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Maker Profile: Investment Banker Turned Artist

By Bo Moore

What happens when you put traditional artists in a high-tech workshop with access to the latest in CNC equipment? That's one of the goals of Autodesk's Artist in Residence program, and this week, we're profiling a few of the makers given free rein in this awesome workspace.

What happens when you put traditional artists in a high-tech workshop with access to the latest in CNC equipment? That's one of the goals of Autodesk's Artist in Residence program, and this week, we're profiling a few of the makers given free rein in this awesome workspace.

Timothy Lipton is not an artist. A former equity analyst and investment banker, he moved to San Francisco 12 years ago to work with start-ups. A background in consumer electronics and green tech, three years ago Lipton co-founded ReAllocate, a non-profit with the aim of connecting cognitive surplus with meaningful projects. At 42, he's a maker, but not an artist at heart, so Autodesk's Artist in Residence program gave him the opportunity to both create and be creative.

"I wanted to explore organic and inorganic shapes in space," he said, noting how he began to play off the idea of sacred geometry, or six-sided figures. For example: he created one shape by starting with a basic design, rotating it a few degrees, stacking the image and then repeating, resulting in a spiral-like design that, in his mind, lends itself to being a plant holder.

For Lipton's artist in residence project, he wanted to engage with the workshop's equipment while exploring subjects and concepts he found interesting. With that in mind, he built a sculpture that combines elements of sacred geometry, the collision of organic and inorganic matter, and one of San Francisco's most iconic pieces of imagery: the Golden Gate Bridge.

"I live about a block from the water, and I'm a sailor, so the bay is one of the big reasons I moved here," Lipton said. "The bridge is such a big piece of that, so it was fun to play with that in an art piece."

While exploring sacred geometry and the intersection of organic and inorganic matter, Lipton's original plan was to build a six-square-feet living herb wall. He ultimately concluded that, between the hydroponics and other systems that would need constant attention to maintain, an installation of that size would be too much of a burden upon a gallery or other art space. Instead, he opted for one-third of that scale, using a flower of life design for the pattern.

Construction began by laser cutting a piece of cardboard to test the size of the frame, "just to see if the proportions made sense." Next came another trial using plywood, this time adding the flower of life pattern. Once he was satisfied with the design, it was finally time to laser-cut in steel.

For the bridge itself, Lipton used an STL file he found online of, in his mind, the piece that epitomized the bridge's look: the spires. Since he doesn't have a strong technical background, Lipton relied on collaboration with other artists and designers for many of his CAD files.

"I think in many ways it's similar to how a DJ doesn't necessarily have to spend the years to be amazing at the piano or the guitar or all the existing instruments," Lipton explained. "They're able to take existing content and create unique pieces of art with that. In many ways that was a leverage opportunity for me since, because I was able to turn to my friends for computer aided design files, that freed me up to really explore what the equipment can do."

Collaboration was essential for another major aspect of Lipton's piece: the lighting. For that, he turned to another artist in the program, Lumigeek's John Parts Taylor, who helped by creating Arduino shields to control both the spires' color and the series of lights moving through a diffusing tube, an emulation of cars travelling through the fog.

Lipton's two-month residency has ended now, but he remains fascinated by the concept of what's capable with digital design tools. After all, when you can make almost anything, what do you make? Either way, he's thankful that a workshop of this caliber is going out of its way to engage with artists, fuel the creative juices, and see what happens.

"I'm a creative person and a tinkerer, yet I've never been an artist before," Lipton said. "It's really been a transition from someone with a finance background to someone who's given this wide range of tools and to create and be creative. I was able to create art for the first time in my life."