The Challenge of Electroforming
San Jose State Spatial Arts Lecturer Yvonne Escalante, ’13 MFA Spatial Arts, stands before a glass tank of blue electrolyte solution inside SJSU’s Jewelry Lab. She points at a plastic coil inside the solution, which is in the process of being plated with copper.
“Electroforming is the electro-deposition of copper on a non-metallic substrate,” says Escalante. An array of plastic, wood and glass objects wait their turn to be plated with copper on a nearby table. Escalante established the electroforming workspace at SJSU with the support of a College of Humanities and the Arts Artistic Excellence Programming Grant in 2018 to challenge her students to experiment with the age-old process, which uses an acid solution to plate objects with copper using electricity. “For a lot of makers, having a new challenge, a new way to problem-solve, forces us to look at what we do every day differently and really engage the creative mind in a new way. What’s really exciting for me is to see the students taking on the challenge, getting frustrated and invigorated, and really putting their research hats on.”
Escalante assembled a team of students who dedicated hundreds of collective hours to researching the process, understanding the equipment, and experimenting with unorthodox materials like plastic, glass, wood, fabric, and—in one student’s case—human hair. Over the past year and a half, they have perfected the process by establishing safety protocol, observing chemical reactions and writing a comprehensive instructional manual. Escalante says that electroforming exemplifies how the artistic process is its own scientific experiment—that both beauty and function can come from trial and error. In one experiment, they discovered that by creating a lattice of copper on blown glass and other materials, the copper can be used as an actuator—a switch—meaning that when someone touches the object, a light turns on or a sound is produced. The possibilities, it seems, are endless.
A few of Escalante’s students whose research involves electroforming are scheduled to be presented at the annual Society of North American Goldsmiths conference in May 2020. Escalante sees this as a great opportunity to share their findings with their professional community and get feedback that could inform how they prototype, create and invent.
“Everything that we do, all of our work and our creative language, is developed around research,” says Escalante, who supervised the designed and built SJSU’s presidential mace and has also supervised the creation of trophies for the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic tennis tournament hosted by SJSU. “Sometimes people see art as simply ‘fun.’ It is fun. But it’s also important to understand that this is a serious discipline. It takes a lot of time, research and effort to get the results that you want. Electroforming is quantifiable. We can present the research and the results. Approaching it in this way sheds light on the research process.”