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HPU Junior Hannah Le Makes Functional Art from Tree Bark

Updated: Feb 22


On a Friday afternoon, you can find High Point University junior Hannah Le in the Tech Lab, using natural materials like tree bark to create wild, nature-inspired surfaces for interior products like chairs and curtains.

Last time I checked in with Hannah, a Visual Merchandising Design major in HPU's School of Art and Design, she sent me this picture of a stepstool she had made:

When I first saw her creation, I scrunched my face and treated myself to a very close look at it. I thought it would have a fitting place among the sculptures in a modern art museum, maybe as one rock standing apart in a belt of asteroids splayed out on the floor; or as a chunk of Rosetta Stone with the language scratched out; or as that misshapen chunk of tree stump that makes you ask existential questions about the trunk-that-used-to-be.

As it turned out, my reaction was exactly what Hannah was aiming for.

In her words, "what makes [the stool] unique is that if it were sitting in a living room, it would just look like a sculptural piece. The abstractness of the shape itself does not look like it would be balanced enough for someone to stand on it safely, but the idea that it is perceived as simply a piece of art when it actually has a useful purpose, is what makes it exactly what I wanted it to be: a functional piece of art."

Hannah's art-meets-function creations have a fascinating origin story. They began with a question: What is the potential for the sense of touch to influence a person's experience with interior products?

Since every student at High Point works closely with a faculty mentor, Hannah's first stop was to ask Dr. Brown what the best way would be to go about her exploration. Dr. Brown pointed Hannah toward HPU's Tech Lab. There, under the mentorship of School of Art and Design instructors Ms. Katy Brandt and Mr. Adrian Boggs, Hannah learned to sketch, model, and cast materials like alginate and resin. She used the Tech Lab's laser cutter, 3D printer, and other tools to investigate the abstract texture of tree bark and the contrasting straight edges of geometric designs. Her primary process became to pour alginate onto a tree bark cast to harden, then to remove it and use the uniquely bark-textured model as a new cast onto which she would pour resin.

Her form exploration led her to create some remarkable nature-inspired surfaces:

When she was ready, she began to design a creation to show the potential of cast-negative forms of textures available from bark species. This would eventually become the stool she showed me.

First, she experimented with a cardboard model to form a shape:

Then, she created a scale model in CAD and laser-cut it out of acrylic so it would resemble resin: