I have a special treat for everyone today, and I don’t mean the drop of whiskey I put in the tea, Camryn Forrest has boarded the airship today. She is a Steampunk artist, who works with the enchanting, whimsical and technical art of water globes and snow globes. We take our seats on the crimson settee in the parlor just in time for tea. The engine purrs for take off.
“Camryn, we’re so pleased to have you aboard the Steamed airship today. Your Steampunk globes are fascinating. Why did you choose this particular art?” I lean toward her. “What draws you to water globes and snow globes?”
“I am drawn to small items. As a child, I made my own dollhouse furniture – carving little legs for my chairs, making a clay bird in a wire cage, covering tiny books with strips of leather and painting titles on the bindings. Over the years, I’ve collected tiny chairs, souvenir buildings, bone china animals, Micro Machines, Little Kiddles and painted lead soldiers. I loved Hot Wheels and anything small enough to be in a vending machine. Once, I helped my mother with a dollhouse, embroidering tiny bits of cloth for bedspreads and framing postage stamps for wall art. My father use to pour and cast his own toy soldiers and I helped with the tiniest painting details.
A family member repairs and makes snow globes, which has always fascinated me. I always looked for them at fine arts shows, and never saw any. Not a one. I’m not a pink and purple Disney princess kind of person. I longed for snow globes made for grownups, with the quality and depth of the artwork I loved from other artists. I wanted to see snow globes that made me think and feel the way I do about other art.
So I took my love for tiny things and my appreciation of snow globes and put them together. It wasn’t easy … I knew I didn’t want ‘snow’ – the crushed white pieces in most snow globes – so I thought it would be cool to use tiny watch gears as glitter. Well, it doesn’t work. I kept that first test globe and the metal gears have disintegrated into a little pile of rust. Shake it and you see nothing but brown.
I had no idea about the types of objects and items which could handle submersion in liquid. There was no guidebook. So it’s been a labor of love, trial and error. I’ve talked to guys at the hardware store about sealants. I’ve tested items for weeks, letting them sit in liquid. The family snow globe repairman, who I sometimes call my snow globe engineer, is my patient mentor. His do’s and don’ts are invaluable. From seeing the workings of hundreds of broken globes he’s fixed, he knows what will work and what won’t. He lets me know when I head too far down the wrong path. You can torture me all you want, but I’m not giving up his name – at his request.”
“Oh, no, dear, I wouldn’t think of it, here on Steamed, we reserve torture for enemies of the Queen, but a snow globe engineer, I like the sound of that, whimsical and technical, heavy and light, just the way I like my steampunk. Speaking of which, why Steampunk?” I poured a cup of tea and offered it to her.
“I love the contradiction of steampunk and snow globes. One of the first times I told anyone what I was doing, he said ‘That doesn’t make any sense. Those two things do not go together.’ And that egged me on: I loved the challenge of proving it could work.” Camryn took a sip of tea then set the saucer on the round, marble top coffee table.
“An early comment that stuck with me, about my first series, came from another friend. In a puzzled voice she told me, ‘They are so masculine.’ I took it as a compliment. I love the contrast of machinery and hardware, and the dark colors of steampunk metals and rich wood in a snow globe, an object that is often sweet and cloying, pink and pretty. I wanted power, not pretty.
I don’t consider myself purely a steampunk artist. I’ve thought about it every which way, and the truth is my notebooks of sketches and designs for snow globes precede my awareness of the Steampunk movement, which is fairly recent. (Here is where I must give credit to two people who brought Steampunk to my attention, John S. and Max G., who are much hipper than I will ever be, introduced me to the genre.) The first time I saw something called Steampunk, I felt a huge connection. Steampunk appealed to me in a deja vu kind of way; it made so much sense to me. I felt at home. The craftsmanship, the appreciation of detail, the willingness to take the time to make something by hand … it all calls to my sensibilities.
On the other hand, I was already making artwork that looks like the work I do now, long before the term “steampunk” entered my experience. I admit that I’m very influenced by Steampunk icons and images – obviously I would not likely have airships and ray guns otherwise – but some of my work, such as the Escheresque staircases, and the glass heart series, are simply sculptures I wanted to make, regardless of the style. Steampunk purists, if there is such a thing, can argue amongst themselves what makes artwork steampunk or not. I’ve been called a Steampunk tourist, and I accept that with a chuckle. I’m grateful the steampunk “natives” allow some of us to visit their world now and then, and soak up the culture. When I contribute, it’s my own vision, and if someone appreciates it, I’m glad, but I would have made it either way; that’s how my mind works.”
