In an article titled “Steampunk 101,” G. D. Falksen defines steampunk as follows: “In three short words, Steampunk is Victorian science fiction. Here, ‘Victorian’ is not meant to indicate a specific culture, but rather references to a time period and an aesthetic: the industrialized nineteenth century.” In “The Art of Steampunk,” Art Donovan writes, “Steampunk creations may be mechanical, sculptural, or purely decorative. The designs may be practical or completely fanciful. Whatever the application, the art celebrates a time when new technology was produced.” Both these definitions suggest that steampunk artists are free to make things up. Still, since steampunk clearly celebrates an industrialized time, the pressure seems to be there to make the technology “real” somehow.
I’ve been doing gothic horror T-shirts and art prints for several years now. Drawing 19th-century hearses and antebellum mansions has led me into deeper exploration of the 19th century, and the Victorian and Edwardian periods in particular. Just recently I’ve been learning about Lillie Langtry, who might be the best remembered of the Victorian-Edwardian “professional beauties” in England. A “professional beauty” did not need to be high born or aristocratic, nor necessarily a mistress to a wealthy or high-born man. She was simply a beauty who had caught the attention of influential people. A “PB” attended all the best society parties and was drawn, painted, and photographed by every notable artist who could get her to agree to a sitting. She received elegant free clothes from top designers who wanted her to spread the good word about them. Likenesses of her were printed up and purchased by the public, and news of her latest whereabouts was on everyone’s lips. Lillie Langtry was the mistress of King Edward VII (with the queen’s knowledge) and counted among her friends Oscar Wilde, James McNeill Whistler, Sarah Bernhardt, and many other artists as well as nobles. She was known as “the Jersey Lily” because she was born on the island of Jersey, where such a flower actually grew.
Because of my growing interest in Victorian times, I’ve been doing almost as much reading and looking at old photographs as drawing. History gives us subject matter if we simply want to make portraits or re-create scenes, and great food for thought if we want to be more imaginative.
When I discuss this with friends, it’s right at this point that they say, “You know, steampunk is really big right now.” See how a discussion of Victorian times can automatically make the mind leap to steampunk?
Yes, I know steampunk is really big! My husband and I have even started getting into it ourselves. We both own Victorian-style clothes. A few years ago, Daniel (a set designer who is great at building all kinds of things) constructed a steampunk “backpack” with a light-up swirling device, and won a prize for it at a costume party. He started buying books about building steampunk devices and sharing them with me.
It was when we started reading about this marriage of mechanics and art that I realized something about steampunk: It defies the old saying that “anyone who can read can cook.” To create the most meaningful steampunk art, you have to be a real inventor, with not only imagination and a love of history, but also technical knowledge and skill. Or you have to know enough about science to be able to create believable Victorian-themed science fiction.
There are many makers of beautiful steampunk accessories who attach jewels, ribbons, and chains to skeleton keys and old watch gears. I love the pair of key earrings I have; they don’t open the lock to an old steamer trunk (to my knowledge) or do anything else except look pretty, but that’s the function of a pair of earrings anyway. There are also artists who create the surface of an imaginary device that really looks as if it could work, by cleverly arranging pipes and wires that snake in and out, lights that light up, and antique switches and knobs–but with no actual machine underneath, except perhaps an iPhone, if they’ve made an iPhone cover. I imagine works like these would all fit the definition of “decorative steampunk.”
The more technologically advanced steampunk artists make things that really work, ranging from personal computers to cars. They might not invent them from the ground up, but they know how to apply old technology to new in a way that functions (such as replacing a contemporary working computer keyboard with antique typewriter keys, or finding a way to use old-fashioned steam power in a car).
And then there are artists like me, who draw or paint Victorian revival imagery but aren’t really mechanical-minded. I’d much rather draw a picture of a damsel in distress tied to railroad tracks than reinvent the steam-powered train. So, if I pursue steampunk, I’ll mainly pursue the human drama of the 19th-century industrialized world. But does that count as steampunk? I’m really not sure.
One of my favorite places to look at steampunk inventions is http://steampunkworkshop.com, which shows how a number of fascinating steampunk works of art are made, step by step. (The Clockwork Steampunk Stratocaster might be my favorite.) For a great source of news about the latest in all things steampunk, visit http://tor.com/tags/steampunk. Great books about steampunk art include “The Steampunk Bible” by Jeff VanderMeer et al., which discusses the history of the steampunk movement, and “The Art of Steampunk” by Art Donovan, featuring 17 fantastic steampunk artists from around the world. Both are available at Amazon.
Finally, you must visit YouTube to see the hilarious “Just Glue Some Gears On It (And Call It Steampunk)” video by Sir Reginald Pikedevant, Esq. It’s all about what we DON’T want to do if we mean business–just glue some gears on. Or draw pictures of things we don’t know anything about. Or even copy someone else’s work and change one or two small details, which can legally squeak by copyright infringement but still infringe.
Meanwhile, I hope someone opens a Steampunk Technical Institute one day. It would ideally offer courses in art, 19th- and early 20th-century history and literature, physics and other pertinent sciences, computer science, electronics, metalworking, woodworking, glassblowing…and, of course, fashion design.