Mar 12, 2018 – Artist Features
Five Things You Should Know About Brian Boldon
Story by Morgan Mercer // Photos by Bobby Rogers
Brian Boldon is no stranger to risk. The 59-year-old gravitates toward challenges because he’s found the age-old adage to be true: The greater the risk, the greater the reward. Twice in his career, Brian invested thousands of dollars into emerging technology that few people, including himself, knew how to use well at the time — much less how to apply to fine art. Yet each time the gamble paid off and his artistic practice grew. In 2008, after 22 years of teaching, the former college professor was able to trade in the world of academics for a full-time career making art. Now, he splits his time between his personal practice — largely ceramics — and a collaborative studio he opened with his partner, Amy Baur, called In Plain Sight art. Here are five things you should know about Brian Boldon.
He shelled out $35,000 and second mortgaged his house in the name of art
For years, Brian wanted to merge his love for ceramics with photographic images. In the early 2000s, that dream became a reality when a pigment specialist in the UK and a printer in Germany teamed up to create a laser printer capable of printing glaze in lieu of traditional ink. Unlike most printer pigments, which are organic, glaze is inorganic. That means it’s made up of minerals like metal oxides and silica. It’s abrasive. It’s tough to print. The trick was to figure out how to get the ground-up glass, or ceramic pigments, to behave like a four-color toner process. “It’s not for the faint-hearted,” says Brian, who eventually bought a retrofitted 1180 Canon laser printer that’s now 12 years old. “You had to hack the machine, take out a lot of parts and repurpose it so that you can run glaze through it.” In the early 2000s when Brian first learned about the technology, there were about 10 machines up and running in North America, and only about 50 around the world. In June of 2004, Brian visited a studio in Los Angeles where a fellow University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate set up one of the first laser printers in the U.S. capable of printing glaze. That fall, Brian and artist Amy Baur, his spouse and collaborator, dove in. “We made this calculated bet on ourselves. We second mortgaged our house and had enough money to buy the equipment,” says Brian, whose start-up costs neared $50,000. “The first year was a disaster. We couldn’t get it to work at all. There was no lifeline or technical support.” With few people to rely on in the States who were familiar with the equipment, Brian traveled to Europe to get firsthand experience from the two men who started it all. From there, Brian and Amy — who is also an artist and photographer — launched a collaborative studio creating large-scale, permanent installations. To date, the pair has created 40 public art installations around the country out of ceramic tiles or glass panels fused with high-resolution photography printed in glaze.
Brian is an early adopter
A high-pitched whistle sounds in Brian’s 4,300-square-foot studio. It’s the noise his 3D printer makes as it extrudes wet porcelain into a sculpture he designed. More than a decade ago, Brian flung himself into printing glaze; now, 12 years later, he’s adopted another technology in its infancy: 3D printing clay. “I’m on the edge of the universe. Once again I’ve recreated the artistic nightmare where I buy into a technology and I’m on my own, like it’s the Wild West. People have no idea what the future is.” While the technology has been used to print plastic for years, it’s a relatively new concept when it comes to earth materials like clay — only about three years old. It’s no easy feat, either. For the past few months, Brian has worked on developing his clay into the right pudding-like consistency to pump through his machine. You need enough water to get the porcelain to move through the printer, but not too much that the material won’t stand up in a 3D shape when it comes out. The largest print Brian made — a form about 16 inches tall, 16 inches wide and 12 inches deep — took nearly three hours to print. The resulting sculpture, layers of pure silica clay built up one on top of the other by a machine, looks exceptional, he says. Brian can print at a lower resolution, with bands of wet clay nearly an eighth of an inch thick; or he can print an elegant curve at a higher resolution, made up of clay bands as thin as a millimeter. “These things look like fabric. They look like textiles. They’re absolutely beautiful,” says Brian. “With any technological development, it takes time for the newness to break in; but once the infatuation is over, it’s either going to make it or not based on what you’re doing with it.” Eventually, Brian sees a time when the beauty of 3D-printed objects will eclipse the novelty of how they’re made. “If you give someone a pencil or a crayon, there are all kinds of things you can do with that crayon. At some point, someone is going to do something amazing with it and who cares if it’s a crayon?”
American Feral / Brian Boldon
The artist 3D printed porcelain and steel in response to the 2016 presidential election
Once Brian got a 3D printer, the first piece he made was American Feral, an installation of 12 pig heads mounted to a wall in three rows of four. To create it, he hand built a series of ceramic swine busts that he scanned and printed. Even though he was still learning the intricacies of printing clay, he added in an additional element of difficulty: he mixed in steel. He wasn’t even sure if it would work. “Anybody who works with porcelain would think that is insanity. You’re contaminating everything,” says Brian, who mixed the two materials together anyway and started printing. “It would just boil, run and ooze depending on how much steel I mixed with it.” What resulted were 12 white porcelain pig faces, malformed and misshapen, with black steel seeming to spread through them like some sort of contaminate or disease. The piece was his first foray into art as a political response, and was his retort to one candidate’s promise to return manufacturing jobs to America in a time when machines are steadily replacing people. “I’m seeking some sort of empathetic, emotional response. I want you to feel something,” says Brian. “I’m not really telling anybody anything or judging anything. I’m just trying to be a witness, and to create relationships between materials, technology, ideas and installations. I want you to think outside of the box and to give you another look at something.”
“There is an ongoing saga with technology that is changing everything about the way we think and work every day,” says Brian. “I felt compelled to throw myself on the path of emerging technology and embrace it creatively; to think of it like any other tool.”
He’s a philosophy nerd
Several universal human questions that drive philosophy also serve as a catalyst for Brian’s work: What is our purpose? Is our relationship with nature sustainable? How does mythology or religion affect us? How do our cultural beliefs inform emerging technology? Through ceramics, the artist explores the connection between culture and nature, digging into how human beings have evolved over time, and the relationship we have with the planet and our environment. “When you touch a piece of clay you have this almost direct lineage to your ancestors making fertility goddesses 20,000 years ago. There’s a lot of magic in it for me,” he says. “We’re technical beings and we’ve always used technology; that’s what makes us human. In 2018, running clay through a 3D printer is just my way of trying to raise and answer the same questions. As a contemporary artist, I feel compelled to try to use [the technology] available to me now. I’m using it for everything else, so why wouldn’t I be using it to make my work?”
The artist has a stellar idea
Brian recently submitted a proposal to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for what he calls a “pie in the sky” idea. As the artist started looking through the museum’s collection, he found an incredible array of Egyptian, Babylonian and Greek artifacts tied to mythology. First, he wants to scan the historical objects; then he wants to print them five or six feet high — but with a few catches: Brian wants to build a land rover, mount a 3D printer to the back and print the oversized artifacts during a live performance inside the museum. There’s more: Before the performance, Brian plans to figure out what the stars and sky look like above southern California and use it as a guide for where to place his pieces. For example, let’s say the Big Dipper is directly above Los Angeles. Brian’s self-driving printer would start with the North Star and in its place print an Egyptian god. Then, it would shuttle itself onto the next star in the constellation and print out a Greek vase. By the end, Brian would have an astrological landscape — 20 feet long by 30 feet wide — of human artifacts linked to the celestial map above the museum at that very moment.