Local Artist Francis Fox Talks Sculpture in the Digital Age 

A Boise State University professor creates art using plastics, 3D printers and drones

Fox poses with sculptures from his newest exhibition at the Visual Arts Collective.

Sam Stimpert

Fox poses with sculptures from his newest exhibition at the Visual Arts Collective.

Francis Fox is a Professor of Sculpture at Boise State University and a renowned sculptor whose work has been shown nationally and internationally. Fox is also, in many ways, a pioneer, and he's on a mission to keep his medium from being left behind in the digital age. Although skilled in bronze casting and other traditional sculpting techniques, Fox has ventured outside his comfort zone, creating art with PLA and ABS plastics and 3D printers. For research, he sends drones out over the Idaho desert.

"I've always sort of appropriated different materials and textures," Fox said, his hands wrapped around a mug of coffee. "I think it's more exciting. I mean, all materials have a certain voice...To me, the plastics have been kind of a stretch, but I'm trying to figure out how to incorporate those."

Fox's latest exhibition, Scapes: Internal and External (see our review here), is made up of 30 pieces—both sculptures and prints of works in progress—that chronicle his journey from traditional to digital media. Many of the works are caught somewhere between the old and new, marrying plastics with wood, bronze, stone and metal leaf to create abstract forms bursting with texture. Tactile details like whorls made by a 3D printer and flakes of metal leaf reveal that what from a distance seemed abstract is a familiar landscape, rendered from a bird's-eye view.

"I really want to talk about the West in a different way," Fox said. "When people think about Western art they think of all the nostalgic aspects of it: the cowboys, the Indians and stuff. But I grew up the West... I still just have a deep love for ... the landscape and the space. The thing that's still so embedded in me is that sense of space, so I'm trying to get different perspectives on landscape that we haven't gotten before, and one of the things that enables that is drone technology."

click to enlarge "Rock Valley" by Francis Fox, a sculpture created using drone technology. - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • "Rock Valley" by Francis Fox, a sculpture created using drone technology.

Scapes combines Fox's passion for sculpture with his love of geology, which was his college minor. Some of the works in the exhibition are brand new, but others were designed years back. On one end of the spectrum are pieces like "Oxbow," an abstracted bronze riverscape Fox sculpted by hand eight years ago, before he had access to a 3D printer. On the other are pieces like "Dump Site," a tawny PLA plastic sculpture that shows a landscape true to its name, and "Rock Valley," a wall hanging made of painted wood inset with bronze, which was produced using drone-captured images.

"That [continent-like] shape actually comes from sending up a drone, focusing on my truck and taking pictures from all around at two different levels," Fox explained. "And then I'm able to send those photos to a company called Autodesk that will fuse all the photos and make a 3D file or mesh, so basically I get a skin back. Then I have to manipulate that skin and make it friendly for [3D printers]. That's a whole process in itself—I snip out parts and I'm building parts to make it into a solid object, and then I can send it to the machines, and they'll build it."

If this process sounds complex, that's because it is. Fox uses a software program called Rhinoceros 3D to "manipulate the skin," creating sophisticated architectural mock-ups. He also teaches the same process to his art students at Boise State because he feels "a responsibility" to pass the knowledge along.

"I think that it's sort of like the camera coming along for painters, you know?" Fox said. "And I think to ignore it would be bad in sculpture."

click to enlarge "Copper Horse" was one of three long-legged horse sculptures on display for Fox's exhibition Scapes.  - LEX NELSON
  • Lex Nelson
  • "Copper Horse" was one of three long-legged horse sculptures on display for Fox's exhibition Scapes.

Although many of Fox's pieces are futuristic and spine-tingling, shining metallic or pulsing bright blue and yellow in the half-light of the Visual Arts Collective gallery, there are a few notable exceptions: three sculptures, one small enough to cup in two hands and the others towering, of unnaturally long-legged horses. These were Fox's first ventures into 3D printing using a desktop scanner, and recall his upbringing on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming.

"I had a horse [sculpture], and I scanned it, and I just stretched it up," Fox said. "I did that in the program... and I liked it... it had that sense of nobility and that sense of always being in the distance, like on a hilltop."

Despite the fact that Fox's work leans heavily on technology, he has a hard time selling his pieces online. They have to be experienced to be appreciated. If viewers can't physically approach a sculpture, he said, they can't have the same "bodily response" to the work, whether it's a small piece in a local gallery or a colossal work in a national museum.

"You feel like it's coming at you sometimes, it's going away, all these different types of patterns to follow," Fox said, drawing an analogy between his own work and his experience touring the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, Texas. "But you can only do that by experiencing it and walking around it."

In his next exhibition, he plans to create plastic wall hangings on an even larger scale, taking yet another step into the unknown, territory as familiar to Fox as it is strange.

"Most of my work comes from this place of initiating something and then forcing it to grow," he said. "A lot of the big ideas under it have been about growth and evolution and change."

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