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In 1990, Frank Stella, for whom I had worked previously, approached me to see if I could help with a difficult modeling problem.

Stella had become interested in the forms made by smoke floating in the air, and wanted to make sculptural forms like those. After several failed attempts to build these complex forms in his studio, he asked me to try to do so digitally.

Starting from photographs of smoke that Mr. Stella provided with instructions to see if I could "do something interesting", I created three-dimensional virtual sculptures. These began with simple tubular forms, and then were laboriously remodeled to add complexity similar to the fluidity of smoke. Using stereolithography, an early form of what is frequently now called 3d printing, I produced plastic versions of each final form. Stella and his foundry people then cast these forms into a variety of metals.

The first finalized sculptures incorporating my digital smoke sculptures were Stella's small-scale French Mining Town series of sculptures.

To my knowledge, the work I did for Stella on these sculptures was the first use ever worldwide of 3d digital modeling and CAD/CAM techniques for high-end fine-art sculpture.


Smoke Sculptures
for Frank Stella

Michael O'Rourke, 1990 - 1992

The next development of this project was for me to devise a way for Stella to fabricate these sculptural forms at large scale. To accomplish this, I wrote code to calculate cross-sectional slices through the forms. I then produced an elaborate series of line-drawing construction drawings of the sculpture, slice by slice. These were produced on a pen plotter and included drawings showing the entire collection of slices for each sculpture, as well as pairings of adjacent slices registered to each other. Stella's assistants enlarged these slice-by-slice drawings to produce large-scale forms that were cast at the foundry into large-scale versions of the sculptural forms I had developed. The forms I modeled and the construction information I provided were used by Stella for many years for the fabrication of numerous large-scale sculptures.

The drawings I developed for this process became known as the smoke ring drawings. Stella used these extensively as graphic elements in his paintings and prints for over ten years.

For a published description of the process I used for these sculptures, see the article I wrote in 1993 entitled, "The Digital Modeling of Frank Stella's Smoke Sculpture". See also my 1993 article entitled "The Importance of Having Bugs" for a discussion of my use of a software bug in the modeling of these smoke sculptures.