Copper in the Arts

October 2015

Capturing the Essence of Steampunk

By Nancy Ballou

Steampunk Blimp Unicorn Warship, by Ed Kidera was on display at the Steampunk retrospective in Bethlehem, PA. 

Photograph by Paul David

The Kemerer Museum of Decorative Arts in Bethlehem, PA just wrapped up a retrospective celebrating the Steampunk movement, featuring 10 of the most renown artists of the genre from around the globe. The exhibit gave a comprehensive view into this intriguing artform, including several events, workshops, artist talks and even a Steampunk fashion show throughout the 7-month-long show.  

Originated in the early 1800s, the popularity of the genre has been on the rise ever since the term was coined in 1987 by author Kevin Jeter to describe a genre of speculative fiction in which steam, not electricity, drove technological advancements. Since then, Steampunk has grown into a style and philosophy evident in fashion, jewelry, artwork, film, literature, interior design, architecture, even video games. The recently released movie Pan features a Steampunk flying ship as a form of transportation. Steampunk designers fuse antique, Victorian-style components with modern technology, often adding copper, brass, and other metal accents.

“I became intrigued with the idea of steampunk because two of our staffers are heavily into the genre,” says LoriAnn Wukitsch, Vice President and Managing Director of Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites. “We also had a newly relocated curator from NY, Daniella Romano, contact us about her passion for the subject. After we held a planning session, we decided to host a  two-gallery Steampunk exhibition.”

As guest curator of the exhibition, Romano  established a variety of themes including Navigation/Exploration, Science/Technology, Fashion, Time, Recreation, Military and the local Lehigh Valley area.

“This exhibit defines and illustrates the steampunk movement, revealing its impact on the future and in everyday life through a local lens to emphasize Lehigh Valley’s relevance, particularly in its industrial history and contemporary art scene,” she says. “Steampunk is a contemporary global counterculture movement that celebrates the Victorian era and translates its technology and material culture into fantasy and speculative futurism through fine art, literature, film, fashion and maker craft.”

Romano quickly went to work to find the country’s best Steampunk artists, curating pieces for the show.

LoriAnn WukitschLindsay Jancay, Curator, Historic Bethlehem Museum & Sites.

Photograph by Paul David

“I researched authoritative sources on steampunk and added my own perspective regarding the craft/handiwork and sustainability/material reuse,” she says. “We also borrowed from the National Museum of Industrial History, the Sigal Museum, and America on Wheels. The latter lent us a vintage penny farthing bicycle made of all metal and wood for our Transportation section. Quite the sportsman would have had to ridden it, with the most enviable thighs!”

The show featured several copper and brass artists, many considered leaders in the Steampunk genre.  

Brian Kesinger, a Los Angeles based artist who also works on animated films for Disney and Pixar, had several pieces in the exhibit. He says he was naturally drawn to the style of Steampunk.

“My work was heavily steeped in Steampunk long before I ever heard the word,” he says. His Victoria and Otto (a young lady and her octopus friend/butler) have become extremely popular. “I am inspired by many of the films I’ve worked on over the years, plus my love of gadgets and fantasy.” He created a Steampunk Darth Vader, a Steampunk Cobra Commander and a recruiting poster girl for Dirigible Corps, among other items.

Talented artist Ed Kidera from Baltimore, MD, said the Steampunk movement caught his attention because “it is a combination of science fiction and art that embraces steam-powered machinery.” He often uses cast-off, discarded items in his metal sculptures, many of which are still functional. His pieces reflect technology envisioned for more than 100 years, but still not technologically or economically viable. Polished brass metal Jet-Pak and Helmut sculptures were influenced by Buck Rogers and The Rocketeer. Also on display was his violin gun. It consists of an end stock made from wood of a real gun and a brass barrel for a futuristic ray-gun style weapon inside a violin case.

Steampunk FashionSteampunk fashion often includes brass and copper accents. 

Photograph by Paul David

Perhaps Kidera’s most impressive work is the metal dirigible, Unicorn Warship, an imaginary airship powered by heavy metal motors and utilizing brass fittings, designed as a dreadnaught of the air that was conceived a century ago. Included in the Military section of the exhibit, it is joined by samples of metals welded to World War II bomb casings suggesting an illusion of a fleet of fantasy vessels.

Steampunk street fashion reignites the love for “old fashioned” materials like brass, copper, wood and mechanical workings. Costumes with external metal corsets are often present in dystopian movies like The Hunger Games. On August 20, Historic Bethlehem combined its annual White Party with a Steampunk Fashion Show. There were 24 “Victorian-embellished garments” styled by Rose Ellen of Allentown’s vintage clothing company RC Moore for the Unique Individual. Guests were encouraged to make their own outfits with spiked, copper, brass and wood accoutrements for adornment. They were then allowed to walk the runway to display them.

As part of the exhibit, a watchmaker and photographer from Brooklyn, David Sokosh, taught a program in September for visitors to learn the anatomical ins and outs of watchmaking. Sokosh’s work, which has also appeared in The New York Times, was also on display as part of the exhibit. He spoke about his modern photography using old tintype technique and its relationship to steampunk.

“I was always interested in historic photo processes---I moved backwards from traditional printing to the mid-19th Century process of wet-plate collodion,” he says. “I’m a post-industrial person, living in a self-made, pre-modern world full of period objects of all kinds. I create unique pieces on metal which are often presented as objects to be held in the hand. I use this method almost exclusively now.”


Curator Lindsey Jancay walks us through the Steampunk exhibit.

Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites, 74 W. Broad Street, Suite 260, Bethlehem, PA, (610) 882-0450

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