Building the The Dream


This piece just exploded out of my head one evening while I was working on ‘Oculus‘ in my shed. It was a while back, but I’m pretty sure there were copious amounts of vodka involved, because it always seems the drink brings out the true dark side of my inner artist.

I had reached a point working on Oculus that I just didn’t know what I wanted from it. It was pissing me off. I thought it was stupid. I was having trouble with the solder joints. It just wasn’t going right, and I was terribly vexed. So I sat down on the drum throne I used as a stool in my shed, and feeling utterly dejected, I did what any self-respecting artist does when blocked.. I drank.

I was just staring off into the cluttered corners of my shed and fuming, when I spied a plastic skull that I’d used as a halloween prop for many years. I had a little flash… skulls and steampunk go hand and hand, right? What if..

Well, a couple hours (and a great many drinks) later, I had the basic sculpture knocked out. I don’t know where this thing came from, but it spoke to me as I was putting it together. It told me that it had been enslaved by corporate greed and was being forced to produce work long after it’s death. A single solder tear hung from it’s cold staring electronic eye, which beheld only a sea of cubicles. A window cut into its head, however, revealed a dream of the beach, and of freedom and happiness.

I’m sure the whole corporate greed angle came from my resentment from spending 20 years in the corporate world when I should have been out building art, only to receive a big fat layoff in the end for my loyalty. They say inspiration rises from adversity, and well.. I had been feeling pretty adverse. I’m not bitter though. Really.

I look at my time in service of the corporate machine as a school of life experience. Some people are made for it, some aren’t. I never did fit in, but I made a lot of really great friends and learned a lot about life, so it wasn’t all bad. It did however leave me with a big hole in my soul, and a pretty bad taste in my mouth for the way people act when money is involved. These feelings are part of why I’m so drawn to steampunk art, it’s the leftover, used up detritus of society… yesterday’s gold.. useless to the people who have moved on to the bigger, better deal, but magical to those of us just a little off-kilter. I find that I relate to it.. I feel like a bit of used-up detritus myself sometimes.

This piece sat for months as it looks in the first photo up there – untouched. Quite a few months after that fateful night in the shed, my better half Christina and I decided to condense our 10-year plan of living in the Caribbean to a 5 year plan. We were both out of work, and burned out with corporate society. We sold just about everything we had, rented out the house in Orlando and moved to Key West to spend a few years learning to sail, and acclimating before escaping the world on a sailboat.

This of course threw a huge wrench into my work-shop situation. We were now living in a one bedroom apartment, with no yard. Not having a lawn and yard to maintain is fantastic, but I really miss my workshop. I was worried that I’d lose my inspiration to work on my pieces, let alone have space to work on them. Well that fear was unfounded, as I find myself even more inspired now. I built a small bench out on the back porch, and do a lot of my work on the kitchen counter. Hey, it’s granite.. not like I’m gonna hurt it much… You’ll notice in the background of a lot of these photos the mess that Christina has to put up with in the house. Someday soon, I hope to reach a point where I can rent out a small garage somewhere, but for now.. the kitchen is the place.

One day it just hit me.. I had to finish this thing. Off I went to Home Depot, which is a lovely 20 minute bike ride from our apartment. There’s an Ace hardware that’s much closer, but Ace.. sorry buddy.. you’re prices are a little out of line.. especially for someone with no job. I have to admit though, if you’re ever in Key West, hit the Strunk Ace Hardware on Eaton St.. it’s heavenly.. that is if you’re feeling rich.

The eye piece is simply some fittings with a lens soldered in the front. I wrapped the edges of the glass with copper foil used in stained glass construction, and soldered that sucker in. An image of a cubicle farm is on a slide inside the barrel. You have to move back and forth while looking into it to focus on the the image, but that’s kinda cool.. it makes it feel a bit more interactive.

