Technology exists to solve the problems that have plagued humanity. The wheel revolutionized transport, then came the steam engine, then the automobile, followed by airplanes, computers, and eventually smartphones. While we’ve yet to see the next big technological revolution, Virginia-based graphic designer, artist, and lecturer Eric Standley believes in leveraging existing technology to create things we haven’t even thought of yet. His craft? Intricately layered laser-cut art pieces resembling stained glass made entirely out of paper.
In 1998, before attending graduate school, Standley worked as the engraving division manager at a commercial sign production company called Hightech Signs. In addition to their existing CNC machinery, he was the first to propose they purchase or lease a laser engraver to increase production. It was only after he left the company and started lecturing at Virginia Tech that he discovered the use of paper as a medium, by what he calls an accident.
One day while hand-cutting boxes of Cheerios for some studio projects, he realized the school had a laser engraver available and thought it could be of use to him. After starting to laser-cut the cereal boxes, he began practicing on construction paper. Taken by the complexity of the stacked and precisely cut layers, he began to write down questions that eventually became the foundations for his later art. He focused on the idea of consciously working with matter layer by layer, almost like an animator, and began using archival paper after two years of practice and improvement to ensure his pieces lasted.
Standley’s design process is extremely time-consuming, as each piece is completely drawn and designed before they’re even brought to the laser cutter. Larger works take a minimum of four months to draw, and most take about fifteen months total. He’s currently in the middle of a project that’s going on its second year of production simply due to the immense amount of drawing required. When it comes to his thoughts on technology and creativity, Standley explains, “I’m exploiting technology for its precision and accuracy, and by applying my creative sensibility to the technology available today, I really believe we can create things that we haven’t even thought of”. That’s a belief that he holds strongly. By putting creative individuals in front of machinery such as 3D printers and laser-engravers, we can learn new ways to apply the technology.
The relationship between visual and spatial elements in his work are super important to Standley. He constantly thinks about the negative space of the end result, even while drawing. Both in his mind and sketchbook, he has taught himself to understand the relationships between layers and events: “It took me years to really understand subtracting material to create negative space in a 3D object, layer by layer”. It’s a form of training that he says was motivated out of an obsession: “When I make these projects it’s like playing Tetris or something, I’m addicted and the whole world could be exploding around me and I wouldn’t know because my mind is in such a flow state with my work, that kind of thing happens”.
Standley describes himself as a visual thinker, and even during his lectures at Virginia Tech, he says half of his conversations are done on a sketchbook or sheet of paper through visuals. He knew he wanted to become a teacher after realizing his love for managing others and creative freedom, something he achieved after studying philosophy in grad school. Mathematics are a huge part of his artwork as well: “Math is as much a tool as it is a language, and that’s including visual art. It’s certainly not my first language, [but] I think that’s important for people to understand, especially high school students when they’re thinking about a career”. He went on to explain that one’s natural math ability shouldn’t restrict or dictate a decision in a career until they actually gives it a try and see how things are applied. Math, he says, is something we don’t have the luxury of escaping, much like typing on a keyboard or speaking to someone in their native language.
When asked about the biggest challenge of his sophisticated art pieces, Standley says it’s time itself: “I get so wrapped up in the artwork that it’s all that matters in a lot of cases. It’s hard to peel away. The challenge is squeezing out enough time in my life to do the work, cause it’s just slow work”. As for inspiration, Standley attributes much of it to his purpose as an artist: “[Artists] apply artistic sensibility to communicate something to the world, and once you find your purpose it’s your driving force”. He finds purpose in creating objects that may look familiar, but have never been seen before, something he calls an archetype: “It’s almost like you discover something that already exists, like an essence of something, and then I have to bring it to fruition”.
With regard to getting started in the world of laser engraving, Standley has yet to find someone hesitant to learn once they’ve stood in front of a machine. Questions come up and the imagination soars. In his own words, “If someone is just remotely interested they should get themselves in front of a machine or look at YouTube videos, get a little taste and start thinking about how they can use that technology to do something different, I really can’t say that enough”. He believes we have more technology in this world than we know what to do with it, and getting creative individuals in front of engravers and other machinery can open the floodgates to a realm of possibilities we haven’t even thought of yet.
Whatever the next great technical revolution may be, it’s important that we explore all possibilities with both existing and newer technologies, as you never know what applications may arise from a creative mind.
For more information about Eric Standley and his intricate works, visit his website at http://www.eric-standley.com.
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