Nick Bauta wanted to do large-scale vacuum-formed plastic parts for some ambitious immersive design projects. But there were no facilities with the right machinery in our area. So he built his own.
Vacuum forming takes sheets of plastic material, quickly superheats them to make the material malleable (but not so hot that it becomes liquid), and wraps it around a shape, stencil or other crafted form to create a 3-dimensional plastic shape that’s replicable, durable and also has some give to it. A lot of the artisanship goes into creating the forms, which have to work within the constraints of the material and the process. “You can’t have any undercuts,” Bauta explains, gesturing to shape out imaginary pieces with his hands. “And sometimes you need to make multiple pieces, and plan out how they will fit together.”
Bauta, a RISD grad, already had experience with machinery, metal and electrical systems. He’s one of the founders of The Steel Yard and his art exhibit of robotic dragons was covered in these pages a few years ago.
Eager to demonstrate his contraption, Bauta winds his large, athletic frame through a hodge-podge of eccentrically shaped art projects of all sizes in his workshop that looks like a refugee from an upcoming Disney version of Frankenstein-meets-the-Dark-Crystal.
“This is the back end,” he explains, reaching the device. “I just have to wire it back up.” It has the homemade mad-scientist feel imbued in the rest of the space, all hidden within an unassuming abandoned mill building in Olneyville. Bauta pulls out and sticks in power cables from what looks like an old-time switchboard. The vacuum forming machine he has built has all its guts on display — a deliberate choice, it turns out, so he can continually adjust and fine tune its performance.
“It took a little while to make this,” he confides. “I was already working with the material, and I found myself wanting to make more clear things. It’s not as cool as glass, but I was trying to find other ways to bring art into forms that are more permanent, less expendable. And unlike glass, this lasts and is relatively cheap. As a metalworker, I’m always improving and learning how to make things better and better.” He’s applied that philosophy to the building of the vacuum former. “Now I still have to try to make it look sexy. But the real beauty is you can make almost anything with this.”
Bauta uses recyclable plastic, and recycles his own discards and trimmings. “This plastic is highly recyclable. The problem with plastic comes when people don’t recycle it,” he explains. “Plastic is an absolutely incredible invention, but it gets a bad rap because so much of what we make from it is single use, and then irresponsibly discarded. But it can be used to make beautiful, long-lasting, artistic objects.”
His rig is not the sort of contraption you can learn how to make from YouTube videos. “Actually, there are good YouTube videos if you want to build one that’s smaller,” Bauta says. “But you can’t just scale up — things work differently at this size.” He could have bought something from overseas, “But then I wouldn’t really know how it worked, how to adjust it or how to fix it.”
With an 8’ x 4’ bed, it’s the largest independent unit of its kind in New England (as far as we know). Recent projects have included a giant transparent flower to adorn the roof of a new eatery in Newport, and several rooms in the game-oriented action park TimeZone in Lincoln (see story page below) as well as a line of lampshades.
“We were amazed to find a resource like this so close by,” says Pieter Martens of TimeZone. “We found so many talented artists here locally, and it was really great to see them create the touchable, tactile art that makes up our action park. We gave them a lot of artistic freedom, but of course the project had a lot of practical constraints. Seeing these artists create within those parameters was really impressive,” he says.
“It’s a beautiful tool for thinking about things — even things on a very large scale — and then figuring out how to create backwards to get your desired result,” Bauta says of working on these large-scale projects. He worked with artists from The Reliquarium in Lincoln, which created many of the TimeZone rooms, and they combined his forms with carpentry, supporting wires, 3D renders and even soundscapes. “It’s quite a process,” says Bauta.
The machine opens up to reveal a large flat surface — like a hibernation pod in any good sci-fi movie. A shape is placed on the bed — Bauta demonstrates using a wooden model for a giant flower leaf, and fills in some dead space with a heavy, giant old metal gear. He chooses a plastic sheet of the right color and density, and places it in the machine. Then the machine closes and heats, like a giant pants press, while vacuuming the oxygen out of the set up. The plastic wraps tightly around the forms, until he pulls a release and the shapes cool and harden. “Sometimes you get something crazy, if an air-pocket formed, or if my timing was off. But usually, you can make the same form over and over. You can paint or finish the forms after they come out, too.”
Bauta removes the plastic and uses a blade to cut the shapes free. “When we get in a rhythm, we can easily do 10 of these an hour.” He holds up a giant, semi-transparent leaf, grown from the seeds of a new art form.
Look for some of Nick Bauta’s work at The Steel Yard, 27 Sims Ave, PVD, at TimeZone, in the R1 Entertainment Center at 100 Higginson Ave, Lincoln, or at Stoneacre Garden, 151 Swinburne Row, Newport.