David Butler

How to get a head in fine arts
Sculptor gets a new lease on his practice from the digital realm

David Butler l Photo: ARHphoto David Butler l Photo: ARHphoto

There are heads on sticks in David Butler's studio. He's not a headhunter, though; he just likes to create them. Legs too, and bodies.  

Butler, who says he's "terrible" at drawing people, got into figurative work less than two years ago. He'd been exploring geometric forms with computer modelling when he came across a three-dimensional scan of a real person on the Internet.

"I had a revelation that I could make people with a computer," he recounts. His theory panned out: He worked the scan, took the file to the 3D printer in Concordia's rapid prototyping lab, and successfully made a copy of a real person.  

"It's so fascinating to be able to make a 3D print of a scan of a head," says Butler, now in his third year of the MFA in Studio Arts program. (Not that all his figurative work comes from a 3D printer; he uses traditional materials as well.)

Like the human body itself, the laser scanner has its limitations. It can't interpret hair, for instance. This makes for digital images with black hole-like areas for which the printer lacks information when it renders the file physical. These imperfections are fine with the artist. "I like to leave the marks of the computer, of the technology, on my work. In some ways, I focus on it."

And while Butler says he's not a computer geek and doesn't really know how computers work, the technology has a definite hold on him. When he builds something with his hands, for instance, he's thinking about how the computer would understand the figure. The same goes for video games: when he's been immersed in the 3D world a while, he sees things in the real world differently.

Looking at art, and the world in general, through the lens of technology is a key component of his current practice. As he puts it in his artist's statement, "Working through materials, I create objects that reference the mapping, rendering and construction techniques of various digital technologies."

For someone who was raised on a southern Ontario cattle farm with no computer, this may not have been what the young David thought he'd end up doing.

And yet, perhaps the seeds had been sown early on. His mother was an avid quilter, which might explain Butler's longstanding fascination with geometric shapes. Working with his hands may have something to do with the fact his father worked in construction. After his first BA (in linguistics and French studies), he heeded his creative call and trained to become a commercial photographer, which he did for almost a decade.

Back at Concordia for a BFA in Art History and studio Arts a few years ago, he became captivated by the history of architectural ruin in Western art and archeology. He sees ruin as an intrinsic part of the design in his own work, which is why he doesn't try to hide the technological glitches that occur.

Butler is now intrigued by the crossover between ruins and the digital. He gives the example of a group in England that, upon learning of a new find of Roman ruins, reconstructed the town - in Second Life, the online 3D world. The group even holds its real-time meetings in the digital town. Inspired, he now wants to create larger-scale installations for public spaces that marry 3D printed elements and photography in exploring ideas of excavation and archeology at an imagined digital site.

Anonymous2, 3-d print (plaster dust and resin),2011. Image courtesy David Butler. Click to enlarge. Anonymous2, 3-d print (plaster dust and resin),2011. Image courtesy David Butler. Click to enlarge.

But first, he has some things to attend to. He spent the better part of August 2012 in a studio residency at the Banff Centre, then had to hustle to prepare to teach a class of undergraduate students the Sculpture 210 course, get settled in a new off-campus studio, and continue preparing for an exhibition in January 2013, for which those heads on sticks are bound.

If he's feeling pressed for time, Butler could always make a copy of himself to be in two places at once...


David Butler is a Concordia finalist for the 2013 Claudine and Stephen Bronfman Fellowship in Contemporary Art. The recipient will be announced May 22, 2013.

Story by Liz Crompton. Posted on Oct. 22, 2012

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