BILL & COMPUTER ART PROGRAM - FRESNO STATE

Bill was always interested in technology – be it ancient ones like bronze casting and the way patinas can be controlled, to the most current. During his tenure teaching in the Art Department at California State University, Fresno he often experimented in the new.
As example, in the 1970s the university purchased a machine that would fabricate forms from large plastic sheets using a  heat and vacuum process. Bill’s classes constructed sculpture and architectural forms, as well as his being able to use it for his own commissions. One of his personal projects was to rent the facility to repair damage to the proscenium of the Warnors theater in downtown Fresno. He and a colleague were able to replicate the damaged original, cover with gold leaf, and have it done in only a few days which saved the theater money and look perfect for an important opening there.
Another example is his interest in film. He took a sabbatical and filmed around the world to complete what was actually a pre-cursor to the music video of today. He was often ahead of his time.

In the winter of 1987/88 the Chancellor of California State University invited two participants from each campus to participate in a conference to study adding computer art to the curriculum. With Bill’s fame for creative and innovative exhibitions and projects it was natural that he was invited to join this new venture. Bill and Rich Jenne from Industrial Technology attended for the week-long event where they learned all there was to know about that day’s technology, and to make the decision to embrace it and in what manner.

They saw some wondrous technology but choices were unlike what is available today. Apple did not have a color monitor. There was no Windows. IBM was Apples’ competitor and had color capabilities with separate RGB cables attached to a special monitor. The graphics card was very large and very expensive and would not physically fit into most computers. Available IBM software was written with DOS commands. Many people had not yet learned how to even turn a computer on, and fewer still could easily navigate through the typed commands to get started. In addition to information, this was a chance bond with other campus people and guests like Francis Ford Coppola.

Bill accepted the challenge to begin a computer art program at Fresno State. It was the first of the CSU campuses to have art classes dedicated solely to the computer. He selected the DOS software Lumena Paint and Crystal 3D by Time Arts. It ran on a 32 Targa graphics board. Jenne got Lumena as well with a 16 Targa board. Bill got a dot matrix color printer, and Rich chose a scanner. These computer systems were set up at opposite corners of the Fresno campus. The school offered grants for the purchase of the peripherals, but apparently no money or not enough for a computer. Bill got a used one donated from Duncan Ceramics company, and obtained the two needed monitors: a small ordinary black & white monitor for the tools and a large RGB monitor for the picture. He purchased a 12-inch Summa Graphics tablet that worked with a stylus. There were no ‘mice’ in those days, and people typically used keyboard commands. He also bought a video camera that allowed live video capture as well as input into the software from video tapes. There were two high-end VCR’s that most work was saved to and sound added and editing done.

Bill was a brilliant man. All that summer he studied and mastered that computer system in time for the first class the fall of 1988. Over the next two semesters the fledgling program developed and students were experimenting right along with Bill. At first he tried teaching some of both programs each semester, but soon began to use the Fall semester for Lumena and Spring was Crystal. One had to know Lumena prior to Crystal in order to have textures to put onto the wireframe models. Crystal had animation capabilities, but Bill used to comment about the meaningless moving of objects just for the sake of moving them. It was not for a few years and more advanced software that he began to work with students in animation.

Neither Bill or any of the students had a computer at home. There were no other choices to do what the school computer could do, and the costs were prohibitive at that time. Bill  soon had a dedicated group of students who took the class year after year until they graduated and mastered the software as a result. Lumena had wonderful painterly properties and one could actually paint on the computer with as satisfactory results as with real materials. Only the printer didn’t give proper results. That was a prime issue. Bill had the video setup where work could be saved and viewed on a TV, or he would send image files to San Mateo to have made into film negatives or slides.

There was not enough space to save many things on the computer, so images were saved on floppy disks, first 5 ¼” floppy disks and later the 3 ½” size came along. He updated the machines to use larger capacity ZIP disks and finally CDs because the floppy disks would only hold one image each.

