The Download: Feature Articles
TheLaserGirls: Digital Art Pioneers
By Victoria Lubas | July 7, 2018
Sarah Awad and Dhemerae Ford Explore 3D Printing as a Passion and Profession
From cosmetics, to comics conventions, to the classroom, Sarah C. Awad and Dhemerae Ford are big names in the 3D printing world for the creative ways they are able to push technology to create new and exciting projects. Also known as TheLaserGirls, Awad and Ford met in NYU Steinhardt’s Studio Art program. Since then, they’ve formed a professional and personal bond built on a shared interest in technology, art, and entertainment that pushes them to explore the cutting-edge of 3D printing technology.
Both Awad and Ford were painting majors who chose to take the course Digital Art 2: 3D Fabrication for the interesting and new artistic opportunities it would present. Awad described this class as “changing [her] trajectory,” beginning the journey that led to TheLaserGirls. As part of the course, they learned Photoshop, among other software programs, and became enchanted by what Ford describes as the “fantasy of technology” that 3D printing seemed to offer. Awad was drawn in by the “opportunity to make the impossible possible.”
From Manicures to Magazines
Ford explained that she and Awad wanted to collaborate because [of their] different 3D printing knowledge. They both joined the LaGuardia Studio (then known as the Advanced Media Studio) as student employees, where they repeatedly laser cut products for an artist who informally referred to them as “the laser girls.” The name stuck. Inspired by a need to challenge themselves and push the boundaries of existing technology, as well as by their mutual interest in wearable tech, TheLaserGirls undertook their first project: 3D printed nails. Using store-bought acrylic fingernails as a template, Awad and Ford decided to see how thin they could 3D print an object. After successfully printing the nails, they photographed them against butcher paper in the NYU Palladium residence hall lounge and set up a Tumblr portfolio page to enter Eyebeam’s Wearable Tech event.
It surprised them both when their creations went viral. Popular tech and pop culture website Gizmodo noticed the nails and wrote an article about them. That was the first momentous step on their journey to 3D printing fame. As the Gizmodo article grew more popular, Awad and Ford were featured in Shapeways’ blog, Marie Claire, and The New York Times. They even did a television appearance on Good Morning America.
After the surprise popularity of their technological manicures, TheLaserGirls decided to incorporate their 3D printing skills into a shared hobby — cosplay; creating accessories and props to complete the look of their costumes. TheLaserGirls decided to participate in New York Comic Con because of the emotional investment involved in portraying a beloved character, coupled with the creativity it inspires, the endless props to create, and the strict convention deadlines that keep them focused. New York Comic Con and all the aspects of it pose these challenges every year as Awad and Ford craft increasingly complicated printing projects.
Cosplay: A Greater Canvas
Of her past projects, Ford’s favorite so far has been her re-creation of Ripley from the 1979 film Alien. Ford’s goal when creating costumes is to be as accurate to the source material as possible. What she values most about 3D printing is that it is a “form to reproduce parts you can’t get any other way,” making it perfect for cosplay and character re-creations that often involve unique props that can be difficult to obtain or create with other mediums. The flamethrower required for her Ripley costume seems almost like a studio-produced replica due to its detailed accuracy.
The ability to recreate something with such a high degree of accuracy and for such an empowered and treasured character, as well as being “part of [a] passionate community of makers, [and] making something specific,” keeps Ford inspired and creating between conventions. She is currently working on a piece from The Mighty Thor, beginning with a helmet worn by the character Jane Foster, that she thinks has potential to take Ripley’s place as her favorite project if it continues to progress positively over the few months leading up to October’s New York Comic Con.
While Ford strives for accurate re-creation, Awad enjoys creating costumes that are reimagined abstractly from the source material. Instead of a replica, Awad incorporates many aspects of the character to create her own identifiable interpretation that references the game and character; often working off of the most obscure images. Her favorite design to date is her Luna from Final Fantasy XV, for which she 3D printed a headpiece and trident. She considers this project her most fun because Luna’s look diverges so much from her own personal style — Luna clad in a white, ethereal dress while Awad prefers black.
Awad’s favorite part about cosplaying is the ability to revive under-appreciated characters and give them a second chance through her transformation. She also describes cosplay as an opportunity “to push myself as a maker [while] looking for new challenges” and to see how close she can come to making what she pictured in her head. For the next New York Comic Con, Awad is stepping aside from Final Fantasy characters and working on a reinterpretation of Devil Homura from the anime, Madoka Magica. This project requires 3D printing numerous, extremely thin feathers to create robotic wings — an ambitious but exciting goal.
