Back to the Future: Steampunk Merges Magic with Machinery

“Pachydermos” by Tom Banwell.

By Annette Hinkle

When reading “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” imaginative fans of novelist Jules Verne can’t help but fill in the details of his descriptions of fantastical inventions by using their own fertile imaginations, melding industrial era machinery with the Victorian style popular when Verne lived and worked.

Just as Art Deco design spoke to pared down optimism, simplicity and streamlined technologies as a way forward in the midst of the Great Depression, so too does Steampunk evoke a similar period of creativity and ingenuity in the 19th century — one largely inspired by writers like Vern, Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells. In the case of Steampunk, it’s a style that melds technological advancement with the high style of the plush Victorian era. But unlike Art Deco, Steampunk was never a true design of its time — instead, it was an invention that came much later, courtesy of artists and fans of the genre.

This weekend, the Southampton Arts Center (SAC) opens “Odd Beauty: The Techno-Eccentric World of Steampunk,” an exhibition of sculptural works, machinery and artwork that embraces the optimistic spirit embodied in the style. The exhibit is curated by Southampton resident Art Donovan and it comes to the SAC after premiering at Oxford University’s Museum of the History of Science in 2009. In 2014, the exhibit traveled to South Korea’s Seoul National Museum.

For the SAC exhibition, Donovan has assembled some 70 objects, artworks and costumes that evoke the Steampunk style. Many of the artists taking part are heavy hitters in the world of the genre and include costume designer Paige Gardner, as well as two world masters of horology — Eric Freitas and Vianney Halter.

“Halter won the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève three times. It’s the academy award for watchmakers,” explains Donovan.

Also on view will two works that pay tribute to inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla created by none other than Clayton Orehek, the neon artist who recreated the iconic Sag Harbor Cinema sign when it was replaced in 2005. In conjunction with the exhibit, there will be gallery talks, panel discussions, film screenings and even a performance by musician Thomas Dolby, a professor of the Arts at John Hopkins University.

Donovan, a lighting designer by trade, has constructed several Steampunk objects himself (his work will also be on view in the exhibit). A former master of the Mason’s Wamponamon Lodge 437 in Sag Harbor, during a recent visit to the lodge, housed on the second floor of the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum, Donovan showed off four Steampunk lighting fixtures he created for the Masons. Each pendant style fixture is embedded with Masonic imagery and symbols related to the lodge.

While Steampunk design evokes the spirit of the turn of last century, Donovan notes the term didn’t exist until the late 1980s. It was coined by science fiction writer K.W. Jeter and was a play on “cyberpunk,” the term used to describe dystopian societies where technology runs amok and was inspired by movies like “Blade Runner.”

“Icharus 2” by Todd Sloane.

“Steampunk is the first art genre to be created entirely on the internet,” explains Donovan. “In cubism or impressionism, artists lived in close proximity to one another and would argue to hammer out a new style. But Steampunks, either artists or fans who dress in costume, meet on the internet.”

They also tend to be on the younger side.

“With Steampunk, young people have been given a magic key to looking at the past with new eyes — all the way back to da Vinci’s mechanical drawings,” he says. “It’s old styling, with a new visual foundation.”

Donovan explains that his own discovery of the style dates to early 2007.

“I discovered this beautiful computer keyboard designed by Richard Nagy with round mahogany nickel keys and hand calligraphy for the letters and brass scroll work,” he said. “It looked like something from the 19th century, but it was a fully functioning keyboard.”

“He did more than make a pretty device. He reintroduced us to the romance and tactile sensation of using a mechanical device,” adds Donovan.

In the years since Steampunk’s invention, it has developed a loyal following of aficionados and is now found not just in art, but industrial design as well.

“Pretty much any restaurant you go into now uses filament bulbs and lighting fixtures with gears,” says Donovan, who adds that BMW is now producing Steampunk interiors for its car, while Cirque de Soleil’s newest show, “Kurios — Cabinet of Curiosities,” is pure Steampunk as well.

“It evokes the great Industrial Revolution when people were introduced to the steam engine,” explains Donovan. “Early engines were seen as miraculous, modern and cutting edge. But Steampunk also has this literary twist, an imaginary past. What if the Victorians had access to our modern devices? Would they be mechanical or ornate? Driven by gears or not?

“It’s a back and forth of ties and styles. Retro-futurism with a lot more romantic twists.”

“Odd Beauty: The Techno-Eccentric World of Steampunk” opens with a public reception at the Southampton Arts Center on Saturday, September 23 from 5 to 7 p.m. and runs through November 12. Participating artists are: Tom Banwell, David Barnett, Mike Cochran, Ian Crichton, Art Donovan, Dave Duros, Steve Erenberg, Cameron Forrest, Paige Gardner, Eric Freitas, Vianney Halter, Steve La Riccia, Vincent Mattina, Sam van Olffen, Clayton Orehek, Daniel Proulx, Saxon Reynolds, Filip Sawczuk, Todd Sloane, and Stephan J. Smith.

Saturday, October 7 is “A Day with Paige Gardner, Steampunk Costume Maker Extraordinaire” from noon to 5 p.m. in the galleries with a 5 p.m. talk.

On Sunday, October 8, Art Donovan offers a gallery tour of the exhibit at 1 p.m.

On Friday, October 13, at 7 p.m., SAC will screen the film “Tower to the People – Tesla’s Dream at Wardenclyffe Continues”

On Sunday, October 15, at 6 p.m., Thomas Dolby appears live for “She Blinded Me with Science: Talk and Live Musical Performance.” Tickets are $25.

Southampton Arts Center is located at 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton. For more information visit or call (631) 283-0967.