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image2 American Steel: Making on a Large Scale

I’ve never been to Burning Man (I know, I know), but on a recent visit to American Steel in West Oakland I felt like I got an insight into the event that few ever see.

American Steel was once the repair shop for ships working out of the Port of Oakland. The mammoth building’s 10-ton bridge cranes were used to hoist some very heavy objects. The facility was also used for large-scale pipe fabrication. But the ship repair and pipe fab eras ended long ago. American Steel sat empty for 30 years until artist Karen Cusolito rolled up the doors and moved in.

In 2005 she was commissioned to build a 30-foot tall sculpture for Burning Man and American Steel’s lofty ceilings and burly cranes made it just the kind of space she was looking for. She built her amazingly human sculptures out of twisted steel and scrap metal and then left, leaving American Steel vacant once again. But she got another commission and returned to facility. Word of American Steel spread through the Bay Area’s art and maker community and Karen realized the region needed the facility. Long story short, she leased the building (it’s the size of a city block) and sub-leases space to a wide range of tenants. About one-third of Am Steel’s tenants create art for Burning Man, but the rest do any number of things. There are artists, brewers, silk screeners, electronics shops, metal fabricators, sculptors, and even an organic fertilizer company. It’s now called American Steel Studios and there are 164 tenants in all.

“This is a gritty neighborhood, but there’s some real beauty being created,” says Karen. “The arts add a lot to the community and we are a community unto ourselves.

That community spilled over to help create Peralta Junction across the street, a mix of maker faire and carnival.

American Steel Studios is unique in the U.S. because its size, cheap rent, and those giant cranes. Industrial scale artists and designers from across the United States come here to make big stuff.

Walking around American Steel allowed me to peek into the workshops and creative spaces of dozens of artists and makers. It was inspiring. Karen was in the process of readying seven of her gargantuan sculptures for a journey the Brazilian rainforest where a private collector purchased them. Here are a few photos of what I saw.

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Stett Holbrook

Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.


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