The Interface: Computers, 3-D Modeling and Women Sculptors

by Mary Visser

Associate Professor of Art Mary Visser teaches sculpture and computer imaging at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. She received her M.F.A. from Ohio State University in ceramic sculpture. Visser has completed several large scale public and private commissions the most recent being for the City of Austin, Sprint Inc., and the Telex Relay System for the Deaf. Her work has been included in several multimedia and video presentations here and in Europe (e.g. "The Computer: A Tool for Sculptors" - U.S.A., "Clay Artists:America's Best - France, "Texas Artists in Clay" - London, England, "Clay U.S.A." - Boston and Atlanta.) Her work has appeared in Texas Monthly, Artspace, Ceramics Monthly, Sculpture International magazine and in the book, A Comprehensive Guide to Outdoor Sculpture in Texas by Carol Morris Little. Visser's work has been included in over 40 international, national, and regional juried exhibitions. Most recently her work was included in "The First Digital Sculpture Exhibition" sponsored by "Intersculpt '99" at the Marie de VI Museum in Paris, France. Her work has received numerous awards among which she received the "1990 Design Excellence Award" from the The City of Austin Design Commission for her sculpture "Color At Play" and a Mellon Technology Fellowship award in 1998 for her work in multimedia. Visser is presently writing a multimedia interactive 3- dimensional design text for sculpture students.

In my work, I use the computer as an educational tool, a design tool, and a "what if" tool for creating sculpture which is based upon the dialectic in human and gendered interactions.  I have been using this medium since 1985, to help me visualize and present my work.  For many sculptors the computer model has opened up a Pandora's box of unanswered questions and endless possibilities.  How has it impacted upon their work, does it change the way they approach their medium, can it really facilitate the execution of their work, does it control their vision too strongly, and most of all why do they use it at all? These questions may not seem gendered related since they apply to the term sculptor.  But this article and the panel, I organized for the Computers and Sculptors Forum came about because of my interest in gender differences and an encounter I had with a sociologist. We had been talking about our respective research when he mentioned to me that it was highly unusual for a woman to be interested in computer imaging.  He then went on to comment on the rather numerous studies that demonstrated the lack of interest by young girls in using computers or in becoming sculptors.  His implication was that it was rare for a woman to be involved in these two very different fields (his words) based upon gender studies.   He asked me how many women were involved and I couldn't give him an answer.  Later his remarks caused me to pondered the issue.  But it changed from one of how many women, to who and what were they doing with computers?  Did it change the way they made or thought about their work?  This conversation with someone outside my field made me want to know what other women in sculpture were doing and specifically how they might be using the computer in creating their work. So, I begin my search over the Internet and through my peers for any information on women sculptors who use the computer as a tool in the creation of their work.  Well, as I suspected there were a number of women sculptors using computers.  Everything from using it as a sketchbook or storehouse for ideas in text form to animating a 3-d model or actually constructing their work via rapid prototyping. For most of us we began in much the same way, looking for some device that would resolve a problem that appeared in the process of creating sculpture.

"What I did discover in my search was that there are a large number of sculptors who are using the computer at various stages of development and they just happen to also be women." ... Mary Visser


The women selected for this article represent only a fraction of the women who use the computer as a tool for creating sculpture. Each one of us approaches the use of hardware and software applications differently within our own work and yet we have some approaches in common. The use of 3- dimensional modeling and data based software has allowed us to think differently with regard to how we incorporate sources in designing our work. Rapid prototyping methods have dramatically changed the way in which sculptures can be constructed. Surface modeling techniques are constantly expanding and redefining the concept of surface and texture. The most important change the computer has made for many of us lies within the creative process itself. Rather than having a traditional vertical creative process whereby one image evolves into another which results in the construction of a singular form the creative process itself has been expanded. The paths not taken can now be explored at will and in an instant.


For myself, I was seeking a way to view my video tapes of choreographed movements that I use as a basis for my work. My work deals with human interactions specifically through rituals and myths both contemporary and past. I needed a way to reveal the subtle gestures people make when they relate to one another on an intimate level.  The gestures for me must be the real emotion and not a pose. I discovered that I could digitize my tapes and see each gesture frame by frame on the computer screen. My database of human interactions in real life and in choreographed dance movements grew with the aid of the computer. As I used this raw data for reference, I realized that I could also rearrange the figures and their parts. The ability to recompose, add and delete forms at will was an important change in my way of working. My collection of rituals and gestures could be viewed in any number of variations and easily accessed.   This ability to create a virtual reality has caused me to develop a more interactive relationship between the viewer and their encounter with my work. I am not interested in controlling the viewpoint as much as I am interested in creating an interaction that can define or elicit a physical experience for the viewer.

