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Kris Kerzman, The Arts Partnership, Published December 08 2013

Technology meets art: MELD studio opens creative possibilities

FARGO – At first glance, MELD Workshop probably looks more like a laboratory or small-scale factory than anything else. Computer parts and tools are arranged neatly on pegboards, a bank of sleek computers waits dutifully on a desk, and some serious-looking machinery sits in the corner.

While there is some hardcore technology going on at MELD, there’s just as much creativity, with equipment like 3D printers, a laser cutter, a metal lathe, arduino microprocessor controllers, and inexpensive Raspberry Pi computers just itching for someone to create something out of just about anything.

“With these tools, specifically 3D printing, you can create something in the physical world that would be difficult or impossible to do otherwise, plus it’s easily shareable and it’s easy for someone to ‘remix’ your design,” said John Schneider, founder of MELD.

The workshop opened its doors in October, joining in the nationwide trend of “maker spaces” and “hacker spaces,” places where tinkerers, programmers, designers and artists can work and collaborate on projects, sharing the cost of equipment through their membership. Maker designs run a wide gamut, including home automation, robots and contemporary takes on traditional crafts like paper modeling, sculpture, and fabric art.

The workshop offers classes to help develop skills in new makers. Some maker tools, especially the arduino and Raspberry Pi, requires learning some programming basics to get started. Shanna Gratton Demke recently took a class on the arduino, a programmable controller that has spawned wide interest worldwide through its ability to allow interactions between the physical and digital sphere. She said it was a bit difficult to pick up but definitely manageable.

“It’s not quite rocket science, but you definitely have to sit and focus on what you’re doing. In my class, I was the person with least amount of tech ability, and I could still pick it up,” she said.

“The arduino is something I’ve always wanted to do,” Gratton Demke added, “the hardest part is choosing what to do since there are so many things you can do with it.”

Learning to put the arduino to use on a project would likely involve both her analytical and creative skills, she said.

MELD is about halfway toward its year-end membership goal, and recent workshops have been filling up, Schneider said. He’s seen a fair amount of interest from a cross section of people, but not as much interest from designers and artists, although a few are beginning to take notice.

Artist Chelsea Thorson has been a big fan of MELD since it opened. Thorson designs jewelry using a laser cutter and is teaching a 3D design class at Concordia College. She wants to get her students involved with some of the tools at MELD. She calls the possibilities available to artists and designers “exciting and terrifying at the same time.”

“I’m really into using emerging technologies to push the boundaries of materials,” said Thorson, whose jewelry has included concrete, wood and metals. “A lot of artists are pushing those boundaries, doing things like making intricate paper cuts or making something with permeable holes. (These tools) allow materials to perform differently than they would be able to.”

“With 3D printing, for instance, people are having fun with it. People are doing a lot of jewelry, since you can print with silver and ceramics and you can do things that you could never do by hand. That’s a big draw for 3D artists,” Thorson said.

Thorson reiterated Gratton Demke’s claim that most of the technology involved is well within the range of anyone. For instance, Google Sketchup is a free program that allows anyone to create models that can be printed on a 3D printer. Schneider said a MELD visitor created a 3D model using an iPad app without any prior experience, designing “by hand” on the screen before printing it.

Both Thorson and Gratton Demke said that MELD offers more than just workshops and tools; the people who share in MELD’s vision are also quick to make new and curious makers feel at home. The big part of having a collaborative community space, after all, is a sense of community.

“MELD is a space but also it’s also making all of that technology accessible, and that’s creating a new culture within the design community in Fargo,” Thorson said. “And these people are thrilled when a new person walks in the door. They’re like, ‘Yes! New makers!’ ”

This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net/artspulse.