Timea Tihanyi is a Hungarian born cross-disciplinary artist and ceramist living and working in Seattle, United States. Timea earned an MD (Semmelweis University, Budapest, Hungary, 1993) in neurology/neuropsychology, a BFA (Massachusetts College of Art, Boston, 1998) and an MFA (University of Washington, Seattle, 2003) in ceramics, where she currently teaches as a senior lecturer in the Interdisciplinary Visual Arts program.
Tihanyi’s installations with slipcast porcelain and participatory works has been exhibited in Brazil, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, and in the USA, including Shepparton Art Museum, Henry Art Gallery, Bellevue Art Museum, Mint Museum of Art and Design, Society for Contemporary Craft in Pittsburg, Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences, Foundry Art Center, and International Museum of Surgical Science. She has participated in artist residencies at Kohler Arts/Industry, Sundaymorning@EKWC (formerly, European Ceramic Workcenter), European Ceramic Context 2010 and Museum of Glass, Tacoma. She is a recipient of the Bergstrom Award in Art and Science and the winner of the 2018 Neddy Award in Open Media.
Timea is the founder and director of Slip Rabbit, an experimental research and education studio focused on the advancement of ceramic 3D printing and digital ceramics.
Timea, you were one of the first people on the West Coast, USA to order, build, learn, and work with your ceramics 3D printers – what excites you about this process?
What excites me is the potential to combine a real physical/corporal and emotional material (clay) with abstract and immaterial logic that is a code or an algorithm. As an artist, the content of my work has always revolved around the relationship between the mind and the body as well as around questions about the origins of knowledge (whether it is through the mind or through the body). I find a beautiful metaphor for this dualistic relationship in digital ceramics. I work with mathematicians on self-organizing patterns that show critical behavior (dynamic systems), which look insanely complex yet clearly having some rule-based logic. These systems come into play when explaining and predicting the behavior of sandpiles, earthquakes, forest fires, electric breakdowns, the formation of water droplets and other growing surfaces, and human brains.
Rule-making and rule-breaking, by accident or by intention, is my focus in the emerging area of ceramic 3D printing. Following the prescribed path of the digital design or an algorithm-generated code, the ceramic 3D printer extrudes a thin coil of soft porcelain and creates each object layer by layer, line by line. The form it makes is dependent on the “materialness” of clay and would not exist and cannot stand without the skilled human hand. In between design and serendipity lies the resulting object, consistent yet unique. Clay, with its own unique materiality challenges all logical and predictable outcomes of the gcode. My work reinterprets technical, formal and conceptual aspects of the ceramic vessel tradition and reasserts them in the realm of the cognitive experience of the human body.
As you “approach art with the mind of a scientist.” How does your background in medicine inform your creative practice today?
In some sense, the practice of medicine requires one to perform algorithmic actions: tally up symptoms, run tests, evaluate results, exclude unlikely, create a treatment program for the likely, monitor progress, adjust course as needed. My mind got used to being analytic this way but I’m also a very divergent thinker and a constant experimenter. I have this urge to try new things to really understand how they work. With the printing, I try to use the machine in ways that probe the boundaries of what can be done with it. Often times, I see the process of experimentation being the artwork, which relieves me from committing to any one design or to a product line. As a visual artist, I make one of a kind objects that I hope will be appreciated for only the novel aesthetic but also for the challenging new questions they pose.
I collaborate with mathematicians and with others in related fields of practice: engineers, computer scientists, designers, and architects. I think it is very exciting that each of us brings part of our research into the shared process and develop something completely unexpected as a result.
You have experience in both artisan and commercial production techniques – how does 3D printing bridge this gap?
I think of clay 3D printing as a tool that continues the tradition of other already existing tools and practices in ceramics. Importantly, it continues the tradition and does not replace it. For example, mold making and slip casting were exclusively industrial processes until the mid ‘70s when a few clay artists started adopting them into their studio. Artist Residency programs, such as the amazing Arts/Industry one at Kohler Co. were established to promote an exchange of ideas and skills between industry and the artists/crafts person. A clay 3D printer in its current form is an extruder (not unlike a tube of toothpaste) connected to a CNC that can intelligently follow paths through coordinate points. Currently, there is a lot of experimentation and innovation going on of the digital and machine side of things (hardware and software) but still not enough attention paid to those aspects where clay shows off its unique nature. I’m also excited to see what the next generation of clay printers will look like. Working perhaps at the particle level, we may someday create entirely ceramic materials with novel physical or functional properties.
You emphasized the importance of documentation and iteration on the workflow process to become more efficient. What are your tips for innovators who want to follow in your footsteps?
