Interview with Steampunk Artist and Designer, Art Donovan, Part 3

Welcome back for Part 3 in our chat with Art Donovan, steampunk author, artist and curator.

Part One can be read here.

Part Two can be read here.


AA: We could be here for days longer talking about each of the individual works that I find fascinating, which would be all of them, so let’s move on to talking about where people can see some of them in person – the various exhibitions you’ve organized and curated. What can you share about the first one that most people have probably heard about, and which pioneered the way for subsequent exhibitions around the world, the Museum of the History of Science at The University of Oxford in England?

AD: Here is how the Oxford Museum exhibition actually happened:

In 2007 I did a sculpture called “The Shiva Mandala”. When I started designing it, I wanted a very dramatic center piece for the design. I chose to use an ancient Persian astrolabe for the large, central design element. I looked around the web and saw that The Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University had the best online collection ancient astrolabes. Choosing one made by Mohammed Ibn Ali Bakr in 1321, I began designing and constructing the piece and, when completed, I posted pictures of it on my blog along with a live link to the Oxford Museum- as I figured viewers may be interested in that. The Shiva was quickly picked up by BoingBoing and I then started receiving over 9000 hits a day on my blog from it. It was staggering and kind of scary! I then figured that if people were interested enough in the Shiva to visit my blog, that they may also be interested enough to click on my link to the Oxford Museum.


I gave it a week.


I then contacted the website manager at the Oxford Museum and asked them “if they had noticed an increase in web traffic to their site that week”. They said they had never received so many web hits before and asked me how I could possibly know this. I then told them the story about how I created a Steampunk sculpture based on a piece in their permanent collection. Seeing all of the web hits, the museum webmaster then asked me to contact the Museum Director, the legendary Dr. Jim Bennett, and tell him the entire story. Dr. Bennett was most impressed by the interest shown in Steampunk.

I then suggested that perhaps a Steampunk Exhibition in his Museum would probably be just as popular, as it would be the first in the world. I then offered to curate it. Dr. Bennett said, “Yes”, and off it went.

It was a simple as that.


It took about 8 months to organize, collect all of the great artists and works, write and design lectures with ‘the dreaded’ PowerPoint (I hate it), design posters, create museum CD journals, currency exchange details, travel arrangements for two round trips to Oxford, HRM’s Customs and Revenues! buried in international legal and packing/shipping requirements and months of using ‘Google Translate’ for international emails.

The exhibition proved to be the most highly attended show in the museums’ history.

I still cannot believe it ever happened.


AA: There have been others since then, and the most recent is “Steampunk. The Art of Victorian Futurism” in Seoul, South Korea at the Hangaram Design Museum, which is in the Seoul Art Center IDA. There are an impressive 130 works from 30 artists in eight galleries. How did this opportunity come about and what was the experience pulling everything and everyone together?

AD: This was Asia’s first museum exhibition foray into Steampunk and the Korean Museum Director was Cambridge educated. Hearing about the Oxford exhibition, she wanted to create the same impact and attendance, the only difference being they had a massive museum space to fill. Hence the quantity of artists and size of the exhibition pieces.


As an aside. South Korea is adores culture and they pursue art, design, architecture, fashion, high technology and prosperity more creatively and aggressively than any other place I have ever seen. This show was a “no holds barred” kind of event. The displays and scope of the art and sculpture was stunning and a first rate job. Also, the artists and South Korean people were the finest I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and working with. Truly a memorable experience.


AA: The exhibition made the news, and here is one clip from Arirang News. There was also this interview on Korea Art TV. When you attend these exhibitions, what are some memorable reactions which you’ve heard?

AD: The enthusiasm for the art that the South Korean audience showed was a genuine surprise to me. Steampunk was entirely new to them but they fully embraced the style and wanted to know everything about it. A large book store was created in the Museum exclusively for the show and it featured every Steampunk art and fashion book imaginable- along with crafts and gift items of the genre. But the most memorable factor was people. Their comportment: the grace, intelligence, humor, respect and dignity with which they conducted themselves in every aspect was most impressive.


We’ll break here in our chat with Art Donovan.

