There are many joys of being an artist, but one in particular is getting the opportunity to have individuals come to you with a request to help them capture a moment, a likeness or an emotion in some visual form that they want to live with for some indefinite amount of time. You may or may not be familiar with a commissioned piece I did a while back titled, One Million Miles, which was about travel using over 600 airline boarding passes. This next commissioned piece below is similar, but in the form of flight cards, hotel keys and travel member credit cards.
The collector came to me this time with a box of various hotel keys, luggage tags, membership and coveted credit cards. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with them, but he trusted my visual aesthetic and put the final piece in my hands. I had material he’s collected since 1998 so the pressure was high to find a technique that wasn’t destructive to the materials. He was open to various ideas, so I explored a way to construct a piece that was legible up close and visually balanced from a distance. Aside from the aesthetic choices of a piece, I always try to dig a little deeper and find the story in it and ask myself a series of questions before committing to a design. What is it that I’m trying to capture? What do all these cards mean to the collector? What can I help this individual see in his or her personal artifacts? Artists see the world a bit differently so I feel it’s my responsibility to help a collector find the beauty in these common objects they have around them in their lives. Before jumping in, I sat down with my collector and had a conversation about what traveling meant to him.
After my initial conversation, I laid out all the material and organized it by color and size. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with it at that moment, but from listening to his passion for traveling, it made me think about traversing the globe.
I prototyped square and rectangular concepts. Though interesting, it had borders and traveling represents a notion of being boundless so I explored alternative ideas.
Thinking more about that led me to a circular form that radiates from the center. The radial nature of the form also mimicked that of a propeller complimenting the conceptual aspect of the project. The card shape itself is 3.370 x 2.125 inches so adding only twelve cards with a half inch gap quickly adds up to a 54 inch dial. That requires a lot of wall space!
Now that I had the concept worked out, I wanted to explore doing this piece in wood using a Computer Numeric Control technique, also known as CNC.
I had never worked with a CNC machine so I wasn’t aware what kind of work goes into preparing a file for carving. Because these machines are fairly expensive and take up a fair amount of space, I reached out to a local company Lucid Machine Art here in San Francisco that specializes in CNC cutting to help fabricate the design. They work primarily in CAD programs so they needed a vector file that is compatible with the CNC machine. I primarily work with Houdini, software by SideFx Software, to create my 3D models. The tools for creating organic and complex meshes have become very robust recently. My first instinct was to design and model a solid object using polygons, but the CNC machine requires vector based geometry.
I’m very knew to all this, but I quickly learned the expense of CNC machining is in preparing the data for cutting and the machine time itself. To carve out very subtle rounded edges, the drill bit on the CNC machine has to slowly run back and forth across the piece of wood and take small incremental steps to create smooth rounded surfaces. That takes a lot of machine time. If the edges were 90 degrees, then the machine time is very short because it can make the cut in one go. I tried to reduce the size of the piece breaking it in five sections, but again it’s about reducing the rounded edges and decreasing machine time.
I went back to the drawing board. I still felt the circular design was the best fit for the project, but I needed to find a way to make the costs more predictable in machine time. After some thought, I removed the beveled edges and replaced them with 90 degree angles.
After consulting with Lucid Machine Art on cutting this revised design, they confirmed that it significantly reduced the machine time and costs to fabricate. After approval from my collector, we went into production. It took some back and forth preparing and formatting the model for cutting, but we quickly got a working model. I was super excited to see something created virtually in Houdini materialize. Even though I was working with real world measurements, the scale and design was a lot bigger then I had imagined in person, but still worked and was cool to hold in my hands.
I was really satisfied with the final product. The smell of fresh cut wood, the smooth touch of the surface and seeing the layering of the birch plywood allowed me to see the final piece ahead.
After laying out the cards by color and pattern, I cut small pieces of archival matboard to mount on the backside of the cards. This allowed the cards to float 1/8 of an inch off the piece and create a small shadow to visually add separation from the background. Some cards were partially clear so custom cuts created a nice illusion of being suspended up close.
Overall, this piece was a fun space to think in for a while. I learned a little more about about a collector’s passion, got the opportunity to create with their materials and I learned a lot more about creating with the CNC process. If you get the opportunity to collaborate with someone, jump at the opportunity. You’ll find out a lot more about your creativity and do something unexpected for yourself.
Vincent Serritella Studio