I mounted another transparency of a photo I took at the beach on the backside of a thick lens that I’d mounted to the bottom of a 2″ copper tube. I soldered a bunch of tiny brass pipes inside the tube, and attached a flange on the far end that I then hammered to match the contour of the skull. The solder joint on this and most of the pieces of this piece is pretty sloppy, but that’s intentional, I wanted it to look rough.

The slides are backlit by a few white LEDs.. nothing too fancy.

I added a few 6 gauge copper wires to the outside, two attaching to the skull with a couple of really cool copper connectors, and another which spirals around the back pipe, and attaches to the base with the same connectors.

I soldered a nice drip on the base right under the eye, so it looked as if the skull was crying.

The skull itself I wiped down with a red mahogany wood stain, then took a very small brush and painted the small cracks and drips onto it with the same stain. It took a week or so to stop being sticky, but it’s a much more realistic grunge color than I could have gotten with opaque paint.

So that’s about it.. it’s done..

I call this one The Dream, and it only took about 8 months…. hopefully all my sculptures won’t take this long, or it’s going to be forever before I can build up a decent body of work. My friend Jeff is visiting this weekend from Orlando, and I’m sending this back with him so he can photograph it for me. I’ll post the photos when he sends them to me.

I’m much happier with this piece than with my first piece – oculus. It’s still not quite right in a few places, but if I can get just a little better with each piece I make, I think I’ll be hitting all eight cylinders in no time.

Once again I feel as if I’ve given birth, and I’m happy to be done with it.. although I don’t think I’ll be quite so happy to let this one go as I was my first piece. I’m going to miss this one…


This is where it all started – Oculus

I had no idea what Steampunk was

I had never even heard of steampunk and I wasn’t really sure when I started working on this piece what exactly I was trying to achieve… It really just kind of grew from one idea to another. I spent damned close to half a year on it, mostly I think because I didn’t know where to take it design-wise. In all honesty, looking at it now…. I can’t really call it pure steampunk, it’s more like steamgrunge. Maybe Dieselpunk. Dieselgrunge? Eh.. whatever.

It all started back in the fall of ’08, when my good friend Jeff (who’s a very talented artist in his own right), invited me to his studio one night shortly after I had been laid off from my job of 16 years as a graphic artist. We drank some wine and commiserated on the general sorry state of things, then we drank some more wine. Well OK, I was drinking all the wine… Jeff was drinking beer. But that’s neither here nor there.

He told me was interested in expanding his art into the cast-glass medium, and asked if I’d be interested in a collaboration. HELL YES I said. I’d been pretty down in the dumps since being let go from my job, and the thought of doing something with my hands really struck home with me. More likely than not, he was intentionally throwing some gas on the guttering flame of my artistic libido, but whatever his intent, I hold him responsible for everything that followed!

I left his studio that night with a renewed interest in life. I spent the next couple months researching glass casting techniques, kilns, etc.. we talked of designs, we made molds, poured wax castings, etc.. in preparation for the day we would acquire a kiln and really kick-start things. It just wasn’t to be however, the economy worsened even more during this time to the point we couldn’t justify blowing huge bank on a glass kiln.. neither one of us was feeling very financially secure, and the glass project went into a holding pattern.

That was fine with me though, because the creative fire was re-kindled, and somewhere along the way, I tripped up and landed face first on the idea to build something out of copper.

I had this sheet of copper…

And it had sat around collecting dust for a few months before I finally decided to try to make something out of it. I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted, but I had an idea of some kind of Jules-Verne looking boiler in my head, so off I went. I started with a cylinder. The size was dictated by a piece of left-over 4″ PVC sewer pipe I had in my shed. I did a little math and got the circumference of a 4″ circle, then cut a piece of copper to that length by the hight I wanted it. I then began working the sheet into the inside of the pipe until I got it all in, and clamped the sheet to the inside of the pipe with vice grips.

Unfortunately I had no idea this would ever wind up on a blog or even not wind up in the garbage, so I never took photos at this early stage. Damnit… never fails.