Join us for the conclusion where Art talks about his book, The Art of Steampunk, and his advice to all of us.

Keep up to date with him on his website and his blog.

More information is also available on his page in The Steampunk Museum


Published in: on March 18, 2015 at 8:25 pm  Comments (1)  
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Interview with Steampunk Artist and Designer, Art Donovan, Part 2

Welcome back for Part 2 in our chat with Art Donovan, steampunk author, artist and curator.

Part One can be read here.


Airship Ambassador: Who are the people you admire and how do they influence you and your work?

Art Donovan: My wife, Leslie, above all. Her sublime sense of design, fashion and her ability to “read” a client and project is dazzling to me to this day. She was a consultant for Yves Saint Laurent, Guy Laroche and Jagger on Madison Ave. She has a true and sublime sense of European couture and elegance- but with a genuine and unique “edge” to everything she does. She is the greatest muse for my work but more importantly, to keep me from going “off the rails” when it comes to projects.


AA: That is so great to have someone like Leslie to not only support you but also gently reign you in when needed. Why steampunk? What is it that captures your attention and imagination?

AD: The physical, antique beauty. The hand wrought details. The wonder of science’s industrial form.

I still fully believe that Steampunk is the most exciting and important genre of art and design to come along in decades. (I have lived through the fun and mostly awful styles from the 50’s through today and I have an encyclopedic knowledge of how those eras looked in their historic reality.)

Steampunk is the first globally popular genre to seriously re-examine the classic design in a magnificently creative way.

‘The tyranny of contemporary modernism’ has reigned unchallenged for over 30 years! Enough already with “clean, sleek” design. We get it! We’re Futuristic! Well, it was time that young artists go back to the great classic roots of art and design and redefine what is TRULY modern- And they did with Steampunk :)


AA: That is such a great way to look at the aesthetic and the substance to what it is in design today. You said the following in an interview with enLIGHTenment , “My style is always evolving. I’ve always tried to zag when everyone else was zigging. It’s about finding something different.” With that in mind, how do you go about creating that difference? How do you build on experience and education and build something new?

AD: I have used that technique forever as a designer, art director and business owner. It means to deconstruct or change out the elements or components of a design that the other artists are using as immutable standards. If everyone else is using metal- try wood. If colors are pastel and pale- go neon. If you often visit the big design sites (you know who they are) you may see everyone using felt and concrete for lighting, home furnishings, etc. If you continue to see these same materials and design configurations over and over on these sites, you can be assured that it’s time to try something different. Sure, you can always do the expected and status quo –but just like the dull and predictable results gleaned from mass-market research and focus groups, you will never stand out or succeed in a really big way.


AA: The second part of that quote is, “You don’t need a Donovan Design lamp, but you certainly may want one.” I may beg to differ because I know I want one, but I think I need one, too, in my collection of all things steampunk. Let’s start with the Siddhartha lamp. It was one of your first steampunk works, and one of the first that I saw from you. It’s not just functional, but clearly a work of art. What can you share about the journey to design and build it?

AD: It was three months to design and build (I think!) and my very first Steampunk design, 2007.

I kept adding details, parts and hand-painted elements to it. But the craziest part was when I had all of the separate components ready to be assembled into one piece. I was scared to death because seeing it in tiny sketch form and seeing it in completed into a 5’ tall piece are two different things. I didn’t really know what the hell it would look like until I finished it and hung it up from the ceiling in my gallery.


AA: That’s a great story, and I’m going to be all fan-boy about Siddhartha because it’s one of my absolute favorites. Let’s talk about some of your other work, such as the Grand Master?

AD: A commission. Really large because it was to be displayed in a client’s restored 1772 barn.

The client loved steampunk and I took a chance with all of the scientific elements. I made it a bit more detailed with lots of clockwork elements and recalibrated dials for them. Again, it had to be completely disassembled and reassembled on-site and that is one of the most difficult parts of any project.

It’s called “SEQUENCE”. Sequence is how all of the parts will properly assemble and fit together without getting in each other’s physical or mechanical way. It is especially difficult when the client/owner needs easy access for re-lamping bulbs, resetting clock hands and replacing batteries. This is the part that requires the most amount of effort and thought. With all complex pieces, endless nights are spent awake trying to figure out proper sequence and, at 4:30 in the morning, it hits you J

petite cosmo

AA: And “Petite Cosmo” Moon Phase Lamp?

