1.- The interviewee
Born and raised in New York City, Art Donovan is an artist, designer and museum curator with a lengthy career in the arts. From 1980 to 1990 he was the senior designer and head illustrator for Donald Deskey Associates, NYC. Since 1990, he has specialized in hand crafting custom lighting and illuminated sculptural objects for his company, Donovan Design, with the support of her business partner and wife Leslie Tarbell Donovan as President of Donovan Design and owner of Staging Places.
2.- Steampunk Art
Q.- Correct me if I am wrong, but I think that you came across Steampunk by accident in 2007. It combines many of your interests: science fact, speculative fiction, early sci-fi films, history, antique technologies, Jules Verne novels… What does Steampunk mean for you? Do you have your own definition?
Art Donovan (AD).- Personally, Steampunk is an artistic license- a freedom to approach a discipline, such a lighting design, in ways that would never previously have been accepted in the industries of interior design or architecture. In the very recent past, if one had produced a steampunk-looking design, it would have been solely considered an assemblage or sculptural work. But since the genre has gone “viral” among so many designers, it can now be considered a viable alternative. In architecture, interior design and product design, all involved were on the lookout for “the next big thing”- the new style that would up end everything before it. I believe this has actually happened. By re-tooling the visual language of the 19th century and combining it with contemporary sensibilities, Steampunk, in all of its varied forms, has been the first style to challenge the tyranny of contemporary modernism in many decades. I don’t have a strict definition of Steampunk, as the genre is still evolving. But because of the deep and historic well from which Steampunk draws its inspiration, I believe that it will prove to be a most robust and durable style of art and design.
Q.- Do you think that it could be considered a subculture at present?
AD.- In late 2013, there is still a very strong ‘underground’ element about Steampunk artists and enthusiasts. “Underground” being understood here as a movement that is not universally known or not generally understood in common terms.
Q.- IBM predicted some months ago that Steampunk is about to break into the mainstream. Do you see this happening? Which opportunities and threatens would arise from this phenomena?
AD. -In the previous three years or so, mass market retailers have attempted to sell Steampunk-like objects of one sort or another, but they always seem to be false starts or attempts. When they take Steampunk objects out of the context of their best venues, such as conventions and art exhibitions and place them in a big box retail environment, the objects look misplaced- almost forlorn. I am sure the retailers will continue to be influenced by Steampunk design, but they create these offerings without any passion… and it shows! Many retailers see Steampunk as an opportunity to “re-dress” their usual product line with the hopes of infusing it with something new and exciting.
Q.- In Steampunk, you ‘try to create an evocative, singular statement’ and, as you know, our motto is ‘True Singularity’. Decimononic has the purpose of empowering individuals by reminding them they are unique and they have the potential to become who they want to be. Has Steampunk the potential to put into value the singularity of every single person?
AD.- If one stays true to their inner creative vision, relentlessly evaluating their own work for uniqueness, I can’t see any reason why not. (That is, if I understand the question correctly :))
Q.- May we link this with the educational power of Steampunk? It seems that some English and North American educational centers are spreading Steampunk in order to improve the students’ knowledge about designing and operating mechanical objects…
AD.- Yes. And I noticed that exact thing during the Oxford Exhibition. There were teachers who attended the Oxford show and were so excited about the possibility of engaging their students with something new that they began preparing Steampunk courses in Northern England for Middle School students. Classes such as metal smithing, basic welding, wood working, sewing and even gear ratio courses for creating clockwork mechanisms were planned to be offered. This was unique considering the long absence of these kind of “shop” courses that were offered in schools.
Q.- And what about its commitment with sustainability? It seems that the Steampunk aficionados fight programmed obsolescence and promote repurpose and reuse of discarded items, like we do at Decimononic.
AD.- Sustainability is deeply ingrained in Steampunk art and design.. Since it was borne of the Maker Movement , Steampunk is by definition the re-using, re-applying and re-tooling of the antique- both physically, temporally and aesthetically.
Q.- You were the curator of one of the best known Steampunk events of all times, the world’s first museum exhibition of Steampunk art at the Museum of the History of Science at the University of Oxford in England. This exhibition was an amazing success, encompassing the work of 18 artists from around the world and summoning 70,000 visitors. May we expect new exhibitions curated for you in the near future?
AD.- I am working on three at the moment: in the U.S., South America and Asia… which is actually one of the reasons that my interview responses were so tardy 🙂 (apologies)
Q.- There is no doubt that you have a wide perspective on the artistic activity of the Steampunk community worldwide. Which differences do you find comparing the different national scenes?
AD.- Each country, each culture, each geographic identity and history creates a proprietary Steampunk vision. In there lies the strength of the genre: its’ ability to cross every border and culture.
Q.- In any case, how would you describe Steampunk jewelry? Is it adapting to the different cultural roots all over the world?
AD.- For me, personally, the most successful Steampunk jewelry is informed by 19th century antique technical devices- which is still the gold standard for any Steampunk object (no pun). Jewelry is unique as an art form because it has two distinct faces: Fine Jewelry ( precious metals and gems) and Costume (Art) Jewelry. The latter has much more room for personal expression and creativity because its inherent value is determined solely by its design.
Q.- Which materials suit Steampunk jewelry? Is there a place for Steampunk fine jewelry?
AD.- Materials take a back seat to form, volume, detail and geometry. Whether the jewelry medium is found objects, materials from the natural world or newly-tooled materials is of no consequence. As in all art endeavors, vision trumps medium. As far as Fine Jewelry, perhaps it would simply involve the use of gold over brass, but the Steampunk-ness of the object would be the most important element.
Q.- Would you dare to synthesize Steampunk jewelry with a single word?
AD.- Would not if I could 🙂
Q.- As a creator, what challenges do you think Steampunk jewelry designers face? Do you have any piece of advice for jewelers like us?
AD.- Challenges? Same-ness, probably. Look-alike pieces, for certain. Clockwork gears and store bought details are all fine, but to incorporate materials and details in a new and unique way is the biggest challenge- and that goes for any artist. Ring, Cuff, Bangle, Earring, Necklace and……. perhaps a new application!
Q.- Art, your creations are part of prestigious public and private collections around the globe, why have you been focusing on sculptural illuminated art? Have you ever considered the possibility of designing jewelry? We would love to see the result of your Middle Eastern influences applied to this field.
AD.- I have been designing lighting, full time for 23 years. Steampunk lighting was a natural form of expression for me.
Q.- What do you think about the rise of 3D printing technology? Will it be a game changer?
AD.- For some artists, I suppose. But human creativity is at the core of any successful endeavor.
A 3D printer, just like a hammer, a violin, a drill press or a tractor, is just a tool.
And a tool is nothing without creative intention, vision and skill. It’s merely a means to an end.
Remember, YOU guide the tool. The Tool does not guide you!
Q.- Thank you so much for your time and kind attention, just one last question to bring this interview to an end. Is there anything else you would like to add?
AD.- Yes. Never lose the joy of creativity and never be crushed by any criticism.
The pleasure is all mine, Jose. Thank you.
Disclaimer.- The opinions or statements expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Decimononic.
3.- Next interviewee!
Best known as Spiky, Guillaume Muller is the mysterious genius behind master works like Paleblack and Carnival Symposium. He is not only well known within the French Steampunk community, but also internationally due to his creations and collaborations with artists such as G. D. Falksen. Cinema, videogames, music…
Remember that all the published interviews are available for your delight: ‘Steampunk jewelry tonight with…’ the brief interviews series by Decimononic.