This week, we are talking with Kyle Miller, an artist of memorable and celebrated artwork. I first met Kyle at the Victoria Steam Expo 2010 convention in Victoria, BC, where he had an amazing display of items ranging from a guitar amplifier to his iconic steampunk wings. We had a chance recently to chat about his work and what’s coming up this next year.
Airship Ambassador: Hi Kyle, thanks for joining us for this interview. You have constructed some amazingly creative works with an outstanding grade of quality woodwork. How did you gain that level of skill and experience?
Kyle Miller: No problem, thanks for having me! I really like interviews to be honest.
I’m actually educated as a cabinetmaker and furniture designer, and I’ve been apprenticing as a luthier (builder of stringed instruments) under the instruction of a good friend of mine (shout out to Veronica Merryfield!). Having the experience of formal instruction in building methods, design and layout, material selection (specifically exotic woods) and finishing techniques has been integral for me. I think the latter is actually what really stands out in my work though, as I finish all of my prop work and projects like I would finish a custom guitar or piece of fine furniture. Time consuming, but worth it. It makes a difference!
AA: Your choice of exotic hardwoods is definitely one thing that stands out for me in your work and it makes a lasting impact. What was your first steampunk project and what was the motivation behind it?
KM: My first real steampunk project, once I had my shop up and running, was actually my lap steel electric guitar, “The Artful Dodger”. Before I had my shop together, I was pretty limited to stuff I could make on the coffee table; extremely limited space and basically no tools.
AA: Generally, your work is functional art, not just today’s technology in yesteryear’s casing, but also non-tech items with a steampunk aesthetic. What factors guide you in your design and construction process?
KM: Well, I’ve always been a fan of kinetic sculpture. Anything that moves, changes, alters itself. Especially when those changes are brought on by a self-activated trigger like pulling down on a lever or rope. Designs obviously vary from project to project, so that process varies depending on complexity. It could be a very different approach than something that was comparably simple. Almost all of my work starts with a series of sketches. I think of a couple possibilities for a given work, and sketch them out as reference points for directions that I could take. Beyond these initial sketches though, I actually formally plan very little. My shop is filled with the equivalent of notes on restaurant napkins and scribbles in pocket sketchbooks.
Since I primarily work with wood, that actually dictates a lot in the way of construction. Wood is an extremely versatile material, but it has its pros and cons like anything else. One of the first issues that I have to address is wood choice. This is consistent with every project. All woods are different and depending on the desired weight of a project (or part of a project), I may have to choose one specific wood over another. Detail and durability are also factors here as certain woods will perform better in certain circumstances.
AA: Looking back over your projects, how has your work changed over time?
KM: I think as a woodworker I continue to progress. Every time I have to problem solve, every time I log more time finishing, every time I build something I learn new techniques. I like to challenge myself, so I think my work reflects an increasing complexity and a higher quality finished product as time goes on. I’ve also refined my personal style. More and more my work is becoming identifiable as work that was specifically done by me. Which is cool.
AA: Your work does have a signature look and feel, and I think it is becoming quite recognizable. What has been your most challenging project so far and what obstacles did you have to overcome?
KM: While none of the work on this particular project was overly technical, in the middle of October I was requested to build a series of works for a photo shoot, basically at the last minute. The sheer volume of work I had to do, with no time to plan, and less time to build it in, was extremely challenging. Plus I had to work the last few days with a fractured elbow. Whoops!
AA: Ouch! High volumes and quick deadlines sound like a recipe for a stressful time! What have been your observations of how steampunk artwork has changed from your first project to today’s exhibits at various art museums and galleries?
KM: I think the “basic” end of the Steampunk art scene has grown quite considerably, with the popularity of DIY sites like Instructables and eHow offering a ton of tutorials for aspiring builders to get started with small things like goggles and rayguns and such. As far as builders that are working on more elaborate pieces, definitely there is growth there as well, more so now than there was before. Although I think ultimately the artwork hasn’t changed that much but the visibility of it has. More artists are latching on to the term “steampunk” to promote their work, and the Steampunk community itself actively pursues and labels work as well. So, I think definitely more an issue of visibility. This aesthetic has been around for awhile.
AA: You were approached at one point last year to show some of your work in a major event. How did that work out?
KM: It’s actually come up multiple times that I’ve been invited to an event and couldn’t attend. New Steampunk events are popping up every day it seems! Sometimes it’s an issue of distance and travel costs, other times it’s a scheduling conflict. Since I only work as an artist part-time, most of my work is commission, and therefore my non-commission output is relatively low, so it’s difficult for me to actually build up enough work to show. If it’s not a commission it goes on the shop, and then it tends to sell pretty quick, haha!
AA: It’s nice to see that you and your work is in demand, and perhaps you’ll be able to take advantage of those opportunities more in the coming year. In comparison and contrast with today’s mass-produced ‘everything’, what do you think is the appeal of the items you create?
KM: Well, I primarily try to make stuff that I always wanted to have myself, but couldn’t find anywhere. From custom guitar amps and scratch built guitars, to back mounted articulated wings and Fallout Props. A lot of these projects started from the fact that I simply couldn’t find them anywhere else. I think that other people recognize this as well, and if they’re looking for the same things I was looking for they will inevitably end up finding my work. There are also very few traditional woodworkers that specifically work in the steampunk aesthetic as well, and the finished look and qualities of wood are definitely a selling feature for some people.
AA: When you first started selling your artwork, what was the market like? Who were the buyers and what objects generated the most purchasing interest?
KM: When I was just tinkering around on the coffee table, I was primarily making goggles and little things like that. At the time, Etsy was still very new, and I did most of my selling on eBay. I remember when you would search on eBay for “steampunk goggles” and you’d only get about 40 results, most of which belonged to me, another artist, and a wholesaler that had tagged some motorcycle goggles with the term. Now if you do that same search you get almost 1500. This is not to say the originality or quality has improved though. But there is definitely nice work out there too.
AA: That’s very true that quantity doesn’t always mean quality. How have you seen steampunk, the community and the artwork change as interest has increased the last few years?
KM: Well the community is definitely a lot more organized. Social networking really helped the community to find itself, and there are some core hubs that have arisen such as Brass Goggles. I think a lot of the top end artwork was always there, and the artists were always doing the work, it’s just more visible. This is of course evidenced by the Steampunk aesthetic being around for quite some time. Like I said earlier, I think it’s more an issue of visibility, promotion, and tagging. Definitely people are gunning for Steampunk a little more now than they were before though. At the opposite end of the spectrum, there is a lot of mass produced stuff turning up online. Budget friendly works like painted goggles and NERF guns, etc. There will always be a desire for those works as young people become interested in the scene and want to put together an outfit inexpensively.
AA: Who are some other steampunk builders, creators and artisans whose work you find interesting?
AA: I’ve seen Thomas’ work on YouTube, and it’s quite amazing in theme, design and execution. Have you had opportunity to talk with other artists to trade ideas or construction tips and techniques?
KM: Actually this has happened very little. I think it is a result of my medium choice though. I do have a luthier friend of mine that has been very helpful, however, as she is familiar with all aspects of woodworking.
We’ll take a break here in our talk with Kyle Miller.
Join us again in Part 2 where we ask Kyle about working in his shop.
Until, then, you can see Kyle’s work on his website, http://www.ThinGypsyThief.com
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