AD: Yes. Small footprint! Astronomical-like. Kind of like an orrery with all circular and symmetrical elements.


AA: Just one more – The Astronomer’s Lamp?

AD: Originally done as a “One-Off”. But I’ve made many since with small variations. (I enjoy painting the white dome with a moon-crater effect.) The two frosted disks imply the rings of Saturn.


We’ll break here in our chat with Art Donovan.

Join us for Part 3 where Art talks about the Oxford and South Korea museum exhibits.

Keep up to date with him on his website and his blog.

More information is also available on his page in The Steampunk Museum


Published in: on March 17, 2015 at 8:49 pm  Comments (2)  
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Interview with Steampunk Artist and Designer, Art Donovan

This week we are talking with Art Donovan, steampunk author, artist and curator.


Airship Ambassador: Welcome Art, it is so great to finally catch up with you!

Art Donovan: Hi, Kevin! Thanks for the invitation, I’m glad to be here.


AA: There are so many fun things to chat with you about – your lamps, your writing, and the museum exhibitions which you’ve curated. Let’s start at the beginning, with your design work before exploring the world of steampunk. What was your path which led to working with some impressive corporate names?

AD: Whoa! The Beginning? That would be 1975. I was a mechanical artist at Mego Toys in NYC. I was doing design, paste ups and mechanicals for all of their Superhero toys. It was thrilling. I got to know the illustrators and engineers there and I quickly started working in markers, acrylics and gouache along with making 3D prototype design and construction. This led to a career in graphic/ industrial design at Deskey Associates, NYC and other design firms when I finally gave it all up to start designing and making lighting in 1990.


AA: Your works are usually sculpture and lighting. Are there other mediums in or with which you work?

AD: My background and my projects required working in every imaginable medium and material, paint and substrate. This comes in awfully handy for doing things, not only in lighting but also, 2D and 3D graphics, interior staging and interior design for my wife, Leslie’s company, Staging Places and also for solving tons of ways to fix, build, touch up, modify and alter any kind of object for our clients.

Faux treatments are a specialty for me, as it is part of my background in photo-realistic illustration.

Which leads me to an important point, which is: When you pursue a career, there is no such thing as “wrong turns”. When you are serious and dedicated, everything you do and learn, adds to your tool kit of abilities and experience.


AA: Is there anything you would do differently, or recommend to your younger self, from those early days?

AD: For myself? No. I don’t think so. It takes a lifetime of experience, both good AND bad, to arrive at who you are- both as an artist and as a person.


AA: What can you share about some of those design projects? What were some of the challenges which came up in them?

AD: I would love to answer that, as it’s a really good question, but after 39 years of full-time art and design, I don’t even know where to begin. But I will say this about the greatest challenge and it applies to all artists: The toughest part of doing a commissioned project is getting paid, in full, in a timely manner. I cannot stress this enough. Here’s the deal: 50% of your bill is paid by your client to begin a project. Pencil don’t touch da’ paper until that’s done! Then 50% (the balance) upon delivery. Get the check in your hands before the piece goes on the UPS truck. No two ways about it. If you have been lucky otherwise, good for you. But don’t plan a career with this kind of luck.


AA: Gotta pay the bills – get the money up front! What were some key experiences from those projects which have stayed with you and influenced or guided your more recent work?

AD: The key experiences I have had was re-visiting the designs I had completed for clients and then re-thinking the projects from a standpoint of using alternate materials, more effective construction techniques and better allocation of my time for the project. If I didn’t so that, I would still be working 18 hour days/ 7 days a week- like I did for the first 8 years of our lighting company. It’s always grueling in art and design, but at the beginning of a company, it was a staggering amount of effort.


We’ll break here in our chat with Art Donovan.

Join us for Part 2 where Art talks about his work and influences.

Keep up to date with him on his website and his blog.

More information is also available on his page in The Steampunk Museum


Published in: on March 15, 2015 at 2:02 pm  Comments (4)  
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