Educating Young Students Will Narrow the Gender Gap
Awad and Ford are aware they occupy an interesting position in a field that combines artistic creativity with technical vocation. While the realm of cosplay is largely female-dominated, Forbes explains that the world of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and 3D printing is certainly not. As women in a predominantly male field, Ford and Awad feel comfortable in printing’s small, tech-driven, and learning-focused community. Before she joined NYU’s LaGuardia Student Technology Center & Computer Lab, as Manager, Awad was employed by made-to-order 3D printing company, Shapeways. There, she was one of only a small number of women involved in the technical aspects of 3D printing. She considered working as “one of three women on the factory floor [to be] empowering” and the educational experience to be full of “fundamental takeaways.”
Ford feels the primary drawback is the “boys’ club” vibe to the technical and engineering aspect of the field. Ford and Awad also both point out the surprise they often encounter when people learn that they completed the entire design and printing process for their pieces themselves; from original concept to 3D modeling, printing, sanding, and finishing. While she says that the number of women who share her professional trade is small enough that it’s possible they know every woman in the industry, Ford acknowledges there is also a positive side to the small, tight-knit nature of this guild.
This open and sharing community is one that is easy to enter because of members’ willingness to help — particularly via online discussion forums — those struggling with technological problems someone else in the group may have encountered before. For reasons like this, Awad calls for the development of more free software and models to make 3D printing more accessible — the way the field started out. She feels that the cost of experimenting and familiarizing oneself with this technology acts as a barrier for some trying to conquer its learning curve. She is happy to see that many students entering college have at least seen a 3D printer before, which was not the case just a few years ago, but continues to hope for more accessible entry to this field.
In her role as one of TheLaserGirls, Awad advocates the diverse opportunities 3D printing provides and urges those interested in the field to get involved without worrying about being put into a creative or technological box. She thinks it is important to get young people involved by introducing them to this advanced technology in school, prior to college. She also emphasizes the need for schools to show young girls the many facets of 3D printing that allow for creative freedom. Whether they want to create jewelry and fashionable items or something entirely different, girls must know that they can create whatever they want in this field, regardless of what is stereotypically “girly.” Awad wants to reach students with the message that “you can have your journey” in both a feminist and creative sense.
3D Printing’s Future
Ford sees great potential for advancement of materials in the near future. She feels that 3D printing will change as significantly and rapidly in the next 50 years as computers have in previous decades, to the point where 3D printing will be heavily used in factory manufacturing. On the horizon, Ford predicts even smaller, office-sized printers and new, advanced polymers, such as metals, better plastics, and biodegradable supplies. She hopes for greater sustainability and stronger, more durable material made of recycled or reused plastic — a project currently underway as members of the industry attempt to turn plastic water bottles into printing products.
Ford even looks beyond 3D printing into the potential fourth dimension of time, with changeable printing alloys. Currently dubbed “Memory Metal,” Ford describes a material that can be molded into a shape and after being flattened and stretched out, can return to the original shape through activation by a shock or contact with water. All of these possibilities and even the potential for bioprinting — creating organs out of inorganic material — make up a bright and vast future for the ever-growing 3D printing field.
However, Awad emphasizes that neither the established nor burgeoning aspects of the field should be thought of as magical, as that disregards the limits that the technology places on what can be created. Although tremendous advances in 3D printing have occurred recently, it is still a time and labor-intensive process that requires dedication, training, and patience. She encourages artists and technicians alike to study 3D printing and design. As Jane Foster quotes Arthur C. Clarke in the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thor, “Magic’s just science we don’t understand yet.”
Ford and Awad are contributing to 3D printing’s advancement by constantly pushing the technology to create more advanced and detailed works. As established leaders in both the tech and cosplay worlds and entrepreneurs of their self-named blog and business, TheLaserGirls have also recently entered the virtual classroom to teach a course titled ZBrush for 3D Artists and Designers in NYU’s School of Professional Studies. Ford holds a BFA in Digital Art, and Awad holds a BFA in Studio Art with concentrations in drawing and digital art and a minor in game design.
In addition to teaching a course at their alma mater, Ford is an Advanced Media Specialist at NYU’s LaGuardia Studio and Awad is Manager of NYU’s LaGuardia Student Technology Center & Computer Lab, both of which offer a number of cutting-edge 3D fabrication services to community members and artists alike. TheLaserGirls have not stopped climbing upward in the field they entered serendipitously as undergrads and continue to inspire seasoned engineers, young rookies, and video game, comic book, and anime enthusiasts alike.