Amechanical engineer by training, Jeff Mechlinksi used to spend his days poring over 3-D images of helicopter parts and other industrial gizmos on the glowing screen of his high-tech computer work station.
Then the Matisses showed up. Turbocharged pistons and whirling blades made way for wall-sized statues and reclining nudes.
Mechlinski works for Direct Dimensions, a digital imaging lab in Owings Mills. Most of the company's business involves industrial and defense projects for giant government contractors like Northrop-Grumman and Lockheed-Martin. But recently it's become a growing presence in the art world as well.
When the Baltimore Museum of Art hired the company in 2004 to scan several sculptures slated for the exhibition Matisse: Painter as Sculptor, which opens tomorrow at the BMA, Mechlinski was pulled in to help the curators and conservators uncover some of the artworks' long-held secrets.
The research is part of a relatively new field called technical art history, a discipline that attempts to throw light on a work's origins and meaning through the use of scientific methods.
"It was pretty interesting to work with a whole bunch of different Matisses," Mechlinski says. "I liked how he transformed his painted work into his sculptural work and how he worked from photographs and whatnot to get the 3-D shapes he desired."
Mechlinski and his colleagues don't claim to be experts on art, though the work they did for the BMA enabled museum staffers to gain important new insights into the 20th-century master's working methods and creative process.
"We're experts on information, not art historians," says Direct Dimensions president Michael Raphael, a former aerospace engineer who started the company in 1995.
"But we definitely learned a lot as to why these kinds of investigations are important," he adds. "We also learned more about art and why conservators find these pieces so valuable and interesting."
Within its warren of offices and computer work stations, engineers used state-of-the-art laser scanning technology to create amazingly accurate three-dimensional computer models - called digital files - of Matisse's sculptures.
It's the same equipment they use to model aircraft components and new consumer goods, which manufacturers can then plug into machines that fabricate the products.
The computer models are so accurate they can re-create the dimensions of objects to within a few microns - less than the width of a human hair - and the digital "files" that make up each model hold billions of individual bits of information.
It takes so many bits to turn even relatively small objects into 3-D digital files that the company recently had to purchase a new supercomputer just to process all the information.
Such sophisticated technology has allowed the company to branch out into fields far beyond industrial and defense contracting.
In addition to artworks - one of its clients is prominent New York artist Jeff Koons - it also works on historical preservation projects, consumer product design and medical prostheses for reconstructive surgery.
Recently its engineers traveled to Hartford, Conn., to scan the original plaster cast of a bronze statue that once stood atop the state capitol. The statue was melted down during World War II and its metal used for munitions; the scan of the plaster figure will be used to create a mold from which a new bronze statue can be cast.
The company is also working with plastic surgeons and medical illustrators at Johns Hopkins Hospital to make 3-D models of ears, noses and other body parts for patients who have suffered traumatic injuries.
The models will allow surgeons to fabricate prostheses that are exact replicas of damaged or missing parts.
"I often say that it has been the military and the defense industry that has footed the bill for the development of all these capabilities that we can then apply to the art and medical worlds," Raphael says. "They allow us to subsidize the work we do for artists and patients who can't afford the rates we get from Northrop-Grumman or Lockheed."
In its project with the BMA, the company worked with curator Oliver Shell and conservator Ann Boulton to take precise measurements of 11 Matisse bronzes that allowed them to identify the exact casting methods used by Matisse and the foundries where his works were made.
The information formed the basis for a catalog essay Boulton wrote for the exhibition that broke new ground in scholars' understanding of Matisse's technique and creative process.
"One of the things we discovered, or at least confirmed, was that Matisse was working from clay rather than from a plaster cast when he went from the [early sculpture] Madeleine I (1901) to Madeleine II (1903)," Boulton says.
The discovery, made when Boulton overlapped 3-D scans of the two sculptures on top of each other and compared their similarities and differences, was significant because it suggested that Matisse made both sculptures from the same lump of clay - unusual for works created two years apart.
From the evidence, Boulton inferred that Matisse had worked on the first Madeleine until he had taken the design as far as he could, then made a plaster mold of it to document his progress.
Later, he returned to the original clay model and developed it further in a much more abstract style. The later work, which bears little obvious resemblance to its predecessor but which contains areas undetectable to the eye that correspond to it exactly, became Madeleine II.
"It's important because we always want to know how artists work," Boulton says. "Matisse wanted to preserve the traces of his process, and since it was so important to him to have his process on view, it was important for us to understand it as part of his creative idea. The only way we could see it was by overlapping the computer models, because other methods didn't reveal that."