By Dan Davis
You wouldn’t think a story involving conceptual art and a universi- ty-based maker space would have a lot to do with metal fabricat- ing, but you’d be wrong in this one instance. In fact, if your shop
has ever thought about expanding its cutting capabilities with a waterjet,
you might want to keep reading.
The story begins in 2016 when the University of North Carolina-Ashe-
ville’s engineering department was in dire need of an expanded work-
shop. It had only about 1,500 square feet stocked with old metalwork-
ing equipment, and the program was expanding, accommodating more
students interested in the school’s mechatronics curriculum. University
administrators recognized the challenge, but also saw an opportunity
to address another situation. The art department needed an expanded
work area as well, so o;cials suggested creating a “maker’s space,”
The studio is located o; campus in a warehouse in Asheville’s River
Arts District. The 12,000-sq.-ft. space is home to a wood- and metalwork-
ing shop. Equipment includes CNC mills and lathes, welding systems, a
manual plasma cutter, wood lathes, band saws, a CNC router, laser cut-
ter, planer, jointer, wide-belt sander, and a waterjet.
“There are no cubicles or divisions in the shop. We’re hoping that the
students actually learn to work together as they navigate the space and
to be supportive, giving each other feedback,” said Sara Sanders, director of the STEAM Studio and an alumna of UNC-Asheville’s engineering
program, graduating in 2011.
The students and the studio were challenged in fall 2017 when conceptual artist Mel Chin presented his artistic concept called “Wake.” At the
time Chin was serving as the Black Mountain College Fellow at the university. (Black Mountain College, founded in Black Mountain, N.C., in 1933, was
organized around the principles of holistic learning with the study of art
being a core part of a classic liberal arts education. The school produced
several noteworthy artists during its 24 years of existence.) The concept
called for a re-creation of a figurehead, which was a likeness of the Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind from the USS Nightingale, a 19th-century expedition and merchant clipper that later became a Union warship during
the Civil War. The sculpture would be a 24-foot-tall hull of a shipwrecked
vessel with the figurehead predominantly displayed. The figurehead also
would have animatronic elements that would move its head and chest,
replicating the action of breathing. The plan called for the piece to go on
display in New York City’s Times Square in the summer of 2018.
Sanders said she sought out the engineering department to see if the
e;ort to assist in the creation of the sculpture might work as a senior
design project. When she got the OK, the studio was fully committed to
making the conceptual art piece a reality.
That’s where the waterjet comes into play.
What the Waterjet Can Do
Sanders said that as the STEAM studio was looking to equip its new workspace its industrial advisory board was split as to what sort of cutting table
it should get. Half recommended a plasma cutting table, and the other half
supported a waterjet.
When it came time to see how the equipment might fit into the
12,000-sq.-ft. area, Sanders said she realized that she’d have to give up
some of her welding space to accommodate the table. The waterjet, on
the other hand, could fit almost anywhere. That helped to seal the deal.
» After a year of planning; designing; fabricating; and an around-the-clock, 84-hour
installation, “Wake” made its debut in Times Square on July 11, 2018. (Left to right)
University of North Carolina-Asheville sculpture student Jeb Hedgecock; engineering
seniors Kyle Ward and Kaitlin Thomas; STEAM Studio Director Sara Sanders; and
engineering seniors Brittany Hand, Zoe Rorvig, Jacob Fink, and Elijah Nonamaker
comprised the installation team. Photo by Adam Taylor.
Fabricators interested in waterjet cutting can pick up
some helpful tips from the artists and engineers
working in UNC-Asheville’s STEAM Studio