Steampunk /steem-pungk/ n. & adj. *n. 1. a person, literary subgenre or aesthetic influenced by Victorian-era Britain and often incorporating gizmos, gadgets and other anachronistic or futuristic technologies, innovations and/or imaginings from alternative realities, especially those involving steam power. 2. a goth who wears brown and has a sense of humor. 3. an old-timey, DIY lifestyle often involving chickens and gardening whilst wearing brass goggles. 4. a fan of Jules Verne, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling and/or Michael Moorcock who dresses up at Comic-Con or steampunk conventions. *adj. 1. denoting steampunk and its associations.
Nancy and James Hay say they’re striking while the steampunk iron is hot. The two are helping program and promote the Gaslight Gathering, the first-ever southern California steampunk convention, happening at the Town & Country Hotel in Mission Valley May 6 through 8.
“Steampunk has been around since ’87,” says James, wearing a mad-scientist, Victorian-era costume complete with brass goggles and a futuristic-looking time-travel watch. “But it was just kind of a low-lying thing—not really a big part of science fiction. Then, I eventually heard about the first steampunk convention, and I went, ‘Oh, OK, when did it become a movement, and why the heck didn’t anyone tell me?’”
The couple knew the steampunk zeitgeist was strong when talk of it left the fan sites and entered the mainstream. Locally, there was the steampunk art show at the Oceanside Museum of Art and a steampunk-themed fund-raiser at Sushi Performance & Visual Art in East Village, so they figured it was a good time for a convention in San Diego.
The affair will include how-to panels on things like making your own carpet bag and designing vintage shoe coverings, plus literary talks, a masked ball, concerts and tea time.
“Making this an annual convention is the aim,” Nancy says. “And as long as Time magazine doesn’t put steampunk on the cover, then we’re probably OK, because once that happens, it means the thing has peaked.”
Greyshade Estate: Ingred & Eric Chamberlin
Eric and Ingred Chamberlin recently bought a dilapidated East County home previously owned by human smugglers.
“It was a fixer,” laughs Ingred, a pretty antique watch dangling from a chain around her neck.
“Now, we at least have a working toilet,” adds Eric, who sports full muttonchops and is wearing a black hat with a feather, wire-rim glasses, a vest with a visible watch chain and pinstriped pants.
It took a year to get the house to the point where the couple could move in and begin what they consider one of the most ambitious steampunk undertakings to date. For the Chamberlins, “steampunk” is more than mere fandom, it’s a relatively new, emerging subculture, and it’s quickly becoming a way of life.
“I have six chickens as of last week,” Ingred explains. “For us, [steampunk] gets back into that whole, What did we leave behind, and is it worth reconsidering? thing. It brings up permaculture and the question, Am I really all that thrilled about buying carrots in a plastic bag from the grocery store when I could be growing my own?”
The Chamberlins jokingly refer to their home and steampunk-as-a-lifestyle project as “Greyshade Estate.” And while part of the transformation will simply involve adding steampunk décor—they have an old industrial lamp in the living room, and they’re looking for an antique Victorian couch—mostly they’ll be refurbishing older items and living in a DIY, old-fashioned way.
“We’re definitely not just painting big gears on our walls,” Eric says.
This isn’t the first steampunk experiment for the Chamberlins. Two years ago, when the San Diego steampunk community was still small, they started Chrononaut, a monthly steampunk club night at Queen Bee’s in North Park, where Eric becomes Professor Greyshade as he spins everything from Abney Park to Beats Antique.
“I love how steampunk pulls together everything from music to chickens,” he laughs.
The maker: Kim Hutsell
Kim Hutsell’s hands are covered in black grease as he sits in front of his toolbox and puts the finishing touches on a shiny brass hand grenade, just one of his steampunk creations.
“I just like making things,” he says. “I like making things that have no apparent purpose. Half the fun of this is making up the stories that go with these things.”
Hutsell is on the “Imagineering committee” for the upcoming Gaslight Gathering, and part of his job is to help set the scene. Hidden under a cloth behind him is a beautiful flying-chair contraption he calls a Dirigible Inspection Service Craft and it comes with a full back-story. The design and details of the machine are precise and impressive.
“This sort of design has a style, a class and a grace,” he says, “and I think that’s what attracts people to it.”
The costumer: Lady Mari
Lady Mari speaks with a lovely South African accent and feels quite comfortable dressed in full Victorian-era garb.
A former trapeze aerialist, she’s the gal behind the San Diego Costume Walkabout, a wandering flock of costumed folks who make appearances at things like antique shows, and she makes modernized Victorian-era and steampunk hats and sells them on Etsy.
“I call myself a Hollywood Victorian,” she explains, adding that she has only one foot in the steampunk movement because she’s more into the elegant dresses than the futuristic gizmos and gadgets.
“When I put on a costume, I get into character,” she continues. “Let’s just say my character loves to travel and loves to drink Pepsi in a champagne glass.”
The artists: Jeff Steorts & Winona Cookie
Jeff Steorts and Winona Cookie didn’t originally consider themselves steampunk artists.
“But now I call myself steammunk,” Steorts jokes, explaining that, especially during the last few years, the word “steampunk” has come up when people refer to his found-object assemblages, metal and woodwork. “It looks steampunk, but I’m into yoga and meditation, and I love incorporating a spiritual message or a spiritual dimension into my sculptures.”
Steampunks, he says, are drawn to his work because he tends to use repurposed materials like antique clocks and compasses.
“You know, they kind of drafted me, too,” says Ramona Szczerba, who sells her vintage collage work and shadowboxes on Etsy under the name “Winona Cookie” and writes a full fictional back-story for every piece she makes. “I just kept getting emails saying, ‘Oh, I love your steampunk art.’ People really seemed to take to it, so it kept encouraging me to go that route.”
The music | Steam Powered Giraffe
If you’ve witnessed this musical pantomime troupe playing in Balboa Park, you’ve seen only a low-key version of what they do. The park is their sandbox. It’s where the steam-powered robot characters try things out and experiment.
Steam Powered Giraffe will be doing a full performance with a backup band at the upcoming Gaslight Gathering, but they don’t consider themselves solely a steampunk band. Their music swoops from vaudevillian to rock, and their show is well-rehearsed theatrical performance art.
The steampunk crowd has adopted Steam Powered Giraffe, though, partly because of their penchant for imaginative storytelling and the steampunk-style makeup and costumes.
“I guess we’re fine that we can fit into a fad because it’s pretty popular right now,” says Dave Bennett, aka the robot, Spine.