3-D Man

Dan Collins, 51, a pioneer in digital sculpture, bumps art up against science and lands on the cutting edge. As both fine artist and computer crackerjack, Collins co-directs Arizona State University's PRISM, a state-of-the-art laboratory that gathers 3-D digital data and builds objects with a rapid prototyping machine -- a machine that reads digital files and builds objects (real, not virtual), layer by layer, in plastic. PRISM headquarters, at ASU's Brickyard on Mill Avenue, is currently housing an international exhibition of digital sculptures, including Collins' work. PRISM is equipped with up-to-the-minute 3-D equipment, and holds an extensive collection of computer-generated sculptures, including a six-foot-tall figurative work and the most realistic renditions of George Washington ever produced.

Man and the machine: PRISM Lab began eight years ago, as a conversation between a graduate student and me, and has grown into a rich, interdisciplinary dialogue among students and scholars of fine art, design, science, engineering and the social sciences. An early project that put us on the map involved scanning Native American artifacts unearthed in Arizona soil that were returned to various Native American tribes, due to the 1990 Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. PRISM documented each item's physical coordinates, such as an Anasazi pot, and now has a valuable database of these historical objects no longer in public possession.

Who's your daddy?: PRISM Lab is currently immersed in an exciting project creating "the definitive George," three life-size sculptures of George Washington: at age 19 (as a surveyor -- his early career); at age 45 (on horseback at Valley Forge); and at age 57 (taking oath as the first president of the United States). We're working with the University of Pittsburgh and Washington's Mount Vernon Estate, making the most realistic reproductions of George to date. We took our 3-D scanners to various sites across the country, scanning sculptures of George, as well as life masks -- plaster casts of his face used for sculpture studies -- to work through steps of modeling and refining the poses. The project has garnered quite a bit of press, including a piece in the New York Times, and the History Channel is following our progress to produce a show about the project.

About face: No images exist of George when he was 19; the earliest portrait was produced when he was 40, so we're using our computer and laser technology to create a 3-D morph of the young George. To help us make an accurate portrait, we also scanned his spectacles and dentures. Nope . . . as many think, George didn't have wooden teeth. We've also hired a taxidermist to create a life-size horse; we've got about a dozen people working on this project. When we're done, the sculptures will be part of a new museum wing at Mount Vernon.

May the Force be with you: Technologically, in 3-D, we're almost there, to quickly and reliably produce 3-D objects from your own personal computer. You'd log onto a site and custom design an object -- a toaster, a tape recorder, let's say -- then hit "print." The file is sent to a kind of 3-D Kinko's for production. I'd say we're getting pretty close to Star Wars.

Surfin' USA: This piece, here, will be part of the show -- it's a life-size self-portrait I call Twister. As an artist, I wanted something out-of-the-box -- or out-of-the-computer -- working in large-scale. I stood atop a large lazy Susan, while the 3-D cameras recorded the data, so the bottom of the sculpture ends up looking realistic, but the top seems spinning. I call it surfboard technology, since the material is the same as a surfboard -- foam, with a resin coating.