Berkshire HomeStyle Magazine

What Lies Beneath: Sarah Pike uses high-tech laser cutting to uncover new layers in fine art

By Robin Catalano

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The term laser cut has become ubiquitous in fashion and home décor over the past decade, with everything from patterned earrings and handbags to wall art created with machines that can inexpensively, if generically, cut large quantities of materials in minutes. But in the hands of Sarah Pike, founder of FreeFall Laser, the laser cutter is elevated to fine art. 

            Pike started out as a painter and printmaker, and worked for ten years as the print studio manager at Bennington College. There she was drawn into the hands-on, multistep process of lithography, the most difficult type of printmaking, where ideas can gestate and take new directions while a project is in progress. When the college purchased a high-end laser cutter, Pike immediately recognized another avenue for artistic exploration. She studied with master cutters in the United States and abroad, and began experimenting with using the laser cutter to engrave, mark, or cut; fix pigments; and create other unique effects.            

For a pair of 19th-century piano stools Pike meticulously recreated the monogram inlays, which had been removed by a previous owner, out of several types of wood.

For a pair of 19th-century piano stools Pike meticulously recreated the monogram inlays, which had been removed by a previous owner, out of several types of wood.

In 2016, Pike left academia, leaping, as she puts it, “without a parachute,” into FreeFall Laser. The studio, on Main Street in North Adams, affords inspiration right around the corner in the form of MASS MoCA, and also gives her access to a network of artists. They’re her primary clientele, with bookbinders and artist bookmakers, furniture conservators, and jewelers calling on her to help realize their vision.

“A big part of growing a business is growing the community around the business,” Pike says. “What’s been most effective for me is surrounding myself with interesting artists and artisans who may or may not become clients—gathering people around me who have creative energy, and then building those relationships.”

Unlike the lasers used to create mass-market products, Pike’s Universal Standard laser cutter can be programmed with up to eight settings at a time. This allows her to vary how the laser interacts with a surface and vastly expand the effects that can be achieved—for instance, revealing the subtleties of a wood grain in a way that a knife or a chisel could never do.

This voucher was commissioned by a client, who gifted a tiny house to her husband for his birthday. Pike created the maple box with sliding drawer, engraved the company logo on the box lid, and laser-marked the stainless steel voucher inside.

This voucher was commissioned by a client, who gifted a tiny house to her husband for his birthday. Pike created the maple box with sliding drawer, engraved the company logo on the box lid, and laser-marked the stainless steel voucher inside.

Clients usually come to FreeFall with a developed design or an idea, but often don’t know how to get from A to Z. Pike says, “With laser cutting, much more is possible than what’s in the general knowledge base. I listen to the specifics of their project, without judging them for not being tech-savvy, or looking down on an artistic idea that may not naturally lend itself to the laser technology. I’m more interested in problem-solving a final result.”

Several steps and many hours of prep work go into creating a finished product. Pike’s pieces are usually smaller parts of a larger handcrafted whole and must integrate seamlessly with the client’s creation, which requires her to have knowledge of woodworking, painting, bookbinding, and other art forms—and serve as the bridge between the art and the laser cutter. She explains, “There’s a popular misconception that laser cutting is punching a bunch of numbers into a machine. Like any tool—whether it’s a paintbrush or a planer—it requires understanding of the material you’re working with as well as how the tool works.”

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This knowledge and appreciation of a variety of art forms—and willingness to try inventive approaches—is why clients trust Pike to take on complex projects. For example, she was hired by a furniture conservator to recreate the missing monogram inlays for a pair of nineteenth-century piano stools. She first examined the recessed areas in the stools, as well as the style of the inlays on other furniture in the same collection. From there, she transformed the conservator’s drawings into a digital file that could be read by the laser cutter.

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Next up: extensive testing. Mother-of-pearl was the first choice, but its thin, brittle character was no match for the heat of the laser, and the pieces ended up disintegrating. Pike then test-cut several different types of wood. “Every wood behaves differently with the heat of the laser, so we had to figure out the best way to cut each,” she notes. Ultimately, pear, boxwood, and cedar were chosen for the project, with some pieces cut right-side-up and some upside-down to create a dovetailing effect when the pieces were arranged together.

For the rotating-panel  Revelation  by Philadelphia-based artist bookmaker Thomas Parker Williams, Pike laser-cut the wood “pages” to reveal different word combinations, on a digital print beneath, as the central knob is turned.

For the rotating-panel Revelation by Philadelphia-based artist bookmaker Thomas Parker Williams, Pike laser-cut the wood “pages” to reveal different word combinations, on a digital print beneath, as the central knob is turned.

Though Pike delights in the meticulous engineering of projects like these, even more, she enjoys the revelatory potential of using the laser to expose what lies beneath the surface of a material, from the clean white “canvas” in laser-engraved areas of dark-colored parchment to engraving on fabric to remove the top layer of dye and expose the undyed material underneath. “I like to experiment with working within the confines of a medium while augmenting what we have,” says. “What happens when we remove those layers? Or when we move the focal distance on the laser? How can I spark something that will help the artist think more expansively and integratively about her medium?”