Starting the new year with a wonderful project thanks to an Arts Council England award to develop a new body of work with the x-ray crystallographer Professor Brian Sutton, and the mathematician Sir Roger Penrose. This builds on the Essential Symmetry series developed for the Jerwood Maker’s commission, using the optical and material qualities of glass to explore the new domain of quasi-crystals: these structures exhibit local five-fold symmetry but, over a wider area, no order or symmetry is present – the pattern is infinitely variable.
This phenomenon, for which Dan Schectman won the Nobel Prize in 2011, has been elegantly described by Sir Roger Penrose in terms of simple rules governing the arrangement of two rhombus tiles and is illustrated in the courtyard commissioned for the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford.
Fascinated by Roger’s description at a lecture at the Royal Institution in 2014, the crystallographer Brian Sutton and I determined to see how this two-dimensional design might translate to three dimensions. This led to a series of experiments, building models of the ‘fat’ and ‘flat’ rhombus forms based on a number of scientific papers, most notably by Katz, Steinhardt and Socolar. Our tests suggested that using the optical properties of glass to create these subtle forms has the potential to offer fresh perspectives on the rich mathematical and material puzzles presented by these structures.
‘fat’ and ‘flat’ rhomb variants
Brian and I met Roger Penrose in the summer of 2014 and he generously agreed to work with us on this project, leading to a successful grant application and the opportunity to show the work in a number of scientific, academic and creative settings over the coming year.
As I write this note, the kiln is clicking and buzzing with the first set of casts created using the lost wax technique:
The two rhombus forms were created using the 3D CAD software Rhino. These files were printed in resin and used to create four-part plaster mold. Hot wax was poured into this mold to create an exact replica of the original printed objects. Once cool, the mold could be opened up to release the wax model. A special ‘refractory’ plaster (designed for firing to high temperatures) was poured around the wax model and left to harden. The wax was then steamed out, leaving a hollow space inside the mold which was then placed into the kiln, ready to fire. Chunks of casting glass were measured and piled into a reservoir placed on top of the mold, the lid locked down and the programme set to run.
The kiln is currently at 860 degrees celsius – hot enough for the glass to melt and run down into the hollow space inside mold. Over the next five hours, the moulten glass will settle into the details of the form and the bubbles slowly rise to the surface to, hopefully, create a perfect cast. All being well, at around 2am, I will ‘crash cool’ the kiln by opening the lid slightly, letting the temperature drop to the strain point of 480. The material will be allowed to rest, or anneal there for five hours before slowly cooling in a series of controlled ramps over a further 48 hours.On Thursday, I will be able to open the kiln, leaving the pieces in the cool air of the studio for a further 24 hours before soaking them to remove the plaster and, finally release the cast forms ready for grinding and polishing.
In the meantime Tavs Jorgensen has very kindly agreed to include our shapes in his testing programme for a new digital mold production system that the team in Falmouth are developing: a 3d printer is loaded with refractory plaster rather than resin, so the mold is printed directly from the computer file, eliminating the time, waste and inevitable distortion generated by the lost wax method.
Thanks to the Arts Council grant, I am also able to buy a Bohle flatbed grinder. This wonderful piece of kit will allow me to cut and polish the shapes with far greater precision and efficiency than I can hope to achieve with my old masonry saw and traditional hand-lapping with grit and glass. The electrician Neal has agreed to fix the three-phase electrical connection. The big question is how on earth to get it up the stairs!