“Believe me, when I look at these globes I see you, their creator, more as a tour guide then a tourist. They are Stempunk to me. In my opinion your passion to contribute your own vision is the essence of Steampunk.” I dropped two sugar cubes into my cup and stirred. “A lot of work must go into making your vision real. How long does it take you to create a Steampunk water globe or snow globe?”
Camryn leaned against the velvet cushioned back of the settee. “You can measure that two ways: how long it would take to make a snow globe if I knew exactly what I was going to make, and how long it takes when I go through trial and error, mixing different elements, sculpting/molding/remolding pieces to the right size and shape, and getting distracted, leaving pieces half-done to work on something else. The simplest answer is, I might produce one completed snow globe every two weeks.
Last spring, I wanted to make a metallic hot air balloon — not much more than an inch tall. I worked on this concept for several months. I made balloon shapes too large to fit in a globe or too ornate or too simple. They just didn’t look right. I wanted a feeling of adventure, not a circus ad. Finally one day I completed two balloons that came out well. Then I went through another process to decide what to put below the balloons. One has a wire basket, with more nautical details such as an anchor and ship’s wheel. The other is a tiny clay sailing ship with metal sails. Then, I installed the balloon sculptures with each raised a little. One is carried on wispy tendrils, intentionally vague – they might be ocean waves or they might be the tentacles of a sea creature reaching up. The other has cloud-like shapes below the ship. So those globes, from start to finish, took all spring – several months. I hope the next time I’m inspired to make a hot air balloon, I’ll be able to use what I have learned to streamline the process a little, but I don’t know.
I timed myself once, to answer the question, ‘how long does it take?’ Another globe, Circular Logic is basically a Ferris Wheel-inspired curious invention of spinning gears. The entire family went away for a weekend and I stayed on task with that one sculpture, working 18 hours with almost no breaks to complete the intricate machine. With no one home to tell me it was time to go to bed or I should eat, I kept working on it, having a great time. I survived on Mountain Dew and pretzels. That gives you an idea of the range of time I will spend on any one globe. Usually I’ve got five or six sculptures partially begun and will work a little here, a little there, so it’s hard to know how long any one can take.
I rub my lips together. “My next question may be as difficult to answer as how long does it take. Which is of all your wonderful creations, which globe is your favorite?”
“Tough question, it depends on my mood. I thought Love, It’s Complicated and the Always heart were very simple and beautiful. Deadline featured a tiny antique typewriter, which is one of my favorite items, and now belongs to a former journalist, so I have great memories of that one. It has a lot of details, such as copy editor’s notes and a message hammered into metal “paper” curling out from the typewriter platen, that only the owner can see now, making it cool in its own way. Ray Gun One was a challenge to myself to make a believable raygun, and it always makes me smile.
But actions probably speak louder than words. The only one I have on my desk, is Rain Gear. I absolutely LOVE the jaunty little step from my headless robot stomping in rain puddles. I am intrigued that a pair of metal galoshes can project emotion. So I can babble all day about which ones I love, but Rain Gear is the only one I’ve kept for myself so far.
I glance at some of her snow globes , arranged on the crisp white table cloth on the round table at the side of the settee. “Rain Gear is intriguing. Actually, they are all incredible, but as a writer the one you just described, Deadline, fascinates me. Speaking of writing, when any author looks at your globes, I’m sure your creations trigger a slew of story premises and plots. I just have to ask you the question always asked of writers, how do you come up with your ideas?”
“I am both a writer and a visual artist, and while I have occasionally dealt with writers’ block, so far I have never had artist’s block. Case in point: by just writing the phrase ‘artist’s block’ I thought of a way to illustrate that in a globe, maybe with a cube with six different archetypes shaken like a die. Perhaps a Magic Eight Ball for creative types. But I digress …)
Images and ideas tumble around my brain like a shaken snow globe, whirling and spinning, balancing precariously atop one another. One weird thing is, I keep notebooks where I dash off snow globe ideas as they come to me, sketch little scenes, capture a pun to name the globes, but I rarely go back and look at the past ideas. When I’m in the workshop, the materials themselves suggest new shapes and landscapes.
