Halfway up Tacoma’s hilltop, two people are pounding patterns into leather with a hammer. The leather is shaped into masquerade masks, with paint, straps and rivets awaiting. It’s a hands-on art technique that humans have used to for hundreds of years – but in this class in the recently opened FabLab studio, something new has been added. These masks were cut with a laser beam in a high-tech studio that offers artists the chance to share tools such as 3-D computer imaging, 3-D printing, computer-aided routing and more.
The bonus for Tacoma? A meeting of old – and new – world technology that has the potential to attract artists and connect them with the community.
“It’s using high-tech with an old craft form,” said leather artist Tamara Clammer, who’s teaching a similar mask-making class at FabLab next weekend. “It’s going to transform what I do, and allow others entry into this craft much more quickly.”
Clammer, a Seattle artist who heard about FabLab from an article in The News Tribune when it opened in early November, is an example of the artists the high-tech, membership-based studio is hoping to attract. A full-time artist who also works to promote art-based communities through Brown Paper Tickets, Clammer taught herself the ancient art of leather mask-making largely through trial and error five years ago. Drawing paper patterns and shaping them to her own face, she traced them onto soft leather and cut them out with an Exacto knife before softening them with water, adding texture (this is the hammer bit, using everyday objects to create patterns), hand-shaping and sponge-painting, riveting straps on for a finished product that she sells at local events such as the recent Gritty City Art Fair.
Hand-cutting, of course, produces uniquely individual designs. But there’s a lot of expensive trial and error involved, and it also creates small errors such as overcuts in the eyeholes. Knives have the potential for injury. And if you’re intending to teach classes, it means a whole lot of work cutting multiple copies.
That’s where FabLab comes in. Opened by five local entrepreneurs last month, the studio on Market Street uphill from The Swiss holds a lot of tantalizing technology behind its unassuming storefront: Macs and PCs with 3-D computer imaging software such as Inkscape, which are connected to cutting tools like a laser that cuts wood, paper, leather and acrylics, and engraves metal or glass. A router on a gantry arm can cut wood on a pool table-sized cutting surface. There are 3-D printers that melt plastic filament into three-dimensional shapes modeled from the base up, a plasma cutter for metal, plus traditional shop equipment such as saws, routers, welders and the like.
Monthly membership buys you unlimited access to all of this equipment, plus discounts on classes to teach you how to use it and what to make with it.
FabLab is an obvious mecca for students, architects, inventors and hobbyists, and there are already 13 members. It needs 200 to stay afloat.
But the potential for local artists is something the five FabLab founders have only just started to think about.
“I think this is a phenomenal tool for rapid prototyping, but also for art,” said co-owner Steve Tibbitts, a computer chip-maker and entrepreneur. “It’s great for playing around with forms.”
One art form Tibbitts sees FabLab serving is bronze sculpture. Tacoma’s Two Ravens foundry currently ships designs to Oregon to have them cut into foam molds for casting; with computer design software and high-tech cutters, this could be done in Tacoma. Other sculpting media could benefit from the 3-D modeling and printing available at the studio.
For Clammer, though, the attraction is the laser cutter. The flat machine that looks like a giant scanner bed holds a gantry that moves a pinpointed vertical laser beam across whatever material you put underneath it, carving patterns like the etched smartphone barcodes on FabLab’s circular wooden business cards. For an artist who’s spent the past five years cutting leather with an Exacto, this laser cutter looks like heaven.
“It’s so fast, so clean and easy,” said Clammer, who instantly saw the possibilities of cutting multiple masks for workshops to expand her art and teach it to others – something she’s committed to. “This opportunity at FabLab is exciting for me.”
Though Seattle-based, Clammer served for six years at Joint Base Lewis-McChord and studied at the University of Washington-Tacoma, and misses living here. She’s planning to tryout a FabLab membership in January and in the meantime will offer another mask-making workshop next weekend to help folks create New Year’s Eve costumes – combining high-tech design and cutting with old techniques of texturing, shaping and metallic-layered painting for masks with a medieval glimmer.
Other ideas FabLab has given her are creating a wooden unicorn horn using the 3-D printer and soldering station, and designing her own furniture, such as a wooden chair made out of a giant router-cut jigsaw puzzle.
But FabLab’s ability to unite the artist community through shared tools and space is ultimately what excites Clammer.
“I created my own technique ... and I don’t want that knowledge to be lost. There’s a lot of other knowledge out there that I want to be passed on. And then there are these new spaces that don’t have a membership base yet, that need help. That’s what brought me to FabLab. It’s well situated to be at the hub of the maker community. People don’t know about it yet, but it’s a really great thing. I want to see it thrive,” Clammer said.
FabLab high-tech workshop studio
Where: 1938 Market St., Tacoma
When: 10 a.m.- 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 1-8 p.m. Sundays (closed Christmas Day)
Classes: 5 p.m. Dec. 27, leather working; 1 p.m. Dec. 29, leather mask making; all day Jan. 1, leather journal-cover making; 5-9 p.m. Jan. 10, leather wallet making; 7-9 p.m. Jan. 16, inkscape 3-D design
Cost: Memberships are $69-$125 per month; classes from $20
Information: 253-426-1267, fablabtacoma.comRosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org blog.thenewstribune.com/arts