An Unanticipated Challenge – and a Solution

A key element to the process of making an Xtra-Dimensions piece is setting the posts in the desired pattern and then mounting the components so that they align to recreate the complete image. How I do this is pretty straightforward: I tape a template image with the pattern and the grid location codes to the back of the transparent acrylic sheet to show me where everything goes. Here’s a segment of one template and a picture of the acrylic sheet with the posts in place, ready to glue on the individual components:

Pattern & posts.jpg

The template is temporary, so I don’t want it to be a complicated (read: expensive) printing job. I just want to print parts of it on a laser printer, then tape them together to get the complete template. (For a 24” x 36” piece, I need 8 sheets from my desk top printer; for a big Xtra-Dimensions piece like the 50” x 75” version of Paul Kozal’s Aspen Forest, it takes 30 sheets printed on 11” x 17” paper.) When I have the sheets, I trim off some of the margins so that I can line each sheet up with the adjacent one, then tape them together:

Fig 1.jpg

All very simple, right? Wrong… The problem is that neither my laser printer, nor the larger and fancier one at the photoshop, prints a rectangular image exactly rectangularly. For example, an image that I want to be an 8.0” x 10.0” rectangle will print as a trapezoid that may be 10.00” along one side and 10.06” (1/16” longer) on the other side. That’s not much of a difference, but with four of them in a row, the top and bottom are off by 1/4” and one row won’t line up with the next:

Fig 2.jpg

Fortunately, because the distortion is same for each sheet, there’s a simple solution: print them so that every other section of the template goes to the printer “upside down”. Then, the error of one sheet cancels out when it lines up with the adjacent sheet – and everything works out OK!

Fig 3.jpg

The little 1/16”-inch distortions are still there, of course, but now they are localized and within the accuracy that I can line up my posts and Xtra-Dimensions component pieces anyway.

Answering a question

“How did you think of that?” is a question I get fairly frequently when I show people my Xtra-Dimensions art pieces. The short answer of “I just did it” is not much of an explanation, but I don’t have a better one.  The Xtra-Dimensions concept was devised as a solution to a problem: how to present pictures in a way that conveys dimensions and patterns that are missing from a flat print.  Why I came up with it might be explained by the following story.

In high school outside Boston, I thought I wanted to be a mathematician or an engineer because they both seemed so logical and understandable to me. But my last semester, I took chemistry and I was hooked, even though three days before my graduation I almost burned down our dorm when an unauthorized “experiment” went awry (home-made gunpowder for a model rocket…).

As an undergraduate at Harvard, I majored in organic chemistry and started a career path that most would consider very monothematic: graduate school at Stanford, professor at UC Berkeley, all in organic and bioorganic chemistry.

However, I’ve never forgotten that the class I enjoyed the most during my 4 years as an undergraduate was “Fine Arts-13”, a two-semester course devoted to the history and development of artistic expression over the centuries.   I needed the course for a breadth requirement and before I took it my senior year, I didn’t think it would be that interesting – squishy and subjective and very non-scientific after all.   But I found that I did “have an eye,” that I could see beyond the surface, and perhaps more importantly, that what I got from a piece of art could change as I thought about it. It was too late to change careers, of course, although years later it did occur to me that if I hadn’t been a chemistry professor I probably would have been an architect (math and engineering and art!).

Many people think that chemistry, even science in general, is “analytical” in contrast to “creative” – left brain-versus-right brain nonsense. But my research in organic and bioorganic chemistry was completely dependent on thinking up new stuff: designing molecules that had never existed before and figuring out how to synthesize them in the lab.  So it had the engineering angle (how to make them), the analytical side (did they behave as I imagined), as well as the artistic (visualizing something unique).

One of the skills I’ve prided myself on is an ability to think in 3-dimensions.  While we all perceive things as 3-dimensional in our everyday world, we don’t often have to envisage something that we can’t see (e.g., a molecule), somehow make it 3-dimensional in our mind, then turn it around or upside down – even flip part of it left to right.  And then think about what might change if we did!  Not to brag too much, but I am good at that.