The computer was wonderful but a dinosaur by today’s standards. It had an adequate hard drive for the software but it was slow, a 286 motherboard with 4 mg of RAM. The 3D software required one to render the wireframe in order to see what one had constructed. Each polygon of the matrix would be defined as we watched on the monitor then slowly the image would appear coming up from the bottom. Often by the time the top was reached we realized we had to make changes so had to do it over again. If the wireframe and lighting and all were very complex it would take hours to render. It was not uncommon for any of us to be there late at night. Bill had a couch in the room where we could doze off and wait. Nobody could use the computer until it was finished with this process. And with only one computer there was much demand of its time to satisfy everyone’s appetite.

In class students would huddle around the computer watching and listening as Bill went over the assignments and reviewed what we had done. The classes were three hours long and the entire time was taken by learning and showing what we had found out ourselves and listening to fascinating challenges and discussion of art. His purpose was to use the computer as a fine art medium, not in any way for commercial graphic design. The focus was sculpture and painting, as much as any other studio art class. He would bring examples of artists, sit there with these huge volumes on his lap and discuss plate after plate of art by Magritte, Hans Hoffman and others he felt worthy of student investigation. He devised projects to fulfill and talked at length of ways to solve them. In Lumena it was in part replicating painting, collage, and drawing using the computer to replicate real materials. But it was more discovering things the computer would do. He spoke of how the computer was the first intelligent medium, but it couldn’t do it more that what the programmers designed. However often the computer, when pushed to its limits, would give out things totally unexpected. Lovely gifts. Bill would say that too was part of the art, knowing when to accept and when to reject what the computer gives.

Because the only scanner was in Jenne’s office, Bill and students trekked across campus with snapshots of brick walls, stone, leaves, grass, and concrete, to use Jenne’s scanner. It was slow, and scanning and saving two or three snapshots at a time could take half an hour by the time the file was saved on a disk. These photos were digitized to use as texture on the models. The software did not have its own texture to apply so we had to make our own. It did render color and various metallic surfaces.

One flaw in the scanner besides its extreme slowness was it was not true to color. Everything had a reddish cast. Blues and reds would look fairly natural but greens were toned down and all material looked reddish brown rather than yellow-browns or grays. Today one would simply color correct in Photoshop or have the scanner calibrated, but that was not an option then. So often the Crystal images would be rather reddish brown in tonality. Not good, and Bill would just as often look for ways to compensate. In order to do his own work each summer he spent up to seventeen hours a day in the little room in the art department where the computer was set in a corner amid shelves and storage cabinets. He devised methods to print student work satisfactorily on the dot-matrix printer, sometimes enlarging pictures by piecing segments together. The prints were of poor quality by today’s standards, rather like newsprint. But it was like a miracle every time he saw the image on the monitor slowly appear on paper. He adhered these to foam core and placed into mats and decorated the room with pictures of computer art. Fledgling computer art all around the room up near the ceiling gave it an atmosphere for creativity.

 

An option for saving work was through the video capabilities of Lumena. Those two professional quality video recorders used in tandem would record whatever was on the monitor, whether still shots or motion. Video was a little better quality than the printer so most student work for grading was put on video.

Bill found a company in San Jose which would, for $5 each, process a computer image into a 35 mm negative or slide. He could then have a photographic print of very nice quality. He sent some of his own to Los Angeles to have 4’ x 6’ prints made and mounted for gallery exhibits to show off his wonderful new world of computer art. The software of those days didn’t allow for color correction, so these wonderful large prints were all rather reddish-brown except for the blues and reds.

Just as today, perhaps more so, the computer sometimes acted up. Bill’s frustrations grew with each episode. With all the hard use that used computer was getting it was little wonder it got tired now and then. With few funds allotted for repairs he would become creative with finding people who could fix whatever was wrong. He tapped school resources officially and anyone who could figure out what was wrong and put in a new part. He found a local computer company who would give reasonably priced repairs when he had funds to use them as well. He repaid their loyalty to the college by purchasing whatever equipment he could from them for the school and for himself thereafter.

