Feature: Richard Rosvall, steampunk artist

By Christa Lawler
Duluth (Minn.) News Tribune

If you ever run into artist Richard Rosvall, there’s a good chance he’ll be wearing a dark bowler hat with handmade goggles of wood, leather and lenses set on the brim.

 It’s a bit of an “Around the World in 80 Days” look and it attracts attention, but not as much as some of his other creations would if they were trotted out in public: his collection of high-altitude breathing appa­ra­tuses, a hand cannon complete with a copper-coated toilet ball or a rifle that features the belled end of a clarinet.

For the past three years, Rosvall has crafted pieces of steampunk art – a style that takes items from the steam-power era and gives them a science-fiction tilt: items that re-imagine how people in the Victorian era might have envisioned the future. Rosvall’s work incorporates leather, copper, wood and the inner mechanical pieces of old typewriters and adding machines.

“It’s the stuff Jules Verne used to write about, looking at it from the hindsight of the 21st century,” Rosvall said. “People love to dress up. There is an appeal to the Victorian era. People were polite.”

Annie Dugan, curator at the Duluth Art Institute, said she is seeing more work and steampunk-themed events in this area in the last few years, including pub crawls and art shows. Friends of Industry, a collective of artists, hosted a show last summer. Limbo Gallery has also shown steampunk art. There is talk of a steampunk ball in the works by a handful of steampunk aficionados.

“It’s a perfect fit for our region,” Dugan said. “A lot of it is about invention and certainly creativity. I love the idea that northern Minnesota (cultivates) the sense that you’re cut off from the rest of the world. It’s this northern wasteland, and you have these bizarre machines coming out of that.”

Rosvall got into making steampunk art when his son, Erik Rosvall, commissioned a Halloween costume from him.

“Steampunk has been getting pretty big,” Erik Rosvall said. “I like the aesthetic of it, the idea of the clockwork stuff.”

At first it was just a mask and a weapon. It developed into body armor and hats and more masks, an eye patch and more accessories. Vegetable-tanned leather that has been wetted, molded and dried. Copper pounded with an anvil to make patterns.

Right now Rosvall is working on outfitting an entire flight crew for a March fashion show. He has part of a leather corset wrapped around a dress form, and he plans to incorporate a skirt and thigh holster, complete with one of his pistol props with wood pieces he fabricates or takes from wooden chair backs and detail work that includes cranks and levers from old clocks, typewriters and fishing gear.

His crew will sport the high-altitude breathing apparatuses he made, which have copper nose covers, leather straps, trunk-like nose pieces with a dollop from a colored scouring pad sticking out of the end of it. Hoses connect to belts.

For Rosvall, the appeal is that he can make things inexpensively. He finds materials at thrift stores. Also, there aren’t any rules, just basic guidelines. That’s what other local artists have latched on to as well.

“It’s so nice that you can make it your own. There isn’t a lot of It has to look like this,’ or It has to look like that,'” said Patricia Peterson, who designs whimsical steampunk fashions. She showed pieces during an Occupy the Runway event in the fall. Her work includes dresses and hats.

“The Victorian lace and all the soft things, then you have the industrial, the metals and the really funky punk part of that really hard style, then bringing it together to make fun and interesting looks,” she said.

Eric Horn is working on a steampunk-themed graphic novel called “Chronicle.” He takes photographs of local models, sometimes wearing Rosvall’s creations, then draws over them to give it a comic-book look. Horn was recently part of an art show in which slides of his images were shown on a steampunk-themed TV: A wood-like frame shaped like an old-fashioned television and fitted with a white screen made by Gustave Campanini, whose approach to the art is to make large-scale things in the steampunk aesthetic, but using the decidedly un-steampunk material Styrofoam.

Getting into steampunk has caused a stylistic shift for Campanini, who was working with a lot of color and has challenged himself to give things a 1800s look.

“I try to keep it as simple as I can,” he said, “to work with natural tones. Everything I’ve been doing looks like leather and rusted metal. Usually when I paint, it’s been more like I have to make it look old.’ It’s been quite interesting and challenging.”

Eris Vafias, who operates Limbo Gallery, said she uses steampunk as inspiration.

“I enjoy symbolism and a lot of the symbols – keys, clocks, peacock feathers – associated with the steampunk genre happen to be symbols that I am either fond of or gravitating toward due to some personal association,” she said.

You’re only limited by your imagination, Rosvall says. He works nonstop on projects, and one idea can inspire four more ideas.

“I never expected that three years later I’d still be fooling around with it and having fun,” he said.

This story ran in the January 1, 2012 edition of the Duluth News Tribune.