I prefer to build everything from scratch, from the ground up. It seems at times as a very slow progress but working this way also forces me to question everything, including biases or inaccuracies of my own methods and those of the software or the machine. I don’t think this would work for everyone but it supports my conceptual process of understanding how we come to know what we know and in turn, allows me to generate new ideas for artworks and for alternative approaches to try.
You said, “an artist is an expert at being a non-expert”. Through your studio, Slip Rabbit, and various collaborations, you’ve explored math, generative modeling, sound mapping, coding – what’s next?!
We are currently tinkering with microcontroller operated small machines that are linked to and augment certain aspects of the printer. I’m still working on data tactility, which describes both the maker’s and the user’s haptic experience of sensor collected data, such as ambient sound in a space, or heartbeat, blood sugar levels, etc. The type of printer I have (Potterbot7 made by 3D Potter) allows me to create a great variety of textures, which represent this data. Continuing a collaboration with Sara Billey of UW Math, we have gathered a WXML team of amazing math students, with whom we are working on creating physicalizations of a very interesting mathematical model for self-organized criticality, the sandpile group. Think of this as a game board where sand grains will be constantly redistributed among the cells of the grid in the form of mini-avalanches, until the sand stabilizes. This state of stability results in a very unusual and extremely complex pattern of “sand”. We are creating lots of iterations of this “game-board” while still trying to figure out the mathematical properties of the model.
To date, what would you say is your greatest achievement in Additive Manufacturing?
My proudest moment was when I started up my printer for the first time and it worked! Coming from a non-technological background, it was a very steep learning curve and I was lucky enough to have the support and encouragement of my student interns, collaborators and fellow tinkerers along the way. Slip Rabbit Studio was born out of the desire of sharing this journey of exploration with others while providing mentorship in a non-academic format.
Do you have any (fun or not) story about the company or your career to share with us?
I have to laugh about what a late starter I am and how long of a way things have come in the past 25-30 years. When I graduated from med school, the internet was still somewhat new. My university did not have a computer for us students to use and people had shared email addresses. I had to sneak into the math and physics department’s offices at night to type up my thesis. It took forever because I was using one finger to hammer out the letters one by one.
Have you run into any challenges from being a female digital ceramicist in 3D Printing?
It took me a while to realize that I was the only female clay 3D printer in the network of people tinkering with this technology. Ceramic printing is still a small community but most of us are connected via social media. In the past year though, the technology has taken off and many schools have been adopting the tool. It’s been very nice to see all the new artists, many of them are now women. Slip Rabbit also places an emphasis on mentoring women and first-generation students through our internship programs. It’s empowering to create a community of individuals, regardless of gender, who understand and appreciate the process.
I have to say though that the funniest moments of discrimination were coming from the media, for example, an evening news story about me, that was titled “Wallingford woman makes amazing art with 3D printer.” I know that the reporters meant well and tried to make it interesting for a broad audience but the coverage also felt somewhat patronizing.
Anything exciting coming up you’d like us to know about?
I was asked to represent the US at the Intercontinental Ceramics Project in Valencia, Spain. I will also be doing a FabLab presentation at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts. Later in the fall, I get to hang out with mathematicians who specialize in dynamic systems at The Institute for Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics, Brown University.
What is the most impressive or impactful use of 3D printing you’ve seen so far?
I’m excited by the innovation that is happening in the fashion industry, for the selfish reason that it aims to produce soft and supple fabric like materials, for which I’m already thinking of artistic uses. Reducing production waste and an ability to customize is a huge advantage of these new processes. However, 3D printing in the medical arena seems to be the most immediately impactful: in dentistry 3D printing is now very common, and I think it will be just as widespread in prosthetics, including replacement surgeries, soon as well.
In your opinion, how could we encourage more women to become involved with 3D Printing?
Makerspaces and teacher training at every school. Makerspaces in every community, every public library, neighborhood center and cultural facility. There is nothing special or nothing difficult about these tools when they are commonly available. Students also need access to art classes at every level of their education from pre-K to college, for every single student.
Kids, girls especially, must be encouraged to think, explore, share, collaborate and enjoy the process of making by hand, with a traditional tool, and with a digital tool. Every person has a door through which their interest can be piqued. The same curiosity that makes 3D printed pancakes or a plastic replica of a favorite anime character today, will perhaps be the one that saves the Earth with a new innovation tomorrow.
Favorite 3D tool (could be a software, machine, material…you name it)? Potterbot7 with a 2mm nozzle and filled with very soft porcelain paste.
Favorite moment in your day job? Getting into my studio and closing the door behind me.
What’s on your 3D Printing wishlist for the next 5 years? A powder printer or similar.
Another inspiring woman you’d like us to interview? Nadya Peek