RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Getting to see Michelangelo's sculpture "David" in person is pretty cool. An entirely different experience would be having him in your living room. But advances in 3-D printing technology are making it possible to create an almost perfect replica for yourself. NPR's Laura Sydell has this profile of one innovator who's pushing the edges of how 3-D printing can be used to make classic works accessible.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: These days, a lot of museums will let people take photos of art.
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COSMO WENMAN: It gets a little exhausting and monotonous after the 500th photo.
SYDELL: Cosmo Wenman is photographing Rodin's "Bellona," a bronze bust of the Roman goddess of war and he needs a lot of photos to do what's called a 3-D scan. Bellona's got an engraved helmet with flaps that fall along the back of her neck like a horse's mane. She looks down her shoulder with her intense gaze, her taught neck muscles protruding.
WENMAN: It's got some detail's I'll have to get in close to, but it could turn out well.
SYDELL: Wenman's standing in a gallery of the Cantor Center for the Visual Arts at Stanford University. He's been making 3-D replicas of classic sculptures from museum collections around the world, including the Louvre, the British Museum and the Getty Villa.
WENMAN: I'm trying to demonstrate what the regular consumer can do with consumer-grade photography and consumer-grade software and even consumer-grade 3-D printers to recreate artwork.
SYDELL: After Wenman takes all the photos he needs, he will then process them with some free software from Autodesk and a $2,200 MakerBot 3-D printer. The software is able to bring together all of Cosmo's photos and recreate an object with three dimensions. He's recently started a partnership with Autodesk and today, he's doing some printing at their San Francisco offices.
WENMAN: It's basically a hot glue gun attached to a printing armature. Instead of a printer just going back and forth spraying ink, this goes back and up and down.
SYDELL: The hot glue he's talking about is a type of biodegradable plastic that's good for printing large things. The printer builds up the object with the plastic, layer by layer, based on the software instructions. The result is an object that has all the contours, details and proportions of the sculpture he photographed.
As we wait for the Rodin to print, he shows me some small replicas he's made of a classic Greek torso from the Louvre with lots of rippling muscles. Part of Wenman's process also includes putting patinas on the sculpture to make it look like the original.
WENMAN: You can see it's complete. It looks good and to my eye, this is worthy of display in the home.
SYDELL: Wenman puts his art scans on the MakerBot-run website Thingiverse so that other people can print them out at home or wherever there is a 3-D printer. Wenman sees all kinds of uses for his scans of classical works.
WENMAN: Schools could use these for their instruction. They could make cheap reproductions in the classroom. Art lovers could use them for study. People could just print them and have them in their homes.
SYDELL: Wenman got support from Autodesk after the company's Tatjana Dzambazova saw his work at a 3-D printing conference in London. She says most of the showcases were about 3-D printing iPhone cases and toys. But then...
TATJANA DZAMBAZOVA: I saw this gorgeous sculpture of a horse and I say, oh, my God, what is this? It didn't look like a 3-D print. He was trying to show that you can make art, or that you can save heritage or a much further instance than just, oh, I'll make my dock or my iPhone cover and that's it, right?
SYDELL: So far, no museums have objected to what Wenman is doing. Wenman says he doesn't ask permission. He'd prefer to ask forgiveness. But when Cantor Center Director Connie Wolf sees him in the gallery, she actually seems excited, a 3-D print is a lot more like seeing a sculpture than a photo would be.
CONNIE WOLF: The ability to see a sculpture as if you're walking around it is something so important. I'm very intrigued by it, but I don't know it.
SYDELL: Wolf says she sees great value in what Wenman is trying to do, as long as it's for the right reasons.
WOLF: You want to be sure that people recognize these are studying tools, teaching tools. These are opportunities to enjoy something that's a replica as opposed to a forgery.
SYDELL: Wolf also says 3-D printing could raise copyright problems with contemporary sculpture. But, she sees it more like a new version of posters, which have made people more interested in seeing the original artwork. This summer the Metropolitan Museum held a hackathon for digital artists and programmers who wanted to help scan parts of its collection.
Cosmo Wenman hopes he's leading the way to a future where 3-D prints of sculptures by greats like Rodin or Michelangelo are as common as posters of a Van Gogh. Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.