Art Works Blog

Art & Technology Meet at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

Initially, the first conference between the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) felt like “a kind of strange wedding,” said Haystack Director Stu Kestenbaum. This was in 2002, when the intersection between technology and the arts was still at the initial stages of exploration. Blending the two was more likely to raise eyebrows than it was to raise interest.  

The conference, called Digital Dialogues: Technology and the Hand, brought together roughly 60 participants, half with digital technology backgrounds from MIT, and half from Haystack in Deer Isle, Maine, which fosters traditional crafts such as pottery, glassblowing, woodworking, weaving, and blacksmithing. For Kestenbaum, a pivotal moment came one night in Haystack’s hot shop blacksmithing facility, where artists worked the coal forges while MIT doctoral students wrote code on laptops. “I thought how it's really just one fire—either the blue fire of electricity or the red fire of the coal forge. I had a sense of this great spread of human ingenuity,” said Kestenbaum. “I realized we had more in common than not.”

An artist working at a blacksmithing coal forge

The blacksmith shop at Haystack. Photo courtesy of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

In the years since, the partnership between Haystack and MIT has continued to grow, putting Haystack at the forefront of digital craftsmanship. Haystack now has a “fab lab,” or digital fabrication studio, which boasts a laser cutter, CNC router, 3D printer, and milling machines. The school will also kick off its third open studio residency later this month, which recently received its second NEA grant. The residency, a partnership with MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, welcomes 55 artists working in ceramics, fiber, graphics, glass, iron, and wood, as well as scientists, researchers, and writers. The residency gives participants 24-hour access to all craft studios, as well as the fab lab, and encourages collaboration across disciplines, which Kestenbaum said “makes for really interesting conversations.”

For artists, digital technology has introduced a new set of tools, providing faster, more precise ways to make molds for ceramics or jewelry, cut stencils, and create plates for printing. But the influence of the fields flows both ways. Kestenbaum said Haystack students began using the equipment in ways MIT hadn’t thought of, so certain software was rewritten to better match the needs and techniques of craft artists.

Although there has been much hand-wringing from certain corners about what digital tools might mean for traditional arts, Kestenbaum doesn’t think the issue is as seismic let alone apocalyptic as some believe. “It’s just another way of making things,” he said. “Sometimes the right answer is to use a pair of scissors. Another time it would be to use a laser cutter.” The trick is discerning which tool is needed for which job, something Kestenbaum believes comes naturally for craft artists.

A 3D printer at work creating a bowl

A 3D printer at work in Haystack's Fab Lab. Photo courtesy of Haystack Mountain School of Crafts

“People who work with craft materials have a very refined sense of what materials are like—how they respond, what they're capable of,” he said. “I think we bring that to the discussion. If you're looking at digital fabrication, it doesn't mean it can't be beautiful, it doesn't mean it can't be sensitive to materials.”

Integrating technology into the arts is also a way to humanize the digital experience, which can by turns feel alienating and removed, or overwhelming in its momentum and sheer profusion. “There are so many things now that are laser-cut—it's easy to do but it doesn't really take you anywhere,” said Kestenbaum. “The challenge is still the same: that you use a tool, you make a discovery with it, and that the end product speaks to you in some way or evokes something.”

He likened it to music. “Sometimes you want to play an acoustic guitar and other times you might want to play a drum machine,” he said. “There's a place for all those things.”

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