Particularly, in my latest work Voices the viewer cannot help but be engaged since each figure will direct a statement or question to the viewer as he or she moves around the work. The viewer's response will elicit another interaction on the part of the figure and each interaction will have a distinct attitude. The interaction will grow and change with each person who encounters the work. The viewer will become involved and the ritual process of connection can be experienced and not just viewed. The computer allows you to manipulate the object three dimensionally, but what I find more exciting is that it also lets you manipulate the space around the object. To be able to include the space the viewer might move through has offered more interesting possibilities for me as a sculptor.

In my more recent work (see The Circle of Life) I have been using rapid prototyping to construct works that cannot be built in the real world due to the complexity and precision that I require for the image. I choose to use selective laser sintering as the process most suitable for my work as it uses an extremely fine thermoplastic powder called Duraform which is a glass filled polyamide material or the next generation of nylon materials developed specifically for creating rugged engineering of thermoplastic parts that can with stand aggessive functional testing. Also this process requires no after tooling and the surface will accept a number of different processes such as chrome plating to painting.

This particular process is excellent for scaling work up from a single file once the file has been made solid (a boolean process) that ensures the parts will become one form. The work is precisely divided into 9 sections and each one constructed separately at 14 inched in diameter. After each piece is formed they are put together as thought there were no separations. The precision of the build is such that there is no warping of the circle and the joints are nearly invisible to the eye. Thus you can make much larger work by dividing the form into very precise sections.


The Circle of Life by Mary Visser

"This freedom has changed the way I work as an artist, not only in my ability to collect and manipulate resource materials, but also in the way I think about the work."... Mary Visser

Another artist half way around the world is also interested in the space the viewer moves through, but this space is virtual and the artwork is interactive as well. Born in Singapore Lin Hsin Hsin studied music, art and mathematics at the University of Singapore and computer science at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. Lin has exhibited nationally and internationally. She has been awarded the silver medal from Société des Artistes FranÁais, Paris, the IBM Singapore Art Award, and the Japan Foundation award. Lin's artworks are in private and public museum collections in Asia, Europe and North America. Her award-winning computer-animated Lin Hsin Hsin Art Museum was the first of its kind in Asia and has been visited by over 640,000 visitors from 115 countries to date. She is well known as a poet and received the Golden Poet Award for her poetry book In Bytes We Travel. Lin Hsin Hsin meshes a number of scientific and artistic processes to create animated interactive web sites for her sculptures via her online art museum. "Unlike traditional sculptures which are carved, molded, shaped and formed using natural or synthetic material ... digital sculptures are formed either by scripting or 3D tools digitally. In contrast with traditional sculptures which can be partially animated ... as a non-metamorphic entity, digital representation of figurative or abstract 3D forms can continued to be shaped and reshaped, formed and transformed into numerous (new) forms over a defined timeline. " Lin Hsin Hsin


"Though I'm an artist, I come from a scientific and technological background ........ I have always used a scientific approach to my aesthetic creation."... Lin Hsin Hsin


Mary Bates from Arizona State University has shown her cast metal sculptures and digital images adapted from the history of science both nationally and internationally. She is a recipient of a Ford Fellowship, as well as, a Fulbright Fellowship at Cambridge, UK. She is presently involved in stereo modeling and texture mapping. Her current work uses visual information obtained through digital processes to create and record 3D data. "I definitely work in-between digital and analog processes. I am interested in how we look at, use, and handle the universal vocabulary of tools, specimens, and artifacts. What kind of psychological and cultural meanings they have and how we understand and see artifacts from the past." Mary Bates.

While in Cambridge studying tools she used the computer to record their forms, textures, shapes and details. The computer process allows her to examine the forms and to see inside their interiors. At Arizona State University she became involved in the Partnerships for Research for Stereo modeling. Using digital images from the Magellan project Bates creates a texture map that essentially becomes an artifact of the computer process.



"I came from a nontraditional medium for women, my technical specialty is metal casting, and I have found myself in another nontraditional medium digital modeling." ... Mary Bates