Art Meets Technology with Digital Sculpture Creation

By Maddie Orton
Arts Correspondent

At the Digital Atelier in Mercerville, creating sculptures is something out of a sci-fi film, replacing hands and chisels with computer-operated machinery and lasers.

“Essentially, we’re a large-scale-model-making business. We run everything via digital files, transposing that into what we can use on machines to do the same thing that was done for years by hand,” explains Jon Lash, president and CEO of the Digital Atelier.

Clients include artists like Jeff Koons and Kiki Smith, and companies like Disney/Pixar.

“It all starts with a Marquette or a figure that someone wants to enlarge,” Digital Atelier 3D Engineer John Rannou explains. “We laser-scan it, create a 3D model on the computer, clean up the model and then convert that model to software that the machine can read and mill the part in whatever material they like.”

This process, called subtractive manufacturing, is used to create molds, restore damaged works and build larger versions of models.

“Henry Moore, to people in the Renaissance, all worked on small models first so they could visualize what they might need on a grand scale. Plus, it’s just not affordable to work at 10 feet and then not like your project,” Lash says.

At the Digital Atelier though, technology means a more precise product and a lot of time saved for artists.

“It’s really fast,” says Lash. “I mean if you’re a sculptor and you’re doing your own work, it could take months to do an enlargement, and we can generally do a 10-foot enlargement in about five days.”

Lash is not just a practitioner of the process, he’s a pioneer in the field.

“I’m a sculptor and I worked at Johnson Atelier for 20-plus years helping run their foundry and their enlarging department,” says Lash. “I had the idea that we could do this through computers and some of the new machinery that was just starting.”

The shop, which was originally part of the non-profit Johnson Atelier, created jobs and turned profits at such a rate that it needed to branch off as a for-profit endeavor.

“The first couple of years, it was a lot of trial and error,” admits Lash, “but once we got going, the clients just started pouring in.”

And while the Digital Atelier has found great success with their technology, they can’t wait to see what’s next.

“Kids are being taught some of the software now at much younger ages,” says Lash.

“Some day people are just going to think about it and a little printer in the background is just going to print it out for them,” says Rannou.

In the meantime, with orders coming in from all over the world, Lash and Rannou will have plenty to keep them busy.