Bay Area artist, designer, and fabricator Tom Sepe is skilled at metalwork, carpentry, graphic design, video, and illustration. He thrives on collaboration and has worked on many large-scale works in addition to focusing on his own personal projects. To boot, he’s had experience in the performing arts from a very young age, and has also spent years working as a gourmet chef. Needless to say, he appreciates and celebrates art of all forms. He writes, “It is the confluence of mechanics, texture, color, electronics, concept, politics and history that inform and inspire me. … I consider my work as much a personal journey as a service to others: to educate and delight, to create life-changing experiences, to inspire goodness in the world, to critique and to challenge our assumptions.”
One project you’re particularly proud of:
1. I’m very proud of the work I did on the Nautilus Submarine. Firstly, it was a group project with some amazing people I’ve worked with previously (Steam Punk Treehouse and Raygun Gothic Rocketship) so I had the opportunity to step up my game as well as be surrounded by other fun and talented artists. I designed and built the upper deck railings based on an art nouveau interpretation of sea kelp, which was fun to research and design. I also designed and built the interior staircase. I had the time to first draw my designs on paper, then translate them to the computer in Illustrator, and then cut the parts myself out of steel plate on a rebuilt CNC plasma torch at my own shop (which, btw, I spent days learning to program and troubleshoot and make work!). In addition I built an initial prototype of the staircase out of thin plywood, so it was a very full experience of designing, prototyping, fabrication, and collaboration.
Two past mistakes you’ve learned the most from:
1. Making something more complicated than it needs to be. I built a vehicle almost from scratch once, and the process became more about the mechanics than about the art — challenging in all the wrong ways, I suppose. In the end it was a success — I just didn’t have enough time to develop the aesthetics. It’s one of my greatest challenges as someone with a wide range of skills. Plus my brain moves faster than my hands and feet, and it’s easy to lose sight of logical or artistic goals when immersed in the making and building. I have found myself building hinges by hand for hours in the middle of the night, instead of waiting until the hardware store opens! I like complex systems and integrative things, but keeping it simple, setting daily goals, and staying on task are crucial to actually getting it done.
2. Not standing up for myself. In 2011 I was managing the rebuild of a large art car that I had a significant involvement in bringing to life, and in the process my reputation got trashed, mostly due to miscommunications and assumptions. At the time I brushed it off, as I felt that I knew where I was coming from, but in hindsight I wish that I had taken the time to sort out the conflict and confusion. The challenge now is to stay humble and graceful, while still standing up for what I value and being in communication with those I’m working with.
Sepe’s Runamoock Fishvan art car.
Three books you think every maker should read:
1. Do The Work by Stephen Pressfield. I would list this book three times if I thought that would entice you read it. Trust me. Get this book.
2. Voices of the People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. It is vital to acknowledge that we all standing on the backs of thousands of ordinary people, laborers, activists, and freedom fighters who struggled to establish the laws and rights that we enjoy now. We are privileged to call ourselves “makers” when not to long ago, there was no other choice — everyone was a maker. It is also extraordinarily inspiring and humbling to read these speeches and writing. It stirs the soul, while putting into perspective the nugatory frustrations and challenges I face in my practice.
3. Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity by David Lynch. I first listened to this as an audiobook, and hearing David Lynch speak about his process and the bits of stories of creating his films is phenomenal. But I especially appreciated his description of dissolving the Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity: “Anger and depression and sorrow are beautiful things in a story, but they are like poison to the filmmaker or artist.”
Four tools you can’t live without:
1. My computer. Whether I’m communicating with collaborators, researching techniques, finding reference material, editing photos or video of projects I’m working on, updating my website, writing code, prepping files for CAD/CAM, or visualizing concepts using 3D modeling and animation, there’s just so much I can do with it. I’m a a voracious learner, which is a blessing and a curse, since I have to constantly avoid distractions and internet rabbit holes.
2. MAKE: Warranty Voider. It’s a Squirt PS4 mini Leatherman that’s on my keychain and I use it everyday. It has a wire stripers, screwdrivers, mini pliers, tweezers, file, knife, and a bottle opener. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been up on a ladder and needed a screwdriver, or at a friend’s house and someone’s like “this thing just stopped working!” and I’ve been able to use it for a quick repair and save the day.
3. Pencil (or pen or Sharpie or soapstone). Nothing beats drawing and writing lists. I use the computer a lot, but I can be anywhere when an idea strikes, or sitting with a friend or collaborator in the shop or at a pub and needing to sketch out an idea. Drawing and writing help me think in 3D space. And using soapstone to make life-sized drawings on the ground in the shop can really help with getting a sense of real scale and working out fabrication steps.
4. Variable-speed cordless drill with a clutch. I did recently get an impact driver as well, but for many years the cordless drill was the #1 most used tool in my shop, and I still prefer it, because it is more versatile than the impact driver. I’ve started to get into using a Dremel on smaller projects, but all those little tiny bits are so tiny and expensive and I always lose them!
Five people/things that have inspired your work:
1. Anne Hamilton. I’ve always been amazed at her ability to incorporate large spaces, odd pedestrian process, and ethereal concepts in an intelligent and cohesive way. Check out this list of materials in her piece entitled Privation and Excesses (1989): “pennies, honey, sheep, two mortar and pestles, teeth, a felt hat, a gesture, hands wrung in honey.”
2. Orion Fredericks. How cool is it to be able to have someone you consider a close friend to also be an artist that you deeply admire? Orion has a particular ability to transform random and insignificant things into glorious beauty; he is a true manifestor. We’ve worked together, we’ve traveled and partied and danced together, and despite knowing closely guarded secrets about how his contraptions work, I’d never be able to duplicate his particular version of mechanical and aesthetic wizardry, nor would I try.
3. Joseph Beuys. I first began studying Joseph Beuys in college, and he blew my mind. He was a full-on total pioneer. His concepts around education and art were revolutionary. In 1982 he started an art project planting 7000 oak trees. His ideas about how we all work together (consciously or not) to create a larger artwork of society are always in the back of my mind.
4. Koyaanisqatsi. This film changed my life, through both the music, by Philip Glass, and the stunning visual imagery that is equally beautiful and forboding. It showed me how art can transcend preconceptions and act as a terrible mirror, and that great art and great ideas can also be delivered via the mundane and the familiar.
5. Alexander Graham Bell. We share the same birthday (just 124 years apart) but otherwise I could hardly compare myself to this man who not only invented the telephone and the telegraph, but also held numerous patents: four for the photophone, one for the phonograph, five for aerial vehicles, four for “hydroairplanes,” and two for selenium cells. I aspire to have one useful invention or positive contribution to society in my lifetime.
Sepe’s Prytaneum Tea Kettle.