Maybe the connection is tenuous, but even from the days of Mighty Mouse (I know that dates me!), I had always dreamed how fun it would be if I could fly – to zip up and down and back and forth – using all 3 dimensions.  So it’s not surprising that as soon as I no longer needed parental permission, I gravitated (pun intended…) to skydiving, a sport where you can get that sensation.  Yes, when you jump out of an airplane, you only go down, but when you jump out with a bunch of friends, you not only can move back and forth relative to the others by maneuvering your arms and legs, you can fall slower (go up!) or faster (go down) than they do.  So it feels just like Mighty Mouse must have felt.

Sky- & scuba diving.jpg

While I don’t skydive anymore (after 10 years and about 1,300 jumps), I still get my 3-D sport kicks scuba diving. One moves more slowly underwater, to be sure, but that freedom of motion in all dimensions is still there.

Outside of sport, even outside of chemistry during my academic career, a feel for 3-D inspired me to design several pieces of furniture for our home: a couple of dining room tables, side tables and a coffee table – even a sofa that I still love.  And my suppressed urge to be an architect surfaced when I designed the remodel of our weekend home in Lake Tahoe.  Part of that remodel involved creating a wall installation – a pattern of leaves turning into butterflies in clusters up the wall. The leaves and butterflies were cut out of – you guessed it: aluminum cans, then mounted off the wall on pins for a 3-D effect.

Sofa, table, wall.jpg

So there you have it – a story that may explain how a math and science guy is trying to make a new career creating Xtra-Dimensions art pieces!

What is going on behind the scene?

So far I’ve just written about the front of my Xtra-Dimensional art pieces – how the patterns of the layers and the shapes for the components are designed to bring out the missing dimensions of the image. I’ve alluded to “creasing the back of the components” to give them 3-dimensionality, but I haven’t explained what really does lie on the other side.

The first consideration for how the components are constructed is that I need to be able to cut them to shape pretty precisely. Easy to do with paper. But I also have to be able to give them a specific 3-dimensional shape – the facets or the veins I’ve described, so they need to be both flexible and have some resilience. And for this, paper alone doesn’t work. What can both be cut and also hold a shape is a thin metal sheet. So, to construct my Xtra-Dimensions components I adhere a photographic print to the metal sheet using a double-sided adhesive material:

Composite diagram.jpg

However . . . the simple choice for “thin metal sheet” – aluminum – doesn’t work. The stuff I could buy in sheets or rolls is either too flexible and too easily deformed or, if it’s stiff enough, it’s too thick to cut. What works beautifully, though, is the material in so-called “aluminum cans” (I use quotes because “aluminum cans” are not made out of just aluminum!). The problem is that these cans are not made from sheets of metal (check out this YouTube video if you’re curious how they’re made:

Recycled refuse is resurrected…

The metal I need has to come from cans themselves. No Diet Cokes cans are tossed out in my household, and my neighbors, my in-laws, even my gardener bring me bags of their empty cans, but it’s not enough. To get what I need, I go dumpster-diving at my local recycle center:

Alliance & dumpster.jpg

I dig through the dumpsters to find the relatively undented cans, and once I’ve loaded up a garbage bag-full, I need to “process” each one. It’s sort of like cleaning a fish: I cut off the top, down the side, and around the bottom, and then I wash it out. (Unbelievable what stuff people drink!)

Cleaning & drying.jpg

The cleaning station, and “filleted” cans drying on the deck

Flattening the sheets by simply running them over the edge of the table – and one final clean! – gives me the “thin metal sheets” I need.

06.Flattened cans-s.jpg


When the shape is more important than the pattern

I favor the “squares-squared” pattern of components as presented in my last post because it’s hidden by its regularity; that is, what catches your eye on the 3-dimensional surface comes from the image itself, not from any part of the pattern. However, the subjects of some photographs have recurring shapes that can be mimicked by the individual components. For example, an Xtra-Dimensions piece derived from a photograph of a maple forest with its fall foliage has additional depth when the components are shaped like the leaves themselves.

How does this work?

Instead of using square components, or warped-square components as described for pictures of Lake Tahoe, I use overlapping leaf shapes. They are arranged in the same “squares-squared” pattern shown before:

Leaf layout pattern.jpg

On the left above is shown the regular pattern, on the right is the arrangement of overlapping leaf shaped components according to this scheme. (You’ll notice that their positions are identified by row and column addresses; that’s important in helping to locate where each one goes!)

