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Thanks to 3-D printer, statue of Tacoma icon Ivan the gorilla coming back to life

It took 110 pieces of pulverized acrylic to assemble a life-sized gorilla.

The parts came out of the 3-D printer in all shapes and sizes, but it was the head — of Tacoma’s iconic Ivan the gorilla — that made an impression on the crowd that gathered to watch.

“I was a little skeptical about what he would look like,” said Ron Irwin, whose family owned Ivan for the 27 years the gorilla lived at the circus-themed B&I mall on South Tacoma Way.

“The things that gets me, it looks like Ivan. They got it perfect.”

Ivan died in 2012 after spending his later years at Zoo Atlanta. Almost immediately, efforts began to create a memorial for him.

Three years ago, Portland-based Form 3D Foundry agreed to do the job of digitally molding Ivan’s image and printing it in three dimensions so the gorilla can be cast in a bronze statue.

The 6-foot-tall statue, to be unveiled later this year, will be displayed at the entrance to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

Although the statue is modeled after a particular News Tribune photo of Ivan holding a flower, hundreds of other pictures showing him from all angles were gathered so the details would be just right.

The computer artists at Form 3D Foundry spent the most time focusing on the subtleties of Ivan’s mouth, his eyes, his expression and the way his hand would hold the pink magnolia blossom.

The changes were passed to Douglas Granum, a local artist tasked with bringing Ivan to life, and to the Irwin family, so they could decide whether it looked like the gorilla they knew and loved.

“The biggest challenge for me was discovering that what I was doing was more portraiture,” Granum said. “I was creating Ivan.”

Once everyone signed off on the digital photo after six months, the printing could start.

Form 3D Foundry announced it’s only company on the West Coast that has the type of high-performance printing system used for Ivan.

To create the 110 forms, a 20,000-cubic-inch tub holding the pulverized acrylic was placed inside the printer.

The machine, which runs for 60 hours at a time, pours a layer of powder over the tub’s contents and then binds them, repeating the process time and again.

For the sake of efficiency, the parts of Ivan’s statue were cut into smaller pieces so more could fit inside the tub.

When the printer was done, the tub was completely immersed in powder. Workers carefully removed the powder using a vacuum hose and small paint brushes.

In January, Granum and the Irwin family made the trip to Portland to watch Ivan’s head emerge from the printer. It was nestled in the tub along with his rib cage, buttocks and part of an arm.

Earl Borgert, Ron Irwin’s nephew, wielded a paint brush and helped the Form 3D Foundry artists slowly dust powder from Ivan’s nostrils and eyes.

“It was exciting but humbling at the same time,” he said afterward. “When does a person get a chance to go through an experience like this?”

Rob Arps, the foundry’s president and CEO, wondered the same thing.

He formed the company in 2005 and has worked on projects across the nation.

He built a 14-foot-long Adidas shoe for the company’s headquarters, a 25-foot-long whale for the state of Alaska and brought Ben Franklin’s likeness to life.

But working on Ivan has special meaning for Arps, a Lakewood native who often visited the gorilla growing up because his parents worked at the B&I.

“There are a myriad of renderings of great apes from King Kong to beloved Ivan, and I wanted something that was kind and beautiful and really showed his spirit,” Arps said.

  Port Orchard sculptor Douglas Granum, right, visits with the Irwin family as the form pieces of Ivan the gorilla were uncrated at Two Ravens Studio foundry in Tacoma. Ed Kroupa, right, of Two Ravens will use the digitally sculpted and printed form pieces that were created at Form 3D Foundry in Portland to create the bronze sculpture of Ivan. Dean J. Koepfler dkoepfler@thenewstribune.com

Up until a few years ago, 90 percent of this kind of work was done as clay sculpture. Digital technology now speeds up the process, shaving off up to three years in the case of Ivan’s bronze statue.

“I’m able to do things I never could have done before,” Arps said. “We’re all in a choreographic mode to make this thing occur.”

When sculpting with clay, the artist is limited in what kind of changes can be made. With digital sculpting, changes can be made without affecting the overall project.

“We can solve a series of problems very quickly, where before it would have taken months,” Arps said.

Using a 3-D printer also saves money, which is important to Beloved Ivan Project, the group raising money, mostly through donations, for the $247,354 project.

On Tuesday, Two Ravens Studio, a Tacoma foundry, will pour the bronze head of the Ivan sculpture. The rest of the pieces then will be welded together and poured with 3/16s of an inch of bronze.

And with that, Ivan will be back home in Tacoma.

How to help

To donate, visit The Greater Tacoma Community Foundation at gtcf.org/beloved-Ivan-fund.

Donors who give more than $1,000 will be able to attend the sculpture unveiling at artist Douglas Granum’s studio before the statue is dedicated at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.

More online

The Beloved Ivan Project is asking people to share their memories of Ivan at belovedivan.org.