In 1993/94 Bill was scheduled for a sabbatical to produce bronze sculpture from his computer designs. Prior to his leaving for Italy, Bill learned of a wonderful powerful computer coming to campus called the Silicon Graphics Iris with software that was far above our Crystal for 3D art. The company had been around about ten years, a CAD system for architecture primarily. But by 1992 a new generation made it versatile for animation and high end rendering of objects. He was certain this would benefit the students and was anticipating using the machine on his return from Italy.

Bill’s computer art classes had only been in existence for five years but already advances had been made in the realm of computers at lower ends as well. Other companies were producing software and computer models that were able to make art, some people thought, as well as our Lumena. And they were much cheaper. During the time Bill was away, Fresno State purchased twenty-four Amiga computers and set up a lab on campus for students to use.

Upon Bill’s return the late Spring of 1994, he found this computer lab was in place and he wondered as well if it would serve the computer art needs of his students. He hoped it would so more could benefit. By checking out the software capabilities he found it quite inferior to Lumena and realized that was not the answer to expand his computer art program. Unfortunately as well it was a technology that was soon obsolete. This was in part due to the company not keeping pace with others of that day. In part it was a quite inferior, mediocre product that Bill knew was not nearly as good quality nor the intuitive capabilities for artists as what he had purchased for the department. The lab had quickly been decided upon and in progress by the time he returned from Italy so he had no input in the planning. Students were encouraged by the department to use the lab often as it was ‘for student needs’.  Bill’s students complied for an afternoon or two but soon discovered the inadequacy of the software. The possibilities were just too simplified and reminded them of primitive paint programs with none of the wonderful color and other attributes they were used to.

Perhaps the biggest blow of all was the wonderful Silicon Graphics Iris had become merely a server for the 24 Amigas in that lab. The Iris could be used by faculty or master students through a password, but it was such irony to him that the powers that be had no clue what they had and the capability of that machine for artists. Engineering was later to acquire a lab filled with these machines, but currently there was only that one on campus. Bill never went over to use it, but did walk over one day to look at it. It was amazingly like any other computer on the outside. I did obtain the password and played with it a little while, realizing it was not nearly as user-friendly as Crystal. There was no instruction manual for the software. The wireframes were based on a global programming where it was all by numbers – each model beginning at 0 in all directions, and one just didn’t start by plopping a model in nebulous space. The idea was critical for architecture and other engineering designs. For the artist, it didn’t really matter where the object was sitting in a void, just to make the object look good. Crystal was intuitive. The Iris was mechanical.

That summer Bill travelled Bali to make sculpture for exhibitions there and here at the Fresno Art Museum. By the time he had a chance to think of the Iris again, he found the Amiga lab was empty. During the summer it had been dismantled due to lack of use and the Amigas ended up in faculty offices around campus. The Iris was missing. That couldn’t be. He had to take the time among his physical sculpture to track it down, then convince the powers that be to let it come to the art department for the students. As much as his art was beginning to benefit immensely from the computer, he was doing it all from the viewpoint of student needs. All the begging and grant writing and making do while striving for the latest was for the students to have the very best education in the computer age and not be left behind.

In the Fall this things began to progress rapidly for Bill’s computer art program.

The Art Department merged with Jenne’s area of design and through this Bill acquired his Lumena set-up and the scanner. Funding at that time allowed a third computer as well. A problem arose through the more advanced technology that the RGB monitors like the first two computers had were no longer available. The monitors now had one cable connection rather than separate RGB wires to the targa board needed to run Lumena. So Bill had to again tap university people to find someone who could physically create the proper connectors. But he had three working computers with Lumena running on all.

Then, the Iris was found! And delivered to Bill’s growing computer lab.

Winter Break brought a couple tragedies for the computer lab.

First, someone broke in and stole his video camera. That thief was never found although because many workers had been on campus to set up new phone lines in the building Bill suspected one of them took the camera.

