Time machine to an odd future: Bennington Museum shows Steampunk


BENNINGTON, Vt. -- In the second half of the 19th century, the Victorians took decorative arts to the extreme, adorning their crazy quilts, shadow boxes, wreaths and more with intricate patterns incorporating elements of nature: insects, wax, feathers and even human hair.

Today, many artists turn to the steampunk genre to create a Victorian or similar aesthetic. By definition, steampunk is technically a mashup of two time periods -- Victorian and a kind of alternate future -- making the final piece especially intriguing.

"I usually get questioning faces at first: ‘What is it?' It is familiar and strange at the same time, but then it hits: deep impact of emotion and connection to the artwork and design," said artist Bruce Rosenbaum of ModVic in Sharon.

Pieces from Rosenbaum and other steampunk artists are on display alongside Victorian pieces at The Bennington Museum through May 27 as part of "Victorian Extreme: American Fancywork and Steampunk, 1850-Now."

The historical Victorian portion of the exhibit examines the wild side of the era's aesthetic, from to an elaborate wreath made of human hair in the 1850s to opulent crazy quilts, which were popular with Victorians, especially in the mid- to late 1880s. The exhibit also includes John Hampson's "Centennial Wheel" -- 10,982 specimens of butterflies, moths, beetles and ladybugs laid out in the same pattern as a prize-winning patchwork quilt of the time.

To help modern visitors connect more deeply with the past, curator Jamie Franklin decided to add some steampunk touches.

"Steampunk is such a hot topic right now and literally uses historical objects as the foundation for contemporary art, so we felt its inclusion would help people connect on a deeper level with the historic material on view," he said.

The steampunk part of the exhibit features sculptural systems by Rosenbaum, as well as Steve Brook of Steampunk Fabricators in Michigan and Steve Conant of Conant Metal and Light in Burlington, Vt. Their sculptures are actual Victorian-era sewing machines that have been transformed into functional clocks. The segment is called "A Stitch in Time" -- Victorians also happened to love their puns.

It's an effective way to link past and present.

"Steampunk to me is a blending of the art forms of the Victorian age with modern and future objects, and returning to a time/style which valued the form as well as the function of object or machine," Brook said. "I routinely ask folks if Leonardo Da Vinci's work was art or science. The answer is always ‘both.' I would like to get back to that mindset."

Brook describes his contribution to the exhibit as "a turn-of-the-century Michigan Farmer sewing machine powered by a vintage Victrola winding motor with a manual butter churn gear set linkage through a commercial IBM Punch Clock."

The "Singer Sewing Time Machine" came from Rosenbaum.

"I've always wanted to repurpose a Singer sewing machine -- they are beautiful and functional but have become obsolete with modern technology," he said. "By giving them a new life [here], they still are beautiful, functional, and now have a new purpose."

Rosenbaum helped Franklin curate the exhibit -- he formed the theme and coordinated the "Stitch in Time" steampunk segment.

"We had seen his work in an exhibit at the Shelburne Museum last summer and were told he was the steampunk guru," Franklin said. "We were not disappointed."

The pun-based theme Rosenbaum chose "works perfectly with the overall idea and goals for the exhibit," Franklin added. "The sewing machines represent one of the Victorian-era technologies/ innovations that made some of the historic works in the exhibit -- specifically, the crazy quilts -- possible. Then [there's] the idea of ‘a stitch in time,' or the connecting/ sewing together of the Victorian age with the current day."

"Steampunk design is ultimately about repurposing and improving our world," Rosenbaum said. "My goal is to educate others that steampunk art and design is an elegant creative design solution. I'm teaching the importance of combining old and new; form and function; creativity and fun; reuse, restoration and reimagining of objects, spaces and our own lives."

And the public has appreciated the overall effect. "It has been overwhelmingly well received," Franklin noted. "I think the juxtaposition of the historic objects with the steampunk pieces has opened people's eyes to the incredibly quirky and beautiful nature of Victorian-era handwork and the inventive, pioneering ethos of that period in American history."

If you go ...

What: 'Victorian Extreme: American Fancywork and Steampunk, 1850-Now'

Where: The Bennington Museum, 75 Main St.

When: Through May 27. Museum 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Wednesday.

Admission: $10 for adults, $9 for seniors and students over 18, free for younger students.

Information: (802) 447-1571 www.benningtonmuseum.org


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