I recently got up at about 3 or 4 a.m. whirling with ideas I wanted to capture and I spent an hour or so dashing them on paper. Then I turned the page BACK to see the previous entry and it said ‘Drink deeply from the stars.’ I don’t know what I was going for with that phrase, but I want to ponder it and make it real.
There are so many snow globes I’d like to make. I will get inspired by a word I hear, or a shape, a shadow, a snippet of a song or the way someone repeats a phrase. The nose of an Elmer’s glue container, the little orange cap, inspired one of my first airship sculptures. I ‘saw’ the glue bottle for the first time, clearly, and thought, ‘that’s the nose of a zeppelin.’ I have no idea where that thought came from; I’d only seen Elmer’s Glue a thousand times before. That flash of inspiration prompted me to sculpt a shape that would pass for an airship.
Any small thing can capture my attention, such as a piece of twisted metal in the street, a broken toy, the way a stack of coffee stirrers is displayed at a shop. I love wandering through hardware stores, looking at random pieces of plumbing pipe, nuts and bolts, repair kits for garbage disposals. Recently, the back of my office chair fell off. Instead of inspecting the damage to the chair or putting it back together, I spotted a strange gear that had come loose, and thought, ‘Where can I can more of these?’
I am also a word person. Words can start a chain-reaction of images in my brain. When I heard the old Gene Autry song, I began to mentally sketch a man climbing down a ladder through a manhole opening into a dark and murky place. Back in The Sad-Hole.
I love verbal and visual puns, such as Shoes Your Weapon – which is a cannon made from a Victorian laced-up boot. I’m working on one called Too big for his bridges. I love merging words and shapes, and twisting tired clichés so they are fresh. I crack myself up, and I pretty much create everything selfishly because it inspires or amuses me. The ideas bombard me constantly. I’ll be reading a book (Cloud Atlas, at the moment) and suddenly I’m reaching for my notebook to capture a passing thought.”
I pick up my porcelain cup and take another sip of sweet, warm tea. “I can feel your creative energy as your talking. Exhilarating. Speaking of globes sure to inspire writers, your airship voyager water globe is another work of art sure to trigger story ideas.”
I blame a writer named StoshK for that one. StoshK wrote a short, complimentary blog about my snow globes and included a note that I should realize more airship snow globes were needed – just a little joke in the article. But, it stuck with me for some reason, in a positive way.
Then, a museum asked for several pieces for a special exhibition, and one was my original airship StoshK liked, which had sold. I couldn’t get the original back to be loaned for the museum exhibit, so I thought, ‘well, I’ll just make a new one.’
The new airship refused to be a duplicate of the first. It felt darker and richer, and I wanted it to be more powerful in a way. I wanted the ship to have gone places, done things, survived hardships, led adventures. I had seen Steampunk images of great airships carrying sailing ships below a zeppelin and dismissed them as too intricate for something as small as a snow globe. And as I sat in the workshop trying to remake the first airship, I kept creeping toward the idea of a sailing ship below. It just felt right to go that direction.
I loved the idea of taking a ‘ship in a bottle’ and making it an airship in a bottle (snow globe), both balance and contradiction. Once the idea got stuck in my head, the only way to release it was to make it real. I worked on it until I solved all the technical problems that made it seem impossible. When I look at Airship Voyager now, I am sure it has been places and seen things, it feels real to me.”
After setting the cup back on its saucer, I clasped my hands together. “It’s incredible, I love it. You mentioned your interest in phrases such as ‘point of view’ and your globe by that name is pure genius. An incredible piece of art. I can’t imagine the time and work that went in to creating such a marvel. I often find life is like climbing a staircase sideways. Then, when you turn the globe upside down or on its side you get a different view. It’s like several globes in one. I could look at it all day.”
“I’m glad you mentioned Point of View. It’s a departure from what most consider pure Steampunk – but again, I make what interests me and try not to edit myself by sticking with a single style. I’ve always loved Escher, but I didn’t set out to make that globe consciously as a tribute. It snuck up on me. While working on a tiny Plexiglas escalator for a postponed project called Reincarnation, I briefly set the stair sculpture on its side. Suddenly, looking at the stairs from a different direction, reality shifted sideways. I realized the stairs went up, down, and sideways depending on where I placed the figures.
