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One of the defining tropes of the steampunk community is that the term is allowed to mean whatever you want it to mean. Steampunk is that strange place where costuming and subculture overlap and intermingle. Dr. Brassy Steamington, occasionally referred to as Kimberlee McDermott, has been a punk since the term was coined—long before it found footing in the American lexicon.
MAKE 37‘s Soapbox piece by the Met’s Don Undeen is entitled All Art Is Made by Makers. Brassy may be one of the most successful artists you’ve never heard of, especially if you live on the East Coast, but she is undoubtedly a matriarch of the maker movement. It took two and a half decades for her work and her views on punk, art, business, and being in the public eye to coalesce into her alter ego and what she calls her “golden goose”—a jewelry line dubbed Sightmares. Newly perfected, the roots of the Sightmares concept go back to 1987, when Brassy started constructing earrings out of watch parts. That’s right—after twenty-six years of effort, cynicism takes a back seat as Brassy likens her work to a fabled fowl associated with luck.
Becoming frustrated with the pace of building a full-time maker business is tempting, especially when witnessing the meteoric rise of Pettises and Frieds—but not for Dr. Steamington. Good nature is, perhaps, one of the greatest demarcations of the steam set and of Brassy in particular. Proudly fiftyish, she makes her name and presence known online and eagerly shares excellent techniques she’s learning or has perfected, gratis, on her blog.
While everyone is entitled to their interpretation of steampunk, since she has spent so long in its ranks, Brassy’s opinion of the culture may be worth your time. The three core attributes she sees at the culture’s root are incorporated into the line. Sightmares fulfills her vision for her work with pieces that are unmistakable—and unmistakably hers.
The first principle is building with metal. Steampunk conjures a world where exposed brass internals and aesthetic flourishes exist in counterpoint to minimalist phone bezels and the latest off-the-rack trends. In fact, this contrasting backlash is the greater part of the “punk.”
Second, she wanted her pieces to have a “live” quality to them. As living creatures we instantly respond and connect to that—and Sightmares hail from somewhere deep within the uncanny valley. Seeing one of these pieces in the wild out of the corner of your vision, the impression of their realism is positively unnerving.
Finally,there is the addition of intelligence. The heavy hitters in steampunk are old hands in their trades and are often very educated.
I wanted something that was alive, and a machine, and it had to have intelligence to it because that seems to be the epitome of steampunk, we use metal, we’re all very alive, and we’re all extraordinarily intelligent—you know, we’re engineers and people that have been in the medical industry. And so it had to have all of that.
The final products of this three part philosophy are a little bit time travel, a little bit caged animal. They often feature reptilian-inspired eyes framed in convincing lids. These lids might look out through a filigree locket reminiscent of an antique watch or from a worked leather patch that seems partially destroyed by the beast’s experiments in warping the fabric of space-time. The pieces have the kind of impact and concept execution that comes from years of intuition, investment, and experimentation playing off one another.
While the punkdom encourages us all to find our own paths—one reason why Brassy wanted to build something undeniably hers—she cautions that some newcomers tend to want to duplicate work that has already gained the public eye, like that of the late Datamancer or Brute Force Studios. And she knows something about having her work replicated.
Her greatest counterfeiters have been from overseas, but domestic duplicates have popped up as well. The Doc says that having finally ‘made it’ and the counterfeiters gearing up to copy her work were almost simultaneous occurrences. She filed a trademark on the Sightmares name as well as a copyright on the designs, and asked Etsy to crack down on counterfeits. “Miraculously,” she says, “the name wasn’t already taken by some B movie”.
Stateside, Brassy’s tenacious fans are always watching the web and craft fairs and cons for copies: she has eyes everywhere, after all. Acting on messages from her customers, she tapped legal counsel to learn how to garner action from online storefronts that carry fakes. She discovered that a formal letter full of correct legal citations is the only type of correspondence that will be taken seriously by those companies.
Brassy also points out that it is easier to make a case regarding work that is fully developed and original; stringing together a few baubles from the craft store and trying to copyright and defend your creation is going to be a vertical climb.
What people can’t do, and what I think a lot of people misunderstand, is they can’t buy supplies, mass-produced supplies, glue them all together, and make something pretty and copyright it. You can’t do that. You have to have something that is uniquely yours from cradle to grave. And that’s what took so long [to develop] and cost so much to copyright.
The Doc’s work continues and extends beyond Sightmares: she’s been refining a line of flourished flasks and is working on interior decoration pieces. For fun, she visited the set of the recent Mythbusters: Zombie Special as one of the reanimated horde. But don’t presume Brassy is sitting on her laurels. Her time and effort in tweaking Sightmares will lead to those reptilian eyes slipping further into the valley; Sightmares soon will gain the ability to blink.
With the February holiday just around the corner, you might find yourself obligated to do some romantic gift-giving. On one brightly lit hand, you could go the more traditional maker route and opt for an LED heart soldered onto a wonderfully exposed circuit board. On the other, you could try a different sort of geek chic that doesn’t require batteries—jewelry, sure, but of a different kind and from a different breed of designer. Both gifts require a certain panache that non-makers might not appreciate, but any type of punk you associate with (or are courting) is likely to commend your choice of gift.
Sightmares, at-the-bench, flourished flask, and on-set photos belong to Dr. Brassy and Aether. Essex Machina photo (cropped from the original) by Warren Whitmore of My Love My Lust My Everything for Brute Force Studios.