Breathing within the History: The Ever Evolving History of Macy 55 Studio

By Sohee Koo

During two years I worked as a 3D fellow at Teachers College, I was fortunate to witness the gradual process and new changes that converted the sculpture studio, Macy 55, to a new Fab lab space. Our program director Dr. Judith Burton’s long journey and vision is to transform the sculpture studio into a Fab lab space that will open up unlimited possibilities for art making and instruction in the Art and Art Education program, as well as all other programs, at Teachers College. The program continuously encourages students to work with a wide range of fabrications and materials, from traditional to digital, to develop a rich studio practice in a creative and innovative way.

Being at the Macy 55 studio at Teachers College allows students to have a unique experience and invites them to look back to the past –more than a century ago. One can see the harmony between the antique and preserved tools, such as faded and worn out wooden work tables, old-fashioned metal book presses, rusty cold banding tools, oxidized metal clamps, and triple painted stools and the new digital fabricating apparatuses, such as laser cutters, 3D printers, digital electronics, and digital embroidery machines, all of which simultaneously reside at the Macy 55 studio.

During the 1900s, the Teachers College Art Department was heavily influenced by the manual training and industrial arts movement, which included mental training as an essential part of education. John D. Runkle (1822–1902) first initiated the idea of manual training to be included as part of general education. He was inspired by a Russian instructional exhibition featuring the Moscow Imperial Technical School’s use of industrial techniques– “an important characteristic of this instruction is the development of the idea the line of service and the line of beauty frequently evolve together” (Efland, 1990). Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), while chairing an Art Department at Teachers College, furthered Runkle’s legacy by emphasizing manual training in art coursework. Looking at the archival data, Dow’s notes in 1908 describes the courses influenced by manual training, such as, constructive design, wood carving, woodworking, art metal, and hand work for the various grades of schools. In addition, the department of domestic art offered courses in sewing, textile art, household design, and embroidery.

It is notable that the digital fabricating process of prototyping mirrors the 21st century’s version of manual training processes that existed more than a century ago, although the traditional and contemporary materials and machines are different. History does reflect the past and present simultaneously. The courses listed during 1908 set the precedent for the Teachers College’s Art and Art Education program’s current courses, such as “Process and Structures,” “Intro to Sculpture,” “Art and Technology,” and “New Media, New Forms.”

To Dow, the 1908 Third International Congress for the Development of Art Teaching in London —with 516 members representing 15 countries—was a great precedent to show the importance of art education in Europe and America. During this gathering, the value of drawing was mainly discussed in terms of industrial purposes, though it was sometimes recognized as an artistic accomplishment and channel of culture. Dow added that art study started to focus on the freehand drawing style with some consideration of design due to the handcraft movement, manual training, and changes in educational thought. I was amazed at the extent of art education advocacy throughout history. Recently, many art educators and scholars demonstrate the importance of art education in public schools through the STEAM  movement. In the 1900s, Dow also put an effort to advocate the significance of art education, and he used an example of drawing, which could ultimately benefit a nation’s industry because it could develop rich design elements.

No machine can ever give us great art, but it can make things good in line, good in texture, and good in color. The artist may create superior quality with the factory loom, the shop lathe, and the power press; he may use all tools, all machines, all materials, and any methods of manufacture. (Dow, 1919, p. 345)

I wonder what Professor Arthur Wesley Dow might say if he could see the current changes occurring in the Macy 55 studio. Today’s use of industrial engineered prototyping digital tools truly mirrors the use of “the machine” that was influenced by the manual training and industrial arts movement during the 1900s.

Due to the new changes and renovations of the Macy 55 studio, I could trace the historical evolution that has evolved through time and shows our predecessors’ endless efforts to make better studio spaces, as well as the elevated importance of art and art education. Dow insisted that drawing could play an important role in America’s industry due to the manual training movement and the arts and craft movement in that era. This kind of advocacy is still an ongoing issue in today’s art education, as seen by many art scholars and educators propelling the STEAM movement.

Although it was a very overwhelming and intensive experience to go through the process of cleaning, organizing, and renovating processes for our new Fab lab space in the Macy 55 studio, I feel grateful to be involved in such a historical and transitional moment at Teachers College. I wonder what will happen at Teachers College and the field of art and art education in future generations. Current history could not exist without the events of the past, and history is dynamic and ever evolving.

