We like to tell stories at PEM. We tell stories about art and the people that make it. We tell stories about the works in exhibitions and how they relate to one another. We even tell stories about how we acquire and care for art. The title American Epics: Thomas Hart Benton and Hollywood alludes to the many stories told in this exhibition. In this case I am going to tell you a short story about a work that was not included on the final exhibition checklist, yet it still has a real presence in the museum installation!
Benton’s painting process was characterized by a painstaking attention to detail. He created scores of preliminary sketches, detailed drawings and clay models to accurately depict light, color and perspective in each painting. The Milwaukee Art Museum has a wonderful example of Benton’s clay maquettes in it’s collection, but the work was too fragile to travel for the show.
My first thought on hearing the disappointing news that the maquette could not travel was, “Well, why don’t we just 3-D print a model of it.” While once the technical wizardry of sci-fi movies, 3-D digital printing is now ubiquitous with wide scale applications in everything from prosthetic design to airplane and car parts. It is even being used to build pedestrian footbridges! In this case, my main concerns were the fragility and complexity of the maquette.
After a few conversations with James DeYoung, senior conservator at the Milwaukee Art Museum, and Andrew Camardella, an industrial designer from Chicago, we had a plan for scanning and printing the maquette. Andrew spent a full day in Milwaukee digitally capturing the piece. A grid was projected onto the object and a digital camera captured the original object from multiple angles and perspectives.
In some ways, the scanning is the easy work. Andrew then spent 35 hours processing the individual scans into a 3-D digital model of the piece that captured every nook and cranny of the original.
We decided to print the model 100% to scale in a monochrome white material known in the 3-D printing industry as sandstone, which has a somewhat organic texture that closely resembles the dried clay of the original.
The decision to display a facsimile of the original object in the exhibition was not made lightly. The curatorial and interpretive teams decided that the maquette would give visitors a clear understanding of Benton’s working methods. The maquette is labeled as a reproduction and we purposefully printed it in monochrome rather than color. The piece is installed in a recreation of Benton’s workshop that includes paints, brushes and an inspiration board. Unlike the original object, visitors are encouraged to touch the maquette! In describing his creative process, Benton once stated, “I feel my paintings in my hands” and in this case that is exactly what our visitors will do in the galleries.