Maker Profile: Taylor Wolf's 3D-Printed Paper Sculptures

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.

At 24, Taylor Wolf is one of the youngest participants in the Autodesk AIR program. Both an artist and a chef, he has worked in everything from the mediums of collage and sculpture to the kitchens of a catering company, food truck, and myriad restaurants. But while these two areas of interest have seemingly little to do with one another, here at Autodesk, Wolf hopes his two worlds might collide.

"In my mind they come from the same place," Wolf said, "but part of what I'm trying to do here is think of ways that they can be presented together, so the experience of eating is a similar aesthetic experience to viewing a sculptural work."

On the more traditional artistic side, Wolf's background is in 2D collage and 3D sculpture, or as he prefers to think of it, "three-dimensional collage." Before moving to San Francisco in late 2013, Wolf lived in New Orleans, drawing inspiration from the raw materials and beautiful old wood salvaged from torn down houses.

His standard approach to a project is to begin with a material — maybe a chunk of salvaged wood — and little to no plan in mind, simply working with the form and seeing what might happen. Before joining the AIR program, Wolf had never done any work using 3D modeling or computer-aided design, so it was a struggle at first adjusting to having those kinds of tools at his disposal.

The MCor Iris Paper 3D Printer.

"At first it seemed counter-intuitive," he said, referring to the idea of starting a project with a clear plan in mind — namely a 3D model — and the whole process being the problem-solving you go through in order to bring that idea into the material world. "At first I saw it as at-odds with what I was doing, but now I've started just going for it."

To that end, Taylor's artistic approach has evolved into one where he will scan or design and 3D-print an object, then take the machine's output and do to it many of the same things he would have done to a piece of found wood. "I can cut it up or subject it to various mutilations — that kind of thing," he said.

An example is one of Wolf's projects — a relatively large pelvis and spine that he scanned from a skeletal model using an Artec Eva-M — a photogrammetric scanner that creates a 3D model by stitching together thousands of individual photographs.

"I still like having my hands on the material," Wolf said, "which is also why the 3D scanner is really interesting for me — it feels like I'm painting a 3D model."

Once the 3D model file was complete, Wolf used it to print a sort of papercraft skeleton using a new kind of 3D printer that uses a ream of paper as material. The Mcor Iris printer glues sheets of paper together one by one, each time scoring the current top sheet with tiny holes so that — upon completion — the chunks of paper can be broken apart to reveal the desired object inside.

"I like the idea of putting something from bone into paper — having something really strong made out of a really weak material," he said. And without the workshop's technological and mechanical capabilities, a project of such nature would have been significantly more difficult.

On the culinary side of things, Wolf is excited to explore a non-conventional approach to cooking. "Food is restricted by this utilitarian, restaurant model," Wolf said. "Someone's always paying for the product and they expect a certain level of quality — but that can restrict creativity in the kitchen." But here in the Autodesk's test kitchen, Wolf faces no such restrictions. He is free to let his imagination run wild, experimenting with new and nontraditional ways for a meal to be presented

One idea is to present a dish in the form of a shard of "glass," a spoonful of powder, and a small glass filled with a clear liquid. The shard is not actual glass, of course, but rather a thin almost candy-like flavored wafer. He's still working on getting the taste and texture just right, but the process involves mixing a flavor, such as juiced apples, with a substance called kuzu root starch — a kind of mountain potato that functions as an intense binding agent — then dehydrating a thinly spread layer of the mixture for around 24 hours.

For the powders, Wolf has two primary methods. One involves mixing tapioca maltodextrin — a fat-absorbing powder — with various liquids to produce substances such as powdered egg yolks, powdered chicken fat, powdered olive oil, or even powdered nutella. Meanwhile, for fruit- and vegetable-based dusts, he simply dehydrates and then blends the fruit or veggie in question, resulting in powdered pomegranate or cucumber (his jar of which is affectionately labeled "cuke dust").

Finally, Wolf has been experimenting with methods of clarifying liquids using natural chemicals. For example, he will cook a juice with agar agar powder — a kind of gelatin dried from seaweed — then straining the result through a cheesecloth in order to remove the coloring without affecting the flavor. His goal then being to serve a series of these totally informationless glass-powder-liquid dishes.

"I like the idea of totally subverting what you expect from the visual when you eat something," he said, describing how this format hopes to change the eating experience experience so that a dish happens in your mouth rather than on the plate.

The projects Wolf and the other residents produce are innovative, exciting, and creative, but at the end of the day, it's is less about what they end up doing, and more about what they could do. If not for the residency, an artist like Wolf might never have even thought to incorporate 3D scanning and printing into his sculpture work — let alone had access to the equipment it would require — or had the opportunity to experiment in a restaurant-level kitchen without restaurant-model constraints. Ultimately, the AIR program is about allowing your mind to run wild, unfettered by neither societal conceptions nor technological limitations. In a word, the program is about freedom.