Art practices: ‘Making’ in the Macy 55 studio

One of the best things about working in the Macy 55 studio was that I was able to continue my art practice along with my research. In my body of artwork, I’ve tried to bring attention to the details of everyday life to destabilize our surroundings and unfold layers of awareness. The works require new attention to the familiar, elevating mundane found objects, such as bubble wrap from mail packages and acetate sheets from dry cleaning into unconventional mixed media sculpture and installations. Space, time, and light all become the materials for this exploration.

However, the new changes in the Macy 55 studio allow this exploration of materiality and the process of making to be deeper and more meaningful in many ways. For instance, I was able to bring the digital fabrication processes into the existing traditional sculpture-making process. Specifically, I would design the blueprint of a 3D object using software and print it in plastic filament using a 3D printer. Then, I would take the digitally printed 3D object through traditional molding and casting procedures using plaster, rubber, silicone, and wax. I was drawn to the different tactility of materials, whether they are digitally printed or traditionally fabricated.

Ultimately, the new changes in the Macy 55 studio, which brought various kinds of digital fabrication tools into the existing traditional woodworking and metalworking processes, enabled me to go beyond my comfort zone of art practices in a playful and creative way. These works share sensitivity to art making and materiality, softening the exchange between cerebral intellect and a visceral, physical experience. I hope to continue this exploration of combining traditional and digital fabrication.

Similarly, I would like to bring the ability to explore and play with both traditional and digital fabrications and materials into my teaching for the summer course, “Intro to Sculpture/Mixed Media.” The course will be the first class to take place in the newly renovated and equipped Fab lab in the Macy 55 studio, which is composed of both traditional and digital fabrication tools, such as various woodworking tools, welding tools, laser cutters, 3D printers, CNC routers, and digital embroidery machines with various media such as wood, metal, fabric, plaster, silicone, rubber, resin, and wax. The new change also challenged me to develop approaches to teaching that address the integration of technology into traditional studio classes.

The new change in Macy 55 will continuously inspire current students, educators, artists, and researchers to have new perspectives and experiences, which ultimately encourages artistic ways of seeing, thinking, and making. Furthermore, I believe that the Macy 55 studio will be a great communal making space for the new and innovative ideas of everyone at Teachers College.

My philosophy and rationale for this course comes from my curiosity and effort to make a significant connection between the 1900s-era manual training and industrial arts movements at Teachers College and today’s “maker movement” within the context of sculpture and making. In this connection, Resnick (2006) and Blikstein (2013) argued that “making” by using digital fabrication could be the vehicle for inspiring innovative ideas and literacies in today’s fast-growing significance of technology in the classroom. I believe that the digital making process of prototyping could be the 21st-century version of manual training processes that existed more than a century ago, although the actual materials and machines have evolved. This being said, it is important to allow any students (regardless of their major and experience in art) to explore and engage in the making processes using both traditional and digital tools and media.

Furthermore, I would like this course to give students an opportunity not only creatively to implement the elements of making into their teaching practices and workplaces but also to experience a continuum in their lives. In a sense, students will develop their definition of sculpture through hands-on experiences with different materials, tools, and techniques. I also argue that it is vital to develop creative ways for the effective implementation of both traditional and technology tools in studio classrooms in higher education in order to promote the importance of art production as well as possibilities to develop students’ artistic ways of seeing and thinking.

Fab lab is short for ‘fabrication laboratory’ and it is a workshop space that is equipped with a varied range of computer-controlled tools, such as digital fabrication machines (laser cutter, CNC machines, 3D printer, digital electronics), which can “make almost anything”– also originated from MIT’s popular class titled “How to Make Almost Anything”.


Reference:

Dow, A. (1908-1912). Notes and writings by Arthur Wesley Dow: Writings on teaching art.

Lectures on color, 1904-1906. Teachers College, Columbia University: NY.

Efland, A. (1990). A history of art education: Intellectual and social currents in teaching the visual arts. Teachers College Press. New York.

Blikstein, P. (2013). Digital Fabrication and “Making” in Education: The Democratization of Invention. In J. W.-H. C. Büching (Ed.), FabLabs: Of Machines, Makers and Inventors. Bielefeld: Transcript Publishers.

Resnick, M. (2006). Computer as paintbrush: Technology, play, and the creative society. Oxford University Press.

Wygant, F. (1959). A history of the department of fine and industrial arts of Teachers College, Columbia University. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.