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At American Steel Studios, artists showcase Diamonds in the Rough

on December 12, 2011

In one of many formerly abandoned warehouses in post-industrial West Oakland, a community of artists has taken over. American Steel Studios sits on a six-acre spread comprised of two conjoined buildings. The group, led by founding artist Karen Cusolito, has transformed the space from a relic of the 19th Century to a symbol of postmodernity, in which technologists, artists and entrepreneurs share skills and ideas. The result was put on display last weekend during a two-day open studio called “Diamonds in the Rough” in which twenty artists and builders showcased their work.

Tenants at American Steel have ranged from soap makers to worm farmers, trapeze artists to pyrotechnicians. The event drew on about 20 installation artists, painters, photographers and sculptures to show and sell their work. Hundreds of people walked through over the weekend, from metal workers in Carhartt pants or Utilikilts to art collectors in mini dresses and heels.

The entrance to the main American Steel warehouse is an old street—in its heyday, the building, a blue and white behemoth, was expanded right over the top of it. The yawning entry is perfect for moving huge works of art and building supplies. Groups of 30- and 40-foot-tall human figures made of industrial scrap metal, Cusolito’s art, stand guard in the lot surrounding the compound, and the figures, like much of the large art in the building, make appearances at the annual Burning Man festival.

In front of the entrance sat an 8-foot-tall black steel art car with long torches protruding around the vehicle’s periphery. The body was shaped like a train car or a cross-section of a large boat. A towering bust of a horse was mounted to the front, made of layered slices of motorcycle tires cut to look like sinewy muscle. The eyes were glowing blue orbs. A control panel mounted on the top platform spit flames from the beast’s nostrils.

The owner, who goes by the name Horse, said he commissioned American Steel-based artist Rebecca Anders, and others, to build the car. “I showed her my tattoo and said, ‘I want it to look worse than this,’” he said, rolling up his sleeve to reveal a dark horse on his arm.

Illuminated umbrellas cluster against one corner of the room. They were pulled from a larger sculpture called BrollyFlock, created in American Steel by the group Flux Foundation.

Inside the complex, through a pair of handmade arched steel gates, a path to the left led into the smaller, adjacent warehouse building. A sprawling gallery with clean white walls was nestled beneath latticed steel ceiling beams in the otherwise raw industrial space. A series of whimsical white glowing umbrellas crawled up one corner of the gallery, like huge light-up barnacles.

The walls were filled with long rows of art and crafts made by people who rent space at American Steel, from intricately painted plywood cutouts of robots to found objects like antique tools mounted inside box frames. Mandala-shaped wall hangings made out of bottle caps hung across from a huge painting by artist Joel Key, a canvas over 20 feet long, with cloudy grey blotches and inky black oscillating lines that suggested a landscape.

Several furniture displays showed creative use of salvaged materials, including tables mounted atop severed chunks of motorcycles, and a pair of glowing tables which were built from things like old Lite Brite consoles and piles of marbles with light shining through them.

Many of the working artists at American Steel showed an interest in analogue technology and aesthetics that resonated with the building’s industrial roots. My dad was a machinist,” said Rebecca Peters, whose letterpress business uses antique tools to make all manner of stationary. “I was never drawn to doing things on computers.” Peters likes to make colorful linoprint images, often of animals, that look like scenes from nursery rhymes. But she pays her rent by making things like business cards and wedding invitations. Her mail order business has attracted customers as far away as Mexico.

Peters, a graduate of the San Francisco Arts Institute, orders her paper in bulk sheets and cuts them herself. She uses a 1,600-pound cast iron paper cutter from the 1930’s that had to be carried on a forklift and rolled into place on pipes in order to get into her studio. She prints on a 1940’s Chandler and Price letterpress, a motorized machine that slams an inked plate against sheets of paper.

Artist Joel Key’s enormous painted sheets of paper cover the gallery walls. They sell for as much as $5,000.

Back in the main building, bands were setting up on the porch of what appeared to be an old southern house. Candelabras held Edison-style lightbulbs on either side of the front door. Skinny lathed columns connected to the roof with wooden corbels, like sections of wagon wheels, fanning out at the corners. But walking around the building, something seemed suddenly wrong there was no house attached to the porch.

The installation, which is mobile, is called the Front Porch. It was built by independent carpenter and artist Zac Carroll for Burning Man in 2009. “But you can say 1932 – no, make that 1926,” Carroll said. “In Tuscaloosa, Alabama.” Carroll, a young gentleman whose mustachio tips end in finger-width curls, was trying to make a soundboard work as he spoke.

The back side of the facade is a functional kitchen with a gas range. The accents are all in blue and white, with a checkered floor and checked curtains, and crown molding that’s over 100 years old. The whole structure collapses into about 90 pieces that stack on the porch for long distance transportation.

Protruding from the side of the building is a large trailer hitch. The entire contraption is pulled by a tractor, a 1926 International with 1928 Ford model A fenders, 1923 Model T headlights, and an old wine barrel encased over its nose.

Carroll came across the old tractor east of Castro Valley. “It was sitting in a field for years in Dublin,” he said. Then he reconsidered his statement. “That doesn’t sound terribly romantic, though. Let’s say Dublin, Ireland.”

The porch itself is made of untreated siding on gable wall and a corrugated steel roof on top. Carroll said he took nearly all the construction materials from two old buildings that were torn down. “No, scratch that,” he said. “Let’s say it was a dilapidated speakeasy on the Tuscaloosa delta. And we pulled it out with a submarine.”

Carroll finished fussing with the sound and got up to go make hot toddies in his kitchen. “Facts are incidental in reality,” he said. “It’s all about building a mythology.”

To learn more about American Steel Studios or to arrange to see the space, call (510) 776-7694.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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