Steampunk Art

Inspired by American mid-century design and manufacturing,
Eastworks Detroit collects, re-purposes, and re-invents iconic American items into beautiful functional and non-functional art objects

By Connor McNeely

Every summer weekend in Michigan there’s another local art fair just a nine-iron away in any direction. For some artists, the seasonal craft circuit is merely a hobby or side hustle. For the more imaginative however, it can be a main source of income in spite of the amount of hours spent at their day jobs. 

This is entirely the case for the steampunk artist behind Eastworks Detroit, Joe Mazzola. Don’t worry, he had to look it up, too, when he first heard it. 

Steampunk is a design aesthetic combining historical elements with anachronistic technological features inspired by science fiction. (Picture the cookie conveyor belt in "Edward Scissorhands.")

“I was at my brother’s one afternoon and he said something about steampunk and I went, ‘What’s that?’ And so we Googled it and I found some beautiful steampunk art work and I thought, ‘I think I can do that!’ So I made a few pipe lamps,” Mazzola said. 

That was nearly five years ago. Mazzola has since graduated from building primitive, metal pipe lamps that turn on and off, to restoring and reassembling historic fixtures with several functional operations such as lights that can dim, rotate and even play music through a Bluetooth speaker. 

Mazzola’s first two years as an artist were spent at small, Detroit gallery shows in places like The Motor City Brewery in Midtown, which initially let him host his first show. 

“I picked a date about six weeks from when we spoke, put together about 40 pieces, did my first show there and made $1,200 in like three hours. I started doing more and more art shows like that, where I would do art shows that were just my work. But there’s only so many of those you can do,” Mazzola said.

Mazzola has spent the last three years garnering a presence at art fair shows across Eastern Michigan. 

“I had to buy a minivan, a canopy, tables and table cloths and extension cords. Weights. Everyone has to have weights for their canopy because of the wind. So there were a lot of costs setting that up at first,” Mazzola said.

“The first year I think I did eight [local art fairs], the second year I did ten and this year I’m doing 14 I believe,” he added. 

Guitar teacher by day, Mazzola sells some of his art for hundreds of dollars per piece. Due to the originality of his work, the art is his cash crop.

“I’ve done shows that are 100,000 people per day walking past my booth and I’ve done other shows, where maybe 10,000 people might see my stuff in three days. But it’s funny because even those shows that aren’t as well attended, I usually do okay because my stuff is kind of unusual,” Mazzola said.

“Most of the time at these art shows there’s a lot of photography and a lot of jewelry and a lot of the same old stuff… There might be one, maybe two more vendors that do something similar to what I do, but no one does exactly what I do. Thank goodness,” he added. 

 

The Grind

With the help of a friend who owns a metal shop in downtown Detroit, Mazzola is able to grind, paint and wire his works of art during the winter months. He operates out of his home in Detroit’s East Village during the summer. While most of his week is devoted to teaching guitar lessons, Mazzola has just enough spare time to build his pieces. The acquiring of materials is ultimately outsourced. 

“I know about five or six really good pickers and they go around to estate sales and old barns, things like that and they find the stuff for me and I get it from them,” Mazzola said. 

The items included in Eastwork’s functional sculptures are mostly unrelated: a speaker enclosure from 1927, an ammunition box from the 30s, old pressure gauges, metal pipe, water valves, and vintage locks. Mazzola is drawn to old materials because of their strength and form. 

“These things were built when American manufacturing was really at its height and the design is beautiful. I gravitate toward old stuff because I think it looks better. Not only the functionality to it but an emphasis on form, too,” Mazzola said. 

“Just like old cars just look cool! Today all cars kind of look the same. They’re really functional but as far as styling, eh. When you look at cars from the 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, they’re works of art,” he added. 

The functionality of the lamps and sculptures, such as beaded pull-chains to turn on lights and spinning knobs to dim them, are added activities to interest users beyond form. 

“It gives it a little bit of operator involvement. I want the person that’s looking to buy it to find it interesting enough that they’ll purchase it and adding things like that does make it interesting enough,” Mazzola said. 

Although it fell into his lap later in life, physical art was not Mazzola’s initial career path. He has an extensive and successful music career under his belt as a founding member of the Detroit alternative rock band, Sponge. After signing to Sony Records in what became a major label bidding war over the group’s first album, the debut went gold. Sponge eventually found itself struggling to survive in the rap/rage-rock wave of the early nineties, during which artists like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit flourished. After Sponge, Mazzola joined the garage rock band The Detroit Cobras and played guitar in it for six years. Although music isn’t tangible, Mazzola sees the act of making music as building of another kind. 

“You’re building something from nothing. And that’s the way music is. You start with nothing and you end up with some cool composition. This – I start with a lot of materials and turn them into something that’s, (hopefully) beautiful and functional, and art,” Mazzola said.