The components themselves are also 3-dimensional!

Where a faceted shape to the components is appropriate for the pictures of water surfaces, the leaf-shaped components are made convex by drawing (creasing) veins on the back. For one thing, doing this makes the components quite uniform, as shown by the stack below:


Even more important, the 3-dimensionality of the leaf-shaped components brings another level of visual connection to the subject matter. As you move around the piece, the components alternately disappear as they combine to make the image, or they stand out as individual leaves, layered as in the forest scene itself.

Vine Maple combo.jpg

“Vine Maples Along the Santiam River,” created from a photograph by Mike Putnam, was one of the first that I made using this approach.

In a later blog, I’ll describe pieces for which both the pattern and the component shapes are tailored to the scene.

Patterns and shapes

Every Xtra-Dimensions Art Piece Starts With a Beautiful Photograph…

… that is missing something! In my earlier post, I spoke of the fluidity and movement, the changing reflections and patterns, that are missing from static, flat pictures of the water surface of Lake Tahoe. Other images from our world are similarly “flattened”, stripped of their dimensionality, and frozen in a framed photograph on the wall. Think of the depth of a forest scene, with leaves and tree trunks in the foreground on top of more leaves and more trees in the distance. Or the movement of a school of fish swirling in a ball or streaming across a coral reef.

It’s all in the pattern –

As described before, the Xtra-Dimensional process presents the image as a group of overlapping components, at different levels, that together create the complete picture. The first consideration is what pattern is appropriate for the scene. For photos taken from my kayak in Lake Tahoe, I want to convey the fluidity of the undulating water surface, how changing reflections obscure or reveal what lies below the surface. For this purpose, it’s the pattern itself, not the outline of the individual components, that is important.

I start with a very regular arrangement of squares, where each color represents a different layer (for example, red above blue above green above purple):

Simple pattern-1.jpg

This pattern is repeated across the piece and because it is regular, you don’t notice any particular part:

Simple pattern-2.jpg

At this point, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with a water surface, does it? But when the pattern is “warped”, it immediately takes on the appropriate fluidity and feeling of movement:

Simple pattern-3.jpg

– and the shape of the components!

Although the outline of the components is dictated by the pattern, they still need a 3-dimensional shape. What I found works best for a lake scene is a simple faceted shape, created by creasing the back of the piece from corner to corner with an inkless ball-point pen. These facets can be seen in a detail of “Tahoe Emeralds” that also shows the 4 x 4 layer pattern described above:

Tahoe Emeralds detail.jpg

When mounted, these facets not only generate movement with reflections that change with lighting and viewpoint, but they create yet another fluid pattern across the piece. The image below shows the same 25” x 15” detail of “Reflected Rocks” under different lighting conditions.

Reflected Rocks segment.jpg

In future blogs, I’ll describe how different patterns and different component shapes are designed for other scenes.


3-Dimensionality has always interested me.
Before embarking on an exploration of the world of “Xtra-Dimensions”, I was a professor of chemistry at UC Berkeley. I taught organic chemistry and my research concerned molecules involved in natural biological processes. The chemistry of these molecules depends on their structures, and their shapes in 3-dimensions play a key role.

Capturing more than just the single moment.
The concept underlying my artistic efforts grew out of a desire to convey the 3-dimensions and movement that we know are present in a real-life scene but are absent in a simple photograph. Inspired by the dynamic elements of the surface of Lake Tahoe, my earliest work aimed to recreate those missing dimensions in pictures of the water surface. By creating physical depth in my artwork, I wanted to portray the movement of the ripples and reflections as they change from one moment to the next and with the angle of view.

More than just a jig-saw puzzle at different levels.
The “Xtra-Dimensional” approach that evolved presents the image as separate components in a number of layers, thus adding a 3rd dimension to the piece. Segments of a photographic print are adhered to flattened metal sheets derived from aluminum cans, and these components are glued to posts of different heights above a panel of acrylic plastic. The components of the different layers overlap so that together they recreate the complete image. Additional elements in the design are the shapes of the components themselves and how they are arranged. These patterns are complementary to the image as a whole, creating yet another dimension and bringing out the dynamic elements of the real-life scene.  “Crystal Bay Ripples,” one of my first pieces,  shows both why and how I developed this approach.