Artist Profile: Brad Jirka & Katherine Jones

A piece of art 3D printed by Brad Jirka // Photo by Tj Turner

A piece of art 3D printed by Brad Jirka // Photo by Tj Turner

Before it even hit the printer, Brad Jirka and his wife/collaborative partner Katherine Jones spent upwards of 65 hours on the model for this cover. Between laying out the initial design and recreating it 40 different ways in the 3D printing software formZ, the design duo behind Northfield studio Bohemiawerks eventually came full-circle, landing on a design closest to their original concept. Then came the time to print; Jirka tried three different 3D printers, ranging from a couple hours to a couple days to produce the final model.

But even with tens of hours spent digitally fine-tuning the model, Jirka says such a concept would be near-impossible to do without the precision and flexibility of 3D software. 

“That’s something that you couldn’t even try without the computer. It wouldn’t be realistic,” he says. “By the time you’d figured out how that worked, that’d be months of messing around with a piece of wax. You’d have to do hundreds of iterations.” He points out the option of adding a slight change in the final modeling phase, which would be out of the question if one was working with a physical object. “When you were done, you couldn’t go, ‘What if I twisted it 15 degrees?’ That would be impossible,” he says. “That’s where I think [3D printing] is most effective, is in exploring what the possibilities are.”

As a young student at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the 1970s, Jirka found his passion for sculpture and intermedia, falling in love with the open-ended possibilities (and lack of rules) that the artform promised. Between his years as a pupil and now as a teacher, Jirka’s been involved with MCAD for over four decades. 

Brad Jirka // Photo courtesy MCAD

Brad Jirka // Photo courtesy MCAD

It was also at MCAD where he and Jones met as students—they were married in 1980 and have been partners in life and work ever since. The duo opened up their first studio, St. Elmo’s Inc., in Minneapolis in 1984, then moved to the countryside of Northfield where they started Bohemiawerks in 2001.

St. Elmo’s focused in what Jirka describes as “neon works” and creative lighting, birthing the American School of Neon which ran from 1984–1996. The school, where Jones worked as director and Jirka the lead instructor, was specifically designed for the training of professional “neon benders,” as Jirka puts it. “We trained somewhere around two hundred ‘benders,’ some of whom are still working and training the next generation of neon people,” he says.

Jirka's "Plato Dew Line" // Photo courtesy MCAD

Jirka’s “Plato Dew Line” // Photo courtesy MCAD

Jirka’s work ranges from massive public installations to petite sculptures, all of which utilize materials that are universally accessible but unconventional in the arts world. “I think it’s looking for new things, but not necessarily things that other people aren’t using, because we all use so much stuff.” 

His particular form of art is hard to define, largely because Jirka most enjoys the element of exploration. This explains why he’s so taken with 3D printing, because it is such a young, unwieldy artform that’s just beginning to get its footing in the art world. But he’s willing to admit that the technology isn’t without its issues—namely, the potential for making unlimited copies of his artworks. 

But with his own smaller, toy-like work, Jirka does harbor a dark fantasy. “My dream’s always been to have something turn up at Kmart,” he jokes. “I can go into Kmart and buy it out of a bin.”

As an artist who also enjoys crafts like wood turning and metal working, Jirka does maintain that working with his hands is an unbeatable experience. But he admits the time saved by 3D printing opens up opportunities for more exploration: “There’s something really refreshing about going through that ideation process faster, and actually being able to get product out of it.” 

The challenge, he says, is in creatively mastering the software, rather than letting it master you. “It can both limit the process and it can expand the process—it depends how tenacious you are about exploring what’s possible.”

The cover created by Brad Jirka for the Growler's January issue, and photographed by Tj Turner

The cover created by Brad Jirka for the Growler’s January issue, and photographed by Tj Turner