunks of glass. After the glass fuses together in a kiln, the rough sculpture cools for ten days before being refined and acid polished.

At this point, the cityscape is ready to be populated with history. Several resources come together; it’s the data-melding equivalent of fusing glass. Viviano takes fragments of Sanborn Maps and aerial photographs representing eras of robust industrial and economic strength and sandwiches them between clear blocks of glass.

The maps and photographs require extensive post-production work in Adobe Photoshop before becoming part of a sculpture. Viviano digitally cleans and sharpens the historical photos. He also colorize the maps, which lose color-coded information, such as construction methods, after being archived on microfilm. Finally, he meticulously stitches together these disparate elements to tell the story of the evolving city.

Viviano also uses Adobe Illustrator to draw and prepare vinyl cuttings. These cuttings are hung beside individual sculptures to show changes in city boundaries and other statistical data. He also applies cuttings directly to the sides of his sculptures on more complicated pieces.

“Within my sculpture I have always felt like technology was a tool that helped bring me to a solution,” Viviano says. “Initially choosing to start with an object derived from a technology-based process helped me to reconsider the role of the hand in my making.”

In the coming months, Viviano will be creating new sculptures of Chicago and Seattle, with aims of expanding into further cities down the line. He’s also preparing for the upcoming exhibition “Cities: Departure and Deviation” at the Grand Rapids Art Museum. This project also melds the digital and artisanal worlds by creating traditional blown glass pieces based on 3D models that show the growth and contraction of urban spaces over time.