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When I sit at my desk and look out the window, my view includes a large, creamy-white oval sculpture tunnelled with serpentine holes. Massive in size, it reveals an interior of honeycomb lightness. This is the RYGO.

The RYGO is my companion for all seasons. In spring, cleansed by melting snow, it glistens brightly in my verdant green garden. In summer, shadows animate its multiple chalky surfaces as the sun crosses from east to west. In autumn, red and gold leaves pile up at its base and nest in its orifices. In winter, it wears a jaunty toque of snow that matches not only the surrounding whiteness but also its own bleached colour scheme.

Three years ago, in 2016, I promised my youngest son JF (b. 1986) that I would write about this monumental sculpture, one of the seminal undertakings of his life. As I am an art historian, documenting the visual past matters to me. Furthermore, I believe the RYGO represents an important early Canadian venture into 3-D (three-dimensional) printing and its continued existence should be noted.

The word RYGO, comes from the word ‘gyroidal’, a type of geometric form called a minimal surface. Soap bubbles are an example of this. It is two metres tall and weighs 3.6 tons. When it was made it was the largest 3-D printed sculpture in North America. American mathematical and scientific sculptor Bathsheba Grossman (b.1966) designed it using computer-aided design (CAD). It is based on the mathematical description of the bubble network that makes up sea foam and, such is its complexity, it cannot be carved or moulded, only 3-D printed.

Undertaking the making of the RYGO in 2012 lined up with JF’s life trajectory at that point in time. He has always been visual; especially attuned to the shapes of buildings and their structural elements and to sculpture. I have kept many of the innovative clay pots and animals he crafted in elementary school. As time went by, however, he drifted away from this kind of creativity, that is, until he encountered 3-D printing, then a specialist technology.

In his final year of university, in 2011, his International Development and Economics degree required him to spend a term overseas and he went to Bolivia. He had become obsessed with the implications of 3-D printing for lesser-developed, and, from a kit, he made the first operational 3-D printer in Bolivia.

Import tariffs there are incredibly high to encourage local investment in industry and protect the economy. There was no tariff code for 3-D printers so the kit was imported as artwork. The logic of importing a small 3-D printer was that it could be used to make elements necessary to Bolivian lives in remote areas: handles, doorknobs and such like.

Following his return from Bolivia, in the wake of 2011’s devastating Hurricane Sandy, JF envisioned a solution for New York’s weakened wooden harbour piles using 3-D printed parts of the missing elements, which could be attached to the remaining structures. He has won major prizes for his initiatives.

The RYGO was JF’s attempt to bring the concept of 3-D printing on a massive scale to Canada. The process that Italian robotics engineer Enrico Dini (b. 1962) developed to print houses using recycled crushed stone and seawater inspired him and, in 2012, he began working with Dini. Funded to the tune of $3,300 through the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, the RYGO was printed on Dini’s 20 x 20 x 27 foot robotic printer in Pisa in 2012. It is made from limestone sand from the quarries of Carrara, the source of the marble Renaissance master Michelangelo had used in his sculptural work nearly five hundred years earlier. A magnesium chloride solution bonds the sand one centimetre layer at a time to form a kind of limestone concrete.

Both materials are cheap, the waste products of other processes: marble cutting and desalination. In 2012, the RYGO and several other smaller pieces were shipped by air to Vancouver, where JF then lived. The RYGO spent the first six months of its stone- printed life in Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden, where it attracted attention, most notably from Daniel Radcliffe, aka Harry Potter. It then moved to the garden of Gropp’s Gallery, an alternative art space in the city. After JF moved to New York, in 2015, we shipped it to our garden in Ottawa. It was a fun day with JF managing the crane-assisted move via his iPhone while a neighbour watched the activity from our deck, filled brown teapot to one side in case things got stressful.

We would have preferred the RYGO to go to a museum but could garner no interest. So it remains in our garden and I look at it daily through my window. We had thought that squirrels might nest in it but they don’t. Once I saw two cats play cat and mouse on it. Our neighbours appreciate its stately presence and we appreciate its unique beauty and the force of its design. We have other 3-D printed possessions but none that engages us with the same unwavering intensity, if not affection, as the RYGO.

11 September 2019