When Kimberlee Turner found a box of pocket watch cases at an Oceano antique store, she couldn’t resist buying them, even though she wasn’t sure what to do with them.
The owner of the store, a watch repairman, also had a box of watch parts — gears, cogs, and clock hands — which Turner also snatched up.
“This guy was going out of business,” Turner said. “He had all this really cool stuff.”
Fascinated with the parts, she eventually began making jewelry with them. And more than two decades later, Turner is still making watchthemed art — except now what she does is part of a growing movement.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Tribune
“We weren’t calling it steampunk back then,” said Turner, of San Luis Obispo. “We were calling it ‘industrial jewelry.’ ”
Technically, steampunk did exist as far back as the 1980s. But it took years to — pun intended — gather steam.
“It’s catching right now — people are loving it,” said Nick Bauman, whose L.A.-based performance group The League of S.T.E.A.M. is a leader in the steampunk movement.
This summer, large publications such as USA Today and the Chicago Tribune published features on the growing steampunk trend, which is evident in fashion, music and movies. This fall, Steamstock — a steampunk music festival — will be held in Richmond, and next spring you can take a steampunk cruise on Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines. You can also see steampunk influences in recent big-budget movies like “Sherlock Holmes” and “Hugo.”
Steampunk combines Victorian-era England with futuristic themes such as time travel and clever gadgets. Drawing heavily from science fiction and fantasy literature, steampunk enthusiasts love clocks, fantasy technology fueled by steam and throwback fashion that includes bowler hats and corsets — all harkening to a Victorian era that never was.
“We are trying to step back in time a little bit,” said Scot Violette, a steampunk magician known as Professor Algernon, based in Mariposa. “And getting away from this plastic, cookie cutter, post-modern lifestyle to where things were made by hand and made one at a time and where people respected each other’s work.”
Unlike other art movements, Bauman said, steampunk started with literature — steampunk fans having grown up with futuristic books like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”
“And a lot of it is about the aesthetic,” he said. Many people in steampunk relish the do-it-yourself component, where people make their own clothing and gadgets, said Robin Blackburn, Bauman’s wife and another member of the League of S.T.E.A.M.
“You don’t just go buy things off the shelves; you find a way to make it your own by creating it with your own hands,” she said.
Blending music, magic with sci-fi
When Jon MacKinder was a teenager playing music at San Luis Obispo’s farmers market in the ’80s, he had no concept of steampunk. But MacKinder was steampunk, with his interests in science fiction and making gadgets.
“For me, it was like, ‘What do I have that I can rewire and make it do something else?’ ” he said.
His father, an inventor who worked on missiles for a living, was an obvious influence — both in his at-home workshop and his interests.
“He had a nice bookshelf of science fiction books, and so when I was old enough, he would let me read them,” said MacKinder, who grew up in Santa Maria. “So there was stuff like H.G. Wells — ‘The Time Machine’ and the ‘Invisible Man’ — Jules Verne and stuff like that.”
After he left the Central Coast to pursue a music career in Los Angeles, those steampunk influences followed. Yet, he still wasn’t aware that it was steampunk.
“What I was doing was already kind of a sci-fi thing,” he said. “I was promoting myself on MySpace at the time as being a time traveler/adventurer/rock star and wondering why these things — which were obviously the coolest things in the world — weren’t attracting as many fans as I had hoped.”
Once steampunk became popular, MacKinder — who wears a top hat on stage and writes songs with steampunk lyrics — had found his audience. He changed his stage name to Jon Magnificent, and once he began winning awards, he had enough cred to perform at steampunk events.
Steampunk music doesn’t have a particular sound — it’s more about the lyrics and the look of its acts. Abney Park, the leading steampunk band, has a goth sound, while Steam Powered Giraffe, another popular steampunk band, has a theatrical sound, complete with tight vocal harmonies. MacKinder’s songs sound like movie soundtrack music.
“Those of us within it kind of snicker that it says ‘punk,’ but it has nothing to do with punk,” MacKinder said.
Like MacKinder, Violette was a kid with a healthy imagination.
“Every kid builds a fort,” he said. “Mine had working catapults.”
Fascinated with magic since the age of 9, Violette briefly worked as a magician’s assistant in college. He taught anthropology at a junior college for a while, but when budget cuts affected his career 20 years ago, he became a full-time magician. A few years ago, he incorporated steampunk into his act — including a “Doctor Who”- inspired time machine and futuristic steam gadgets — and took on the persona of Professor Algernon, a bumbling crypto-archeologist.
“It’s changed my show quite a bit,” said Violette, who performs at steampunk events around the state.
Steampunk’s top performer
In the burgeoning movement, though, the League of S.T.E.A.M. stands out. Comprised of several artists who work in film, TV and theater, the group features elaborate costumes and props worthy of Hollywood films. In the videos on their websites, the Ghostbusters-inspired performers chase monsters and the paranormal.
Officially launched two years ago, the League of S.T.E.A.M. — sort of a Universal Studios Hollywood act taken to conventions, corporate events and parties — is increasingly getting work.
“We’re going to have a full year of live performances,” Bauman said. “We’ll be all over the world.”
Turner, the San Luis Obispo jewelry maker, has met people like Violette, MacKinder and members of the League of S.T.EA.M. through the various steampunk events, and she hopes to meet more as she pursues jewelry making full-time. Out of work since 2010, she’s a victim of an economy that has caused her last four employers to go under.
“I’m the patron saint of acquisitions,” she said. “If you want your business to be bought by a corporation, just hire me.”
Fed up with looking for work, Turner decided to step up production of her steampunk jewelry, formerly just a hobby. The jewelry includes winged necklaces and brooches, brass earrings, propeller rings and geared money clips. Her most popular items, she said, are called Sightmares, necklaces that feature mysterious eyes staring out of pocket watch cases.
“I was trying to do something else with these pocket watch things, and I messed up,” she said. “And I went, well — wait a minute. Steampunk is supposed to be metal and industrial but yet have some life about it. So how can I infuse some (Nikola) Tesla or Jules Verne life into this? So I came up with the eye, like there’s a little beast that’s trying to break out of the pocket watch.”
Like other steampunk enthusiasts, she also crafted a persona — Dr. Brassy Steamington.
“Dr. Brassy’s everything I wish I was,” said Turner, who will be wearing her corset and top hat when she goes to Steamstock this fall.
Right now, Turner is one of few steampunk artists in San Luis Obispo County. But she doesn’t expect that to be the case for long. Given the pace of steampunk’s proliferation, it’s bound to spread to the Central Coast.
“It’s coming,” she said. “It really is.”