I busted out my handy brazing torch and took off. I soldered the overlap inside the tube and let it cool down, then pulled it from the PVC pipe. Cool! It didn’t look too shabby! After cutting out a couple of circles for the end caps and soldering them on to the ends of my copper tube, I hit the wall…. I was pretty excited that I’d managed to get this far without burning my shed down or seriously injuring myself, but what now?

The little copper can I had made sat on the corner of my desk for a couple of weeks before I decided to open up Maya and see if I couldn’t find some inspiration in the 3D modeling world. I spent a few days putzing about, drawing concepts and modeling them… and finally came up with the 3D model you see below.

This is about the time I discovered the actual steampunk world on the net. Woah, talk about inspiration. I had been searching ebay for brass gears, because I wanted a gear or two inside the glass lens on the front, and the floodgates opened up right into the pleasure centers of my brain.

That discovery started an avalanche. I couldn’t get enough. I spent many a loooong night on the net reading and taking in everything I could concerning steampunk. I was floored, amazed…. totally blown away. It was and still is like a drug to me, I just can’t get enough of it.

Along with the realization that there was already a huge community of people immersed in this world out there came a lot of artistic self-doubt. I was just building this thing on a lark, and now.. if I finished it and threw it out to the world, it would be judged next to all other creations in that genre. And there are MANY great pieces out there. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.. would people laugh at me? Would I suck at it?

Ultimately I made it through all of those dark days, and realized that I was doing this because I loved it, and even if I wasn’t a master at steampunk sculpture from day one, that a journey begins with just one step. So I picked up my torch and pliers and forged on.

Coming down the home stretch..

I wound up finding a huge 1/4″ thick sheet of copper at a local army surplus store and bought that sucker up for the base. I bought a metal blade for my radial arm saw, and discovered that with metal this thick, you made many, many passes lowering the blade each pass to cut it.. you do NOT try to just plow through it like you would with a piece of wood..

Also, I’ll tell you what, trying to solder pipes to a sheet of copper that thick takes a LONG time because copper is such a great thermal conductor.. you gotta get almost that whole sheet hot enough to solder to. Perservearnace paid off, and after about 20 minutes of blasting at it with the torch in my shed in the dead of summer…. the solder flowed. I think I lost a few pounds on that maneuver.

I exchanged the blue glass ball in the photo up there for a ball made of selenite crystal because selenite is a great transmitter of light. It’s like natures own fiber optic. A 3 watt LED light inside the base shines up through a blue dichroic filter into the globe, giving it a really cool blue glow. Light scattered about inside the base back-lights a gear soldered into a frame built behind the front lens.

I bought some liver of sulfer and used it with a wash to patina the outside. It turned completely black. I spent the better part of an entire afternoon with steel wool removing areas of the patina to give it an old and worn look. In hindsight, and as I have done with my subsequent projects, I’d not use the liver of sulfur at all, and just let the copper patina itself naturally. It looks so much better that way.

Also I sprayed this whole thing with clear lacquer, which I won’t do again. The lacquer destroys the effect of the metal, and it winds up looking plastic. Lesson learned.

I built a base from some old oak I had floating around in the shed, stained it with cherry stain, and used polyurethane on it – another thing I’m no longer doing with wood bases.. it makes them too fake looking.

The switch on the front is yet another thing I hate about it, it’s anachronistic to the design if that makes any sense.. it’s just out of the style too much.

So what did I learn?

All in all I’m happy with this piece. Mostly just more happy that it’s finally finished than anything else. If I was to do this again, there are a great many things I’d change, as there are quite a few things I don’t like about it. But the great thing about art is, you don’t have to go back and fix things that are wrong, just keep on truckin’. It’ll always be my first, so in that regard, it warrants a special place in my heart.

Currently it’s sitting in the art gallery where Jeff works, he was kind enough to shoot these photos for me, since I’ve been out of a good camera for a few years.

Where it ends up, only time will tell….