The computer lab was on the second floor just above the department's mechanical room. More wiring was being added to the building, in addition to the phone lines, and there below the lab someone was drilling into the ceiling. Somehow a wire was cut, blowing a circuit and frying the Silicon Graphics Iris computer. Before Bill ever had a chance to use it. He never forgot.

These were exciting times to get new equipment, but as well a period of complexity, of somehow making things work, losing things -  negative and stressful.

As Spring came, more changes came as well.

Funds became available to purchase a good HP desktop printer and retire the old dot matrix one, purchase a good scanner, and purchase a 42-inch large format plotter.

Bill’s wounds of losing the Iris were beginning to heal. The large printer came with a few quirks – the size was grand, but he was never able to get as good color on it as the promotional examples showed. And no funding to hire anyone to help with this issue. But many colors were okay, and the students could finally get some ‘decent’ prints, as he put it.

For a time all went well. Then Bill was thinking that he would like an upgrade of Lumena. It had been several years since he had one. He called Time Arts and found they were in trouble themselves. Someone had stolen the software rights somehow, and they were not making it any longer.

About this time Bill became aware that Engineering had received a grant for several Silicon Graphics Iris machines. They would be delighted to share with the Art Department. The problem was they wanted the art students to take their classes, that it was not just open lab. Add to that, they had math and programming prerequisites to take before being allowed on the computers. The concept of programming was great for engineering but not for artists. They wouldn't waive the requirement, although wanted the prestige of some great art coming out of their program. Bill had to decline for those reasons plus they had no method of saving images or files other than on the hard drives. There was no printer, no disk drives.

It became easier to envy of other schools getting good labs, Engineering and Education specifically, and later Business, and we the artists sat in a storeroom with puny computers in a corner. His quest became to get his program equal to what others had on campus. The administration saw him as always needing funds for equipment. Back in the Amiga lab days he once was told “You have computers to use, what more do you want?” Well, software would be nice. In the case of Engineering, output would be good. He wrote grants and begged for funds, got hand-me-downs from off campus business world and the School of Business.

 

In the late1990s the old computers of Bill’s were giving out, needing more than repairs. There came a time when all had to be changed. He had tried to keep Lumena as long as possible, but technology had advanced far beyond what was state of the art a few years previously. He knew he had to go to Windows and Photoshop to keep his students up to date with current software. When he first had contact with Photoshop he didn't feel it had enough qualities to be equal to Lumena. And he didn't have Windows on the computers. But, it had gone beyond simply making art on the computer and had become a need to train people in something they could use off campus. Especially now that owning a computer was affordable for him and many others. He began taking a few on-campus classes in Photoshop, version 4. He purchased a paint program called Painter, and used it awhile but came to prefer Photoshop.

He walked past the Business building one day to find they were discarding computer desks and chairs. Within an hour he had claimed eight to put in his small lab. The current layout of the lab left no room for the eight desks. In a few days Spring Break began, so during that time the old cabinets were removed, the walls were given a fresh coat of paint. Not stopping there, he painted the floor, put in a carpet runner down the center of the room, and put framed prints of student work on the walls.

When he had the desks brought in he learned the Business School also had computers they were replacing. Bill secured eight of them, and arranged for the latest Photoshop to be installed.

That took care of the Lumena replacement. But Crystal 3D had been his favorite because of his sculpture background.

The university had arrangements for the use of a 3D animation program along with a couple other universities. There was a fee, of course, but Bill was able to get eight software keys for 3D Studio Max to be installed in his lab. It was difficult for him to give up the Summa Graphics tablet and stylus for a mouse, but he found it very exciting to be in the world of discovery again.

The Millennium brought more changes. The College of Humanities had updated several computer labs with brand new powerful computers and software. Bill moved his classes to the Music Building into one of these state of the arts labs. Just as he was in the process of retiring his dream had come true.

 

It had always been a struggle to get and maintain satisfactory equipment at school, along with mastering software that kept changing.

It had been a love-hate relationship between Bill and the computer, but very satisfying most of the time. When his retirement was final he began his most rewarding computer work of all - the Egyptian Portfolio.

 

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