From there, I was obsessed for a while, with Point of View and a similar globe, called Corporate Ladder (I may be the only person who finds the idea hilarious.) Then I put a family of fishermen on a criss-crossed stairway, and added poles, and called it Fishing the Black Hole as the fishing lines broke different planes in the design.
But my favorite in the series is Not a level playing field in which I put football players into Escher’s uneven, gravity-defying world, and had the wide receiver at one angle, the quarterback throwing into hyperspace, and would-be tacklers reaching into a new dimension. I think I’ll go back to that idea again sometime, because it was fascinating to realize in a snow globe, I am in charge of the law of gravity. It’s a heavy responsibility, running around breaking the laws of physics.
I’m working on a new stairway series now, but instead of plexiglas, I am using old computer circuit boards to make the stairs – still with little figures breaking the plane of perception and ignoring the laws of gravity. It has a ‘Tron’ feeling to it, being inside the machine. I always sensed little figures inside my laptop ran around retrieving files and saving my work, so I am comforted to see them.”
I shift one arm to my side, while resting he other on my lap. “Speaking of breaking the laws of physics, I have to ask you about Tesla. I love that you appreciate his scientific work for its artistic quality as well as its contributions to modern day life and our future. What artistic qualities do you see in his inventions?”
The shapes used in Tesla’s inventions and machines are so beautiful. They are meaningful to scientists, but even if they produced nothing, I would be inspired. I love his wrapped copper coils and the visible bursts of light and energy. The proportions of the upright Tesla coil are like a man-made flower, a blossom of energy. I’m drawn to the straight lines, the encircled columns and the unpredictable element of electricity. The copper and brass is stunning. Simply beautiful. He blended symmetry and balanced assymetry in an unspeakably gorgeous and inspiring way.
I think, at some place beyond my understanding, Tesla’s work tapped into the very nature of the universe. In the way that an insect’s wings or a cross-section of a tree or the Grand Canyon is perfect, there is something perfect about the shape of Tesla’s inventions, pared down the essence of what works.
I shut my eyes a moment as I think about it. “Art and science merged as one. Incredible.” Blinking my eyes open, I see the tea cups are rattling on the coffee tale. I know what that means, the airship is landing. I lean forward and ask Camryn my last question. “What water globes and snow globes are you working on now?”
“I’ve been toying with one called I Love Sho, an homage to footwear, which I seem to collect in real life. The interior has about a dozen tiny shoes in an abstract sculpture: boots, heels, slip-ons … it’s just something fun, and I’m addicted to visual puns.
I also just combined the horn of a tiny gramophone with a glass heart. In contrast to some of my intricate sculptures, it is simple and yet very appealing. I had a long and complicated title for it, but then I shorted it to one word, Listen. When I look at it, I get a pang. It will be hard to part with it.
On a lighter note, I am working on rocket ships and space themes. I have a rocket ship going into a black hole and another with a decked-out Steampunk flying saucer hovering over what might be the moon. I wanted to make a special globe for TeslaCon, with rows of flying saucers at a drive-in movie, watching ‘Trip to the Moon’ (the 1902 movie), with the rocket-in-the-moon’s eye image popping off the screen in 3D. I’ll do it someday, but I couldn’t work out the technical details yet. The drive-in screen was only about ¾” wide, for example, which gave me about a half inch for the rocket. But it will happen in some form. It’s too appealing not to try.
A recent breakthrough for me is the double-tiered globe. I made the first one for a display for the Sacramento Steampunk Society, after an inspiring conversation with one of the members, Doug Hack (perhaps better known as Alexander Watt Babbage.) The water globe sits above a columned base and has liquid-filled pieces as well as air-filled space in the tier below. By breaking the plane of the glass globe, and continuing the design into the open space, it opens a new frontier for my work.”
“The airship has landed, drawing the interview to a close. But before you go back to your studio, I want to share your calling card with all our readers.”
Also five of her pieces are on display at the Glass Museum in Sandwich,MA, from November 19 to December 30, 2012, as part of a special event on the history of snow globes.
Readers if you have any questions are comments on Camryn and her globes, please post them below.