The tree sections Jack Elliott is scanning need all the bark removed to reveal a simpler, mappable shape. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
Artist Jack Elliott was “shooting for irony” when he set out to scan a Tasmanian tree and then reproduce it on a 3D printer that makes solid objects from paper.
An associate professor at New York State’s prestigious Cornell University, he visited Tasmania for an arts residency at the University of Tasmania’s Cradle Coast campus.
His interest was piqued by stories about the state’s troubled forest industry.
His plan was to invert the process of cutting trees for paper production to instead digitally scan and map a Tasmanian tree and output it as a solid three-dimensional object using the latest generation of 3D printers.
US artist Jack Elliott scanned a tree in Tasmania and will produce a scale model on a 3D printer that builds solid objects in paper. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
“Scaled down, of course and maybe only parts or sections of the tree,” Mr Elliott said, chipping away at the bark on a huge blue-gum in Burnie, smoothing the surface for scanning.
“But it will be made of paper and that’s what I’m shooting for. There’s a great irony there.”
There is also a little irony in the huge amount of manual labour that was required of the artist to prepare a huge old eucalypt for the scanning process.
It took most of a week to painstakingly remove the bark from a dead blue gum in Burnie, several metres in circumference.
The tree had recently become a hazard at the Burnie campus and was about to be cut down when Mr Elliott was discussing his ideas with UTAS.
Jack Elliott’s sculpture, Victus Acernus, latin for vanquished maple, on show at Cornell University. He hopes to do something similar in Burnie. (Supplied: Jack Elliott)
It was agreed to only cut the hazardous upper part of the tree for now, leaving a huge stump for the artist to work with.
He has digitally scanned the contours of the tree using laser scanners fitted to iPads and an in-camera process called photogrammetry which extracts geometric information from two dimensional silhouette images.
He will create a database of the information from which to recreate a perfect model of it back in the US using a new generation 3D printer.
The outputted model would be solid, almost like reconstituted wood — but made from paper.
“My background is architecture and product design but lately I’ve been doing what’s called creative scholarship in sculpture,” Mr Elliott said.
“The idea is to inform people about the human-nature relationship, all of which is going pretty badly right now, right?
“Trees serve as a good metaphor for a lot of these issues, everything from invasive species to global warming, population ecology … so when I did research on Tasmania I was looking for a good tree story.
“For me, this idea of the tallest trees in the world, being measured after they were cut down and used to make paper — a material that can be made out of almost anything, rags, elephant dung.
“To be using the world’s most majestic trees to make something of so little value seemed really painful to me, and I think it’s been painful for a lot of people.”
The artist immediately saw a parallel with the US’s own giant Redwoods or Sequoia trees.
“When they were cut down they shattered and so couldn’t be used for anything, so they were using them for tooth-picks. The world’s largest organism, made into tooth picks!” he said.
It also occurred to Mr Elliott that as Burnie’s history was built on paper making, including handmade paper at the Makers Workshop in more recent times, the project presented a perfect opportunity to work with an intriguing new technology.
A new kind of 3D printer has emerged in Ireland which uses paper sheets as a raw material and outputs solid three dimensional objects.
Where most conventional 3D printing uses polymers which can’t be recycled and also produce thin walled objects, the new generation printer builds solid objects, sheet by sheet.
Preparing the tree for scanning took five days of careful bark removal. (ABC Northern Tasmania: Rick Eaves)
The platen drops a single sheet and then a fine layer of glue is applied in the same way toner is applied to a printed sheet, and only in the shape required.
The next sheet goes down, bonded with heat, as a razor continually cuts the profile, built up sheet-by-sheet.
“So what I want to do is scan these trees, digitally, create a 3D database and then manipulate that database to create from which I will then send to this 3D printer to build scaled-down versions of these trees,” he said.
The printed tress might only be around 30cm high, more symbolic than statuesque, but a great amount of Mr Elliott’s art in recent years has been on a much grander scale.
Jack Elliott’s sculpture Demisi, latin for demise or surrender, aimed at capturing the hinge point where two sections of a felled tree fall apart. (Supplied: Jack Elliott)
Public tree sculptures exhibited on campus at Cornell University include the 5-metre-high Animus, sculpted from a large red oak tree, and the 3.5m Victus Acernus, which is the complex unearthed root structure of a sugar maple.
Before leaving Tasmania, the artist said he would like to explore the idea of producing an artwork that uses the root system of the large blue gum he has been working on in Burnie.
“It would be a nice thing to do, to dig out these roots very carefully and move the whole thing to the new campus developing down by the sea here,” Mr Elliott said.
During his stay in Tasmania, Mr Elliott also investigated a tree with potential for scanning at Dip Falls, near Smithton, as well as visiting the Styx Valley giants.
“We do have a close affinity with trees — there is a biophyllic response in most people to things living — and tree huggers, people who have close attachments to trees,” he said.
“I work at trying to reveal the beauty of nature rather than impose my own will on it.”