Steampunked in WashCo

An exhibition at the Washington County Museum brings the imaginative artifacts of 11 steampunk artists into the gallery space

By MICHAEL SPROLES

The underground science fiction movement of steampunk has been steaming full speed ahead into the public eye since the 1980s, in books, movies, video games, music videos, and much more. For both fans and the unfamiliar, the Washington County Museum’s exhibit Steampunk: An Art Invitational allows the opportunity to browse works from regional artists that incorporate technology and aesthetic designs inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery.

The exhibition, which continues through August 30, combines real museum artifacts with the artwork of talented tinkerers, costume designers and award-winning artists from the Tualatin Valley and across the Pacific Northwest. Some have been featured on Oregon Art Beat and Steampunk’d, a reality television series that features crafters and designers who specialize in steampunk creations.

ArtsWatch talked with three of the exhibition’s artists – Cherie Savoie Tintary, C. Morgan Kennedy, and Steve La Riccia – about their work and steampunk in general.

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Cherie Savoie Tintary’s “Deaux Ciseaux,” which translates to “Two Scissors,” features her daughter, Devin, donning steampunk attire. Photo courtesy of the artist

Tintary – a photographer and hairdresser who lives in Forest Grove – developed an interest in the retro-futuristic fashion of the genre in 2010 at San Diego Comic-Con, one of the largest conventions on the West Coast. “I’d definitely heard of the term before, but then I saw this group called the League of S.T.E.M. walking around in steampunk regalia, and I was immediately inspired – they were mixing Victorian fashion with a ‘mad scientist’ aesthetic and gadgetry” she said. “I was studying photography at Chaffey College [in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.] and began a body of work for our 2011 student invitational show featuring models that I helped outfit and style in steampunk fashion.”

Some of Tintary’s photos were published in Victoriana Lady Lisa’s International Steampunk Fashions, and in 2011, 2012, and 2013, she attended Gaslight Gathering, a popular yearly weekend event in San Diego in which costumers, makers, artists, and aficionados gather to immerse themselves in everything steampunk. During her last visit she spoke on a panel about Victorian photography processes such as wet plate collodion, which was invented in 1851, and how it fits into the genre.

“For me, steampunk is so much more the gears and goggles,” she said. “It’s a genre where you can let your creativity flow; you can use a giant spoon as your weapon of choice or wear a mirror-embellished helmet that doubles as a disco ball at night during the dance party. I like how anything goes.”

Tintary put some of her own clothing on loan to the museum for last year’s Ladies in the Valley, an exhibit in which Washington County residents and visitors were able to see original dresses, accessories, sewing machines, advertisements, photographs, and other trinkets from the Victorian world of fashion. When she heard that a steampunk show was in the works, submitting her art was a no-brainer, and she gladly dressed people up for the photo booth on its opening night.

One of her photos in the exhibit features her daughter, Devin, standing in front of a 1965 Airstream in steampunk attire. The title is Deux Ciseaux, French for “two scissors.” “I also created new work for the show,” she said. “I usually see a costume or something I own, and that’s the start of my artistic process. I’m very into antiques; anything old, really.”

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C. Morgan Kennedy’s “Alice in Wonderland” series also includes a Mad Hatter and Joker mashup. Photo courtesy of the artist

Kennedy, who lives in Bethany, is a mechanical engineer, MBA, and technical product marketing manager. She’s always been fascinated by anything with an engine, gears, and moving parts. While many associate steampunk solely with the Victorian era, other artists, including Kennedy, use the genre to develop narratives in other periods of history. “I tend to think of steampunk as an aesthetic that overlays a genre,” she said. “For example, there are Wild West and steampunk cowboys, airship pirates, and aether powered robots. I’ve been working on a novel that combines steam and aether powered devices with the Underground Railroad.”

The steampunk genre can be useful in terms of creating effective critiques of class and colonialism. Nearly two years ago, author Nisi Shawl released Everfair, a neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium’s disastrous and genocidal colonization of the Congo if the native populations had had the chance to develop airships and other steam technology to help them fight back against the brutal, anti-black violence of King Leopold II’s administration.

“I started seriously producing art in 2003, and the main reason I started painting was because I was overwhelmingly frustrated by the popular images of African-Americans I found when I was looking for low-cost art for my first apartment,” Kennedy recalled.

She usually works with acrylic and paper, but also enjoys incorporating found objects, craft elements, and vintage images. Her newest piece, Wildflower, features melted crayons and beeswax to adhere dried flowers to the canvas. “I kind of stumbled into being included in the show. I produced an Alice in Wonderland series of mixed media collages for the Clockwork Rose Tea Emporium in Beaverton. They catered the show opening, and somehow during the planning for the show, the owner’s husband delivered four of my pieces along with the tea room’s Leaning Tower of Tea Cups piece,” she said. “Then I added Tart and Why So Serious?, a Mad Hatter and Joker mashup, to the show, too.”

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A combination of a 1990s Apple Macintosh computer and a 1897 Remington Standard Model 7 Typewriter, Steve La Riccia’s “Wozniak’s Conundrum” is a fully-functioning computer that museum visitors can interact with. Photo courtesy of the artist

La Riccia, a Eugene artist, has been known for 30 years for his painterly SX-70 Polaroid manipulated photographic work. He’s produced Eugene’s Salon des  Refusés exhibition since 1991, and has been the coordinator for the New Zone Arts Collective, an alternative nonprofit art gallery, for the last 16 years.

After Polaroid’s 2008 announcement that it would discontinue its production of SX-70 film, La Riccia – who had a background in vacuum tube based television electronics, building ultralight flying machines, collecting old and odd mechanical devices, and building a knowledge of history and science – believed it was time for a change. In 2010 Farnsworth’s Dilemma, his first interactive assemblage, was exhibited. It was made with items from every decade of the 20th century, and admirers began to note similarities between the work and the steampunk genre. “I had no idea what that was, so I ended up doing some research, and then continued to assemble things,” he said. “A lot of folks say to me that what’s different about my work is that it’s interactive.”

Now, after he’s devoted years to assembling technical marvels, putting them into tours and competitions, and featuring them on his website Steamworks Research & Design Labs, several of La Riccia’s contraptions are on display at the museum’s exhibit. One of them is Wozniak’s Conundrum, an electric- and steam-powered interactive assemblage that combines a 1990s Apple Macintosh computer with an 1897 Remington Standard Model 7 Typewriter. The result? A fully functional computer, complete with a Morse code telegraph key converted into a working mouse, and a 56K dial-up external modem made from telephone parts used for online operations.

“As a kid, I grew up during the space race, and I’ve always been into old, mechanical things and science fiction,” La Riccia said. “I prefer contraptions that are kinetic – I like to try and find a way to put these things together, like a puzzle.”

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The museum’s executive director, Pam Vorachek, said the team was thrilled to bring a collection of steampunk works into the space, noting that the genre is full of creativity and innovation, and something that people of all different ages, with different interests, can enjoy and connect to.

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  • Steampunk: An Art Invitational continues through August 30 at the Washington County Museum, 17677 Northwest Springville Road, Portland. Hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays.
  • Steampunk exhibit artists: C. Morgan Kennedy, Shannon Breeton, Cherie Savoie Tintary, Rose Tursi, Jessica R. Van Hulle, Chuck Dolence, JW Kinsey, Steve LaRiccia, Daniel Westlind, Daniel McGovern, Charles Mason III
  • Art will be for sale

 

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