Art & Sculpture

“The Embrace” A powerful public artwork enabled by 3D printing honors Dr. King’s legacy in Boston

Contemporary artist Hank Willis has created the sculpture “The Embrace,” a public artwork located in the Boston Commons, the oldest public park in the US.

Born out of a competition held by the non-profit organization Embrace Boston, this public artwork stands as a tribute to the enduring legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, immortalizing their embrace following Dr. King’s Nobel Peace Prize win in 1964.

Traditionally, realizing such a grand sculpture would have entailed a laborious investment casting process, involving the creation of a clay and then wax model—a time-consuming and intricate method. Consequently, the artist turned to Washington State-based Walla Walla Foundry which leveraged voxeljet’s 3D printing expertise to develop this sculpture.

"The Embrace" sculpture. Photo via Walla Walla Foundry.
“The Embrace” sculpture. Photo via Walla Walla Foundry.

A streamlined sculpture production process

To enhance its conventional foundry techniques, Walla Walla Foundry integrated two VX1000 polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) 3D printers from voxeljet. Through the casting expert’s review and scaling of CAD files, the digital sculpture was divided into 608 separate pieces. Each of these components conformed to the maximum size restrictions of the VX1000 3D printer, measuring 1000 x 600 x 500 mm. The foundry managed the printing process for all patterns on its systems, with additional production support provided by voxeljet’s facility based in Michigan.

Binder Jetting technology played a key role in the 3D printing process, as per voxeljet. For step one the digital CAD file underwent slicing into thin layers, representing cross-sections of the part. Subsequently, a recoater applied a 150µm thick layer of PMMA powder onto a building platform, which was selectively printed by a print head. This iterative process continued until the parts were completely printed. After printing, the PMMA patterns underwent treatment akin to conventional wax patterns utilized in traditional investment casting.

Following the construction of the ceramic shell, the PMMA was melted, resulting in a hollow cavity where molten bronze could be poured. After the metal had solidified, the individual pieces were welded together and subjected to patination. With the addition of the scaffolding that maintained its structure, the final statue boasted a weight of 19 tons. The entirety of the production process required two years for completion.

The "Embrace sculpture" under progress. Photo via Walla Walla Foundry.
The “Embrace sculpture” under progress. Photo via Walla Walla Foundry.

How 3D printing is redefining art and sculptures

The utility of 3D printing technologies extends to digitizing relics, ancient artifacts, and historic sites, enabling the creation of historical sculptures and replicas of cherished statues. Back in 2022, University College London (UCL) researchers merged X-ray, AI, and 3D printing to recreate a lost Vincent Van Gogh painting, “The Two Wrestlers.” Collaborating with artist Jesper Eriksson, they used X-ray imaging to penetrate layers of paint, feeding data into an AI algorithm to extrapolate Van Gogh’s style, resulting in a 3D model.

Employing 3D printing technologies, London’s cultural heritage initiative, Scan the World, captured global art, offering it freely to the 3D printing community. Prior engagements with the Victoria & Albert Museum underscore its expertise. Additionally, its partnership with Google Arts & Culture helped broaden its repository of open-source 3D printable art, showcasing its commitment to democratizing access to cultural artifacts.

Elsewhere, the Texas Through Time Museum‘s archivists employed 3D scanning to digitally conserve the fossilized skeleton of an ancient predator. In Spain, the National Archaeological Museum utilized the same technology to replicate the San Pedro de la Duenas Arch. Across the globe, the Australian National Maritime Museum showcased a 3D-scanned and printed replica of a 19th-century boat unearthed in 2021.

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Featured image shows “The Embrace” sculpture. Photo via Walla Walla Foundry.

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