Who’s Here: Art Donovan, Artist

Art Donovan may aptly be called “Mr. Steampunk.” He helped popularize the unique sculpture art when he curated the landmark 2009-2010 exhibit “The Art of Steampunk”—the first of its kind—at the prestigious Museum of the History of Science at Oxford. But Donovan credits his success to the innovative designers whose work he happened upon online one day in 2006—a moment he calls an “epiphany.” He had been working in illuminated lighting design for 20 years when it suddenly hit him that what he found on the Internet was “like nothing he had ever seen before.” It was “perfectly suited” to his “design sensibilities and lifelong personal interests in science, history, antique technology, science fiction, freemasonry and global religions.”
Donovan’s status as an art legend is a recent development. He grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, where he went to Catholic school and sang in an a cappella choir. When he graduated and went to Queens College, he gravitated toward fine art. He loved everything about the art world but wanted studio experience, so he left the academic world to do sci-fi paste ups and mechanicals for toy companies—an experience he laughingly likens to Marine boot camp for artists. You had to do everything, including lettering, pre- and post-production work, and you had to do it fast and accurately. He worked with the best illustrators in the business, including the comic book business (ah, Mad!), and from 1980 to 1990 he was senior designer and head illustrator for Donald Deskey Associates, the Art Deco master who created Radio City Music Hall.
For the last few years he has been running his own company, Donovan Design, with his wife, Leslie Tarbell Donovan, an interior designer specializing in staging for upscale businesses and residences. Together they also have a son, now grown, who lives in Connecticut. But in between there was music—playing guitar with his band, Nooz, which performed at CBGBs and opened for, among others, The Police, Talking Heads and Pink Floyd. He drifted away from bands, though, because he felt these groups were moving toward a more experimental dissonance and he “was staying in the past.” But he stayed with the past on his own terms—reclaiming it, re-creating it, and turning it into an artistic genre of “grace and ingenuity.”
The handful of artists Donovan first saw online didn’t identity as “steampunk.” Yet. The term, coined in 1987 by dark-side science fiction writer K.W. Jeter (who wrote sequels to Blade Runner), plays off the term “cyberpunk” and suggests by analogy a similar kind of extreme underground culture. But once steampunk emerged as literature, film, music, dress and especially visual art, it could never be taken as anything less than the highly intelligent, incredibly imaginative and technically skilled creative art it is. Donovan rightly subtitled “The Art of SteampunkOxford exhibit “Extraordinary Devices and Ingenious Contraptions from the Leading Artists of the Steampunk Movement.” Eighteen artists were featured, including Donovan himself. The show reportedly drew the largest attendance in the museum’s history, and steampunk, a distinctive genre that pays homage to 19th century technology, was officially born.
Overall, steampunk links Victorian Age steam power machines, 21st century technology, and science-based fantasy in a kind of “What If” aesthetic. What If, for example, Charles Babbage, the father of the Analytical Engine, or Jules Verne, or H.G. Wells or even Victor Frankenstein, impatient with restrictive late 18th century empirical science, had had the technological wherewithal to realize their imaginative conceptions and turn their visions into fully functioning devices? What If the shape and feel of antiquated objects were to be re-formed in such a way as to seem to be critiquing the present for its ignorance of history or the denigration of science?  What If in this digital age of photorealism, handmade crafts reclaimed a more prominent place in art, and artists were acclaimed for their admiration and knowledge of technology and the physical sciences, finding in mechanical industry the same inspiration that previous generations found in nature? And What If the first and abiding reaction to seeing steampunk art was not its wit, inventiveness or tactility, but its gorgeousness, its beauty? Enter the design universe of Art Donovan.
Steampunk creations,” Donovan writes in the Oxford Museum exhibition catalogue, “may be mechanical, sculptural, or purely decorative, designs that may be practical or completely fanciful. Whatever the application, the art celebrates a time when new technology was produced, not by large corporations, but by talented and independent artisans and inventors.” In Donovan’s geometrically elegant and whimsical steampunk world, clocks, watches, cogs, gears, springs, rivets, gauges, steel tubing, and industrial parts rule. So do Hindu deities, spheres, Mosque architecture, and mystical and Masonic symbols that connote eternal life and timelessness. Harmony is affected not just as composition but also as color, particularly sepia tones and burnished gold. Donovan exploits his expertise as a custom lighting designer, suffusing his “electro futuristic” pieces, large and small, with subtle luminescence that selectively highlights his materials—wood, copper, brass, leather and bronze—though only up close can intricate details begin to be appreciated.
Nothing so convinced History of Science Museum director Jim Bennett to go ahead with a steampunk exhibit as Donovan’s 72” x 72”, “75 lb. hanging ‘Shiva Mandala,’” which was based on the museum’s own ancient brass, gear-driven, 13th-century Persian astrolabe, the navigational instrument that predated the sextant and was used to locate celestial bodies at specific times. A stunning aesthetic and technical achievement, and the “most complex” in his steampunk collection, “Shiva Mandala” puts the astrolabe at the dramatic center of a work intended to express man’s “innate desire” to find his place and proper position in the world. The piece also includes four “surrounding planets.” The bottom one, a “craniometer,” is a human skull Donovan got from a medical lab and whose weight affected his calculations for balance and kinetic motion.
Even seeing a reproduction of this piece online makes it clear that steampunk turns artists into historical researchers. In fact, Donovan celebrates intellectual inquiry in pieces such as “The Ferryman Reading and Research Lamp” (“my wife names all my pieces”) that playfully juxtaposes “VictorianHalogen and LED bulbs, front and rear (for a researcher and associate) and two kinds of magnifying lenses, replete with a control box dimmer. A hand-engraved brass plaque on the book rest contains a quotation from Gandhi: “extolling the virtues of learning and education.” Of course, Donovan can do explicit sci-fi designs as well, such as “The Ravi Palace Pendant;” its sleek jet-black silhouette is powered by a device he modeled after an antique Geiger Counter. Of this work and others, Donovan says, “shape trumps ornament.” But Oh! the ornaments—those antique-looking pieces he makes himself and the mahogany he carves to set against glass and brass, as in the “Siddhartha Pod Lantern,” his first steampunk creation.

Donovan’s studio, a modest house in the Southampton woods, announces itself with a working timepiece piece sculpture, “La Luna,” that’s set in the V of two big trees. Given the subtle coloring, you might miss it, though not at night, Donovan grins, when both clock and luminescent moon globe glow. Though some of the steampunk artists exhibiting at Oxford were clearly showing work on the bizarre side—weird, surreal, kind of post-modern Dada (not to mention featuring themselves in similar costumes)—Donovan’s work references science facts over science fiction, and he has the kind of detailed notebooks one associates with Leonardo. He starts out sketching, slowly, doing face-on views on paper, but, as with the “Shiva Madala,” he often winds up translating the 2-D sketches into “entirely different” 3-D constructs. An early thought to make “Shiva” asymmetrical, for instance, began “to wear” on him. He enlarged the sketch as it evolved so that its proportions would be those of the finished design. Much like his art